The Creativity-Productivity Paradox

coffee idea clockIn last week’s post, “Are Creative People Mentally Ill?” I explored new brain science that indicates creative people have a few extra ways of looking at problems, which can make their personal perspectives interesting to others.

The corollary of this special thinking is that they may also experience some limitations that others don’t. For example, it’s not uncommon for creatives to have serious challenges with time and scheduling.

Task list thinking vs. open exploration

With many productivity models and tools to choose from, you’d think getting stuff done would be as easy as:

  1. Make a goal
  2. schedule milestones
  3. create a task list
  4. do what you planned

That would pretty well cover everything we need to know about becoming prolific if it weren’t for one small detail: we don’t usually think like that when we’re being creative.

Creativity is more like an open exploration. Focused, but not task-related. Engaged, and at the same time, relaxed. Picture a toddler playing with blocks, deeply immersed in activity and oblivious of time or results. Instead of blocks, as adults we assemble thoughts and materials in different ways until something new exists that wasn’t there before.

Here’s an excerpt from Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman that illustrates this kind of open exploration…

“…Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing – it didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with. …

…I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling.

I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate – two to one. It came out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, “Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it’s two to one?”

I don’t remember how I did it, but I ultimately worked out what the motion of the mass particles is, and how all the accelerations balance to make it come out two to one.

…I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there’s the Dirac Equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. …

…It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.”

Read the full Richard Feynman quote.

I relate to Feynman’s struggle to reconnect with enjoyment. I often start with an inspired idea that excites me, and then I  create a to-do list, schedule meetings, organize a team, and try to figure out how to make the idea profitable. Before long the inspiration is gone and the project is a burden. It becomes just one more thing that is cluttering my calendar and my head. Feynman gave himself permission to explore what was enjoyable to him, even though it seemed like it was pointless. My challenge is to keep that kind of creative experience going as long as possible.

The Creativity-Productivity Paradox

Trying to schedule inspiration is like putting a toddler in a time-out and calling it a play-date. The toddler knows the difference, and so do we. The balance between creativity and productivity is delicate. The paradox is that we need structure to become prolific, but the structure can squash our creative experience.

In the face of this paradox, how can we be reliably creative while still accessing the most enjoyable, inspired aspects of our artistic experience?


I have some ideas that attempt to answer this question that I’ll share in a later post, but I want to hear from you:

  1. Do you experience the Creativity-Productivity Paradox?
  2. What tools or activities have made the biggest difference for you in dealing with it?

Author: Peter Benes

Ui Designer and Songwriter in Kitchener-Waterloo, Canada

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