5 Productivity Myths for Creative People

Graham Allcott, founder of time management training specialists Think Productive, takes us through some productivity myths.


Time management – it’s a myth

When someone is feeling overwhelmed and has too much to do, they often say things like “I need to get better at time management”, but time management is the wrong definition, and it leads to people chasing a problem that can’t be solved. As effective as the best business leaders are, they cannot manage time either: everyone has the same number of hours in their day. The problem is really how we manage our attention. If I focus on time, I may very efficiently schedule difficult work for Friday afternoon, when I’m so tired I don’t have the attention resources available. Likewise, we all have only 2-3 hours a day of what I call ‘Proactive Attention’ – where our attention, energy and concentration levels mean we’re truly on top of our game. It’s how we manage that resource, which is much more limited than time, which ultimately determines our productivity. A Productivity Ninja manages attention, not time.

To put this in a practical sense, sort and filter your to-do list not by the urgency or importance of tasks, but by the level of attention you need for each thing. I use three: Proactive Attention is my 2-3 hours a day when I could tackle even the hardest things on my list, Inactive Attention is the opposite of that (think: Friday afternoons, straight after a big lunch and those sluggish lulls in the middle of an afternoon). In the middle, what we have left is Active Attention – not brilliant, but not poor. So then the trick is twofold: having the discipline to schedule the difficult stuff in the times where you have that precious Proactive Attention, and giving yourself the permission to do low-value work when you’re feeling sluggish.

Structure stifles creativity and creative people shouldn’t try to be organised – wrong!

If your work is creative, that doesn’t exclude you from the pressures and challenges faced by other ‘knowledge workers’ – unless you’re Damien Hirst or Beyonce, you probably still have emails that need replies, you’re handling the ‘business’ side of selling your work (in one way or another) and you’re communicating with lots of interested stakeholders and colleagues. This means there’s always work to do away from the creative work, and your ability to handle this productively as possible means you’ll be creating more time, attention and space to make what you really want to make.

The second reason that creative people should make sure they’re organised is that it aids your attention and focus. If you’re disorganised when you do sit down to create, you’re likely to feel distracted by the gnawing sense of what’s still on your to-do list. So you should see organisation and structure as a necessary part of the creative process itself: organisation and structure creates the clarity and peace of mind, which in turn helps you make space for what matters.

The mythology of the drunken or chaotic or starving artist is overrated. Think of those you really admire: you could count on one hand those that became successful whilst living in a state of chaos, but there are plentiful examples of those who took themselves, their work and the business of their work equally as seriously.

Working harder – it’s not the answer

It’s really tempting when you feel under pressure to start cancelling your social and family commitments, putting in more and more hours to try and get back on top of things. However, there’s a much better way to beat stress and work more effectively. The answer is in keeping a group of lists that I call the “Second Brain”, so that you can regularly review your workload, renegotiate your commitments and feel clarity and control over what you’re doing. In practice this means more than a to-do list. I keep a Projects List, so I’m also reminded of what all those ‘to-dos’ are working towards, and a ‘WaitingFor’ list so I can track what other people are doing (or not doing!). There’s a little more to it than that, but essentially, spending that little bit extra time addressing the bigger picture goes a long way to stopping you feeling overwhelmed, even when you might be overloaded.

It’s the hardest thing in the world to do when you feel overwhelmed, harassed and busy, but at those times, what you really need to do is take a step back, re-evaluate the list, put it all into perspective and make some choices. Lots of people wrong think that taking time to think is a luxury, but with the amount of complexity most people are handling these days, thinking properly, fully and clearly is actually the most important part of the job.

New gadgets will not reduce your stress

Lots of people think productivity is about what kind of apps you use or which gadgets you have. Whilst these kinds of tools can play their part, my philosophy is that a Productivity Ninja needs to be “Weapon-Savvy”, which means knowing what value tools bring you. For example, moving your to-do lists from one app or tool to another may give you a little rush of clarity and a nice sense of control, but if you’re doing that several times a year, you’re wasting a lot of valuable time and attention. That’s really just a form of procrastination. Likewise, if you feel pressured to getting the latest phone or a new super-funky diary or notebook when your old one I working fine, you’re only really wasting time in the hope of looking cool, or indulging in some escapist “productivity porn” rather than doing anything that’s going to make any significant change your productivity. Of course, creative people appreciate great design more than most, but our psychology when it comes to productivity is much more important than our technology. Think of all the great figures of history who invented things without even having heard of a smartphone and you get the idea!


Make things perfect? No way!

Perfection is an enemy of productivity, particularly for creative people. It’s easy to get sucked into the trap of trying to make things perfect, but what this does in most cases is make you hold on to a piece of work longer than you should, while you diligently spend hours adding tiny improvements towards perfections. The last moments you spend on something are rarely the best ones. Far better to focus on making reports, meetings, communications and in fact most things you do “good enough” rather than perfect. Spend just enough of your attention on something, then move onto something else. There are of course exceptions to this – no one would buy a car or get on a plane where the safety features weren’t absolutely as good as they could be – but for most of what we do, perfection is the wrong goal. This is a difficult habit for most people to break, mainly because we’re taught in school to make everything absolutely perfect. It’s all about learning to let go.

Graham Allcott is the founder of time management training specialists Think Productive, and the bestselling author of How to be a Productivity Ninja


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