How to Stay Productive Without Sacrificing Creativity

UPDATED: May 22, 2024
PUBLISHED: September 13, 2020

In the modern workscape, creativity is a calculated act. Copywriters are hired to deliver a set number of words by a specific date. Designers work with a client on an incremented timeline. Performers must master their choreography before the curtain call. Developers must problem-solve the coding hiccups before site launch. 

Anyone who considers themselves creative or has been involved in a creative project knows the pressure of an approaching deadline. Without them, neither artist nor employer could accurately budget or plan for their financial futures. The notion of endless creative time is romantic, but we can all agree that deadlines are a necessary evil. Some even argue the deadline actually spurs creativity, swapping stories of feverish 11th-hour work that somehow transformed a disjointed draft into a piece of art with five minutes to spare. Romantic, indeed. But research tells a different story.

In a study commissioned by Harvard Business Review, researchers found that time-pressure scenarios not only diminished creative thinking for the duration of pressure (until the deadline), but participants also experienced “pressure hangovers” lasting as much as three months. During this time, they sustained diminished levels of creativity. With this pressure comes increased levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol, long proven to have devastating long-term effects on everything from the cardiovascular to the digestive systems.

So how do you stay productive without killing creativity? It starts with recognizing that the modern definition of productivity is often at war with creativity, but there are some ways to hit your deadlines without the negative emotional, mental, and physical effects of cramming. Start with the ones listed below, and consider the three case studies of people who manage to get it all done while keeping their high standards of creativity.

1. Redefine productivity.

The simplistic definition of productivity is “doing.” But productivity is also resting, learning, observing, and being. The obsession with doing often lures us into meaningless tasks like inbox zero and this-could-have-been-an-email meetings. They’re tangible things we can point to and say, “Look at all I did today.” True productivity is that which pushes us closer to the big-picture goal. Keep that top of mind as you go into your next workday. See how much you can eliminate.

2. Schedule time to do nothing.

No, sleeping doesn’t count. Treat this time as you would a client meeting. Take a long walk in nature; soak in a hot tub with candles and instrumental music; lie in a hammock in your backyard and stare at the sky. Think of creativity as your mind juggling dozens of pieces of information; it needs time and space to find the rhythm between each piece.

3. Understand your limits.

The collective obsession with efficiency and productivity suffocates creativity. It also has the power to make us, ironically, less efficient. When we try to organize our days into unforgiving blocks of laser-focused time, our brain is overloaded. Try this rule of thumb: For every 40 minutes of productivity, take 10 minutes of downtime. Even lifting your eyes from the screen for 30 seconds can provide long-lasting benefits.

4. Avoid distractions.

In the study, what was mistaken as deadline-induced creativity was actually an act of focus. When deadlines loom large, distractions are eliminated. We tuck our phones away, cancel frivolous meetings and ask to be left undisturbed. “We’re on deadline.” What happens if we apply that same sense of focus before the anxiety-inducing day of deadline? Try it. See what happens.

Raquel Eatmon

Founder of Rising Media, Cleveland

In a world populated by thousands or tens of thousands of people doing exactly what you are doing, you have to set yourself apart. Narrowing your focus on creativity is a clear way to build your unique mark. It sets you apart. It’s also the tool that can attract your clients.

What works in my camp: Talking to my 10-year-old goddaughter, listening to classical music, a hike through nature, exercise, meditation, reading a scholarly article, and prayer. Forcing creativity doesn’t work and tuning in to multiple media outlets also prevents a surge. I don’t schedule time for creativity. I work through a system. 

My workday is built of 52-minute increments. I focus solely on one project for 52 minutes—no social media, no beeps or breaks. Afterward, I take a 15-minute restorative break. I get going: Walking, dancing, yoga stretches, breathe deeply and plenty of water. After about two or three of these cycles, my brain clicks. Ideas flow. It’s like training for a competition or athletic performance.

I also give myself permission to pause. In the past, I’ve been tough on myself, trying to force a space of creativity. That makes matters worse and can lead to burnout. There is a gentler way of commanding creativity.

Guilt is a negative emotion. It inspires other negative emotions. Creativity needs a good vibration. The longer you stay in a guilty state, the more you move away from the very thing you want. Be gentle. Don’t push. Also, keep a pen and notepad next to your bed in case you get a spark in the middle of the night. Write everything down.

Shannon Gabor

Founder and CEO of Clever Creative,  Los Angeles 

Being creative has and will always be the way that I express myself. I choose creativity as the means to problem-solve, reconnect with my inner child and the way that I run my business. Creativity inspires me to look at life through a different lens; it offers me new perspectives and keeps me young in spirit. It is amazing how powerful this quality can be for those who choose to embrace it and never let go of its magic.

We too often feel that we must do it all—there is no such thing. So if I can be kind to myself every morning and know that something needs to give, then I am less likely to feel a sense of guilt when I complete that day with false expectations of doing it all.

I don’t schedule creativity. It spills organically into how I approach my day, my work, my team and my business. On the weekends, I am a free creative bird, making sure that my full creative potential is given time to work on projects with my kids or my passions to fuel me and recharge me for the week ahead. I have been known to organize “crafternoons” for my friends. I am the pied piper of creative play in my friend circle. 

As creatives who are challenged daily with left and right brain functions in their work, we must find ways to cross over each side of the brain to keep each side connected to the joy of our purpose.

Trisha Okubo

Founder of Maison Miru Jewelry, New York City

Creativity is the spark that makes everything else possible, and it’s central to who I am and what I do.

But making time for creativity is an active process. Work expands to fit the time you give it, so it’s important to establish limits to it so that you can make time for what matters to you. I try to schedule in 1.5x the time I think it’s going to take to do anything—creativity isn’t the kind of thing you can force. Also, you have to listen to yourself. There are some days that are more conducive to creative work, and others are not.

My view on how to manage my time for creative projects wasn’t driven by any one big event. It’s more about the accumulation of times I didn’t make time to work on creative projects, a thousand little paper cuts on my creative soul.

I think the simplistic view of productivity doesn’t necessarily capture what’s truly getting done. You can’t measure creativity by how many items you design, or by how many pages you write. Sometimes you need to let your mind wander, which is why we all need down time in order to be truly creative. It’s often in these down time moments that the best ideas start to gel for me—it’s not why I make sure to give myself down time, but it’s certainly a welcome side effect.

Choose presence over productivity. Think of what’s truly important in the grand scheme of things. It’s probably not answering those 500 emails in your inbox, and it’s probably not the urgent but not truly important project that’s weighing on your soul as you work through the day.

The collective obsession with efficiency and productivity suffocates creativity.

Read next: 100 Simple Secrets of Productive People

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This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo by @JulieK/