How To Be Productively Creative

3 Lessons from Successful Creatives on How to be More Productive


1. Create a routine and follow it

In a recent interview for Fast Co Create, David S Goyer a writer and director best known for penning of The Dark Knight Trilogy, Man of Steel and Call of Duty Black Ops shared some insights into how he is able to be so rigorously productive in such demanding creative fields:

When I started out, I would work on only one thing [at a time] but as the years have progressed—I’ve been working professionally for 26 years—I’ve developed an ability to multitask, and I like it. I like moving from one thing to another on any given day. I can work on four different projects. I [block out the time]; I’m very rigorous that way. I find that a lot of the more successful, creative people I admire are rigorous about the work; they treat it as a job. So I say, ‘From 9 to 11 I’m going to work on Man of Steel. From 11 to 1, I’m going to work on Da Vinci, then I’m going take an hour for lunch and get back to it. And I pretty much stick to it.

Building a schedule that will serve you is a really important part of being able to maintain creativity day after day, year after year. Routines allow you to develop a rhythm that will be not only be sustainable over the long run but help fix you into a pattern of creativity. Your routine will become a series of triggers that will coerce you into getting down to work. Novelist Haruki Murakami has built a personal routine that has carried him through 27 years of award winning writing:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.

Like Goyer, Murakami’s routine doesn’t look like exam revision (study 90 mins, break 15 mins, study 90mins, break 15mins), instead there is a mix of activities with a period of focused work balanced by energizing respite on both a physical and mental level. He’s also getting plenty of rest with 7 hours of sleep. How much sleep are you getting? If you’re not working from a place of rest, you’re on a death spiral of diminishing returns. When building your routine work for as long as is productive then stop. Build in sleep, exercise and fun.

If routines of the creative and productive fascinate you too, then you might like to know that the Murakami quote above comes from a blog devoted to the daily routines of creatives from all kinds of industries. Daily Routines has just given birth to a book out on April 26th called Daily Rituals by Mason Currey and is already racking up some great reviews on Amazon.

2. Spend time away from work

It’s a famous fact that at Google all employees get 20% of their week to work on whatever they want. Any project they have a passion for they can pursue. It’s amazing how much work can feel like play when you’re having fun. When there are no prerequisites, no deadlines and you’re just free to be creative. Some of Google’s best ideas have come from their 20% time program.

What would it look like for you to take a day off a week? Either entirely from your ‘regular job’ or from your workload within your job? My wife took a day off a week to pursue a personal interest, which turned into doing a Masters and a career shift into a dream job. That same 20% time is still bearing fruit in many other ways today. So if you had the time and the space to pursue your creative passions and pet projects what would you do?

Not working also means providing the time to let your subconscious go to work. Stuck on a problem? Take a walk or do the dishes. Do the mundane and your brain will wander off of its own accord and then BAM! An idea might just hit you. Obviously it's impossible to force yourself to not think about the thing you’re thinking about, so you do have to be patient. For me I need to be doing something physical yet ordinary, like cleaning the dishes, because it occupies me just enough to let me really think.

3. Preserve a productive creative space

Later on in the interview with David Goyer, he shares a few of his personal requirements for a productive creative space:

I need it to be quiet, so I can’t be around any other people. I’m a big tea fan. I ship a certain green tea I like--it’s Genmaicha, a green tea with toasted rice. It’s just my thing. I also meditate every morning for 22 minutes. OK, sometimes it’s only 10. But I’ve been doing it for six or seven years.

In their brilliant book Rework, the chaps from 37 Signals share some of their methods for creative productivity in the world of software engineering. One of my favourite ideas is No Talk Thursdays. It’s a chance for everyone in the office to experience an environment of silence and singular focus because their day is no longer a series of work-moments snatched between interruptions, but actually a productively long stretch of time without any interruptions.

Check out more of 37 Signals ideas for the best way to get work done in Jason Fried’s fantastic TEDx Talk.

The keys here are to get away from other people, especially at times when we can guarantee we won’t be disturbed like early in the morning, or late a night (depending on what works for you. Night owls, will hate us sparkly Morning People.) Avoiding interruptions also means switching off the phone and putting on an email auto-responder. One director I work with has an email signature that says:

I am only responding to emails once in the AM and once in the PM, so if you have an urgent need to contact me either text or instant-message.

There is also an element of getting away from perceived activity. If you’re in a quiet space it's much easier to focus without background noise washing over you, which can be tricky in a busy city space. Or if you’re surrounded by the visual noise of email and Facebook as well as the addictive hit of checking twitter (I might be missing something, nope I’m not, ok.) it is harder to concentrate. It is no good being physically present in your ‘creative space’ if you’re mind is miles away.

Silence, solitude and singular focus are the keys to creative productivity. Get them anyway you can.