Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Is Productivity Killing Your Creativity?

I listen to audio books while I work out. I've been known to leave earworms 'Rapid Italian' on while trying to go to sleep. I read books on trains. I answer emails while eating dinner. I clear out my Google Reader while watching TV with my wife. I wanted to learn Ruby and Blackjack perfect strategy, so I wrote a perfect strategy simulator in Ruby. I'm a multi-tasking machine. I am the world's most productive man, or so I liked to pretend.

About 4 years ago at a conference in São Paulo, Chad Fowler told the audience to delete every feed in their blog reader if they wanted to gain an incredible amount of productivity. I was appalled. I already believe that engineers don't spend nearly enough time staying current, and Chad was telling the audience to spend even less time reading about current events. I had (and have) way too much respect for Chad to call bullshit, but I definitely didn't agree. Then again, I'm aggressive about removing noise from my subscription list, so I chalked up the disagreement to him recommending that the audience remove what were likely very noisy subscription lists anyway - probably a net positive act.

A few years later I found myself on a train from NYC to Greenwich, CT - listening to the Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance audiobook. The book changed my perspective greatly, and I'll never forget the line: I haven't really had a new idea in years. The following paragraph haunted me as well.
What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua...that’s the only name I can think of for the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks. In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. "What’s new?" is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question "What is best?," a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream. There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and "best" was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for.
As I said, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance changed my perspective. I began to look back at the last few years of my life, and I felt like my creativity had been stunted. At one point in my life I would stare out the window of a plane for several hours a week pondering whatever technical problem that was troubling me. But, for the last several years I've been being 'productive' by listening to an audiobook or reading something on my iPad. I've been listening, but I haven't been thinking, not deeply.

If you listen to the people around you, they are saying the same things - whether they know it or not. I'm sure at one time you read an article where a CEO swore they were most productive while they were on a plane, unreachable. Just last week a story made the rounds about a company that moved to Hawaii temporarily. In that story they describe how walks on the beach brought a greater understanding, something that probably couldn't have happened while they were all distracted by the day-to-day activities of living in Silicon Valley. And, I now believe that Chad was talking about the same issue - distractions (masked as productive tasks) stealing your creativity.

I'm convinced that my iPhone was the root of my creativity issues. Life is full of 'waiting time' - waiting for the subway, waiting to see your doctor, waiting in the elevator, waiting in line at airport/grocery store/coffee shop, and waiting at the bar to meet your friends. Pre-iPhone I would spend this waiting time pondering anything that was troubling me. Now, I open Safari on my iPhone to see who is the latest injury on the Knicks, who is the lastest football player to sign with FSU, or who's tweeting about what (seems like it's mostly sponsorship requests these days). I don't spend that time thinking about anything, I spend that time reading - reading about things that have very little impact on my life, but seem to always more than fill my waiting time.

At least, that's what I used to do. Now, I've moved anything that can steal my waiting time to the 2nd page on my iPhone. It's no longer taunting me to check twitter, facebook, sports scores, or anything else. My main page allows me to get things done if I need to do them, but it doesn't offer me anything to fill my 'waiting time'. Those apps are just a page away, but not having them staring at me when I instinctually unlock my phone reminds me that I need that time to think, even if it's not deep thinking, I need to 'do' less and 'think' more.

Even this small step has led to better organization in my mind. Now that I'm not 'productive' 100% of the time, I find myself solving issues with more innovation and greater efficiency. The small step and the noticeable improvement have led me to make larger changes - I still multitask as much as I can, but I also set aside time to stare out the window. No agenda, no priorities, just stare and let my mind go wherever it needs to go. After making these changes, I feel better. I have more mental energy to produce innovative solutions at work, and I find that I'm getting things done in a way that leads to greater long-term productivity. My priorities feel right, if you will.

This isn't the kind of thing I usually produce on this blog, but the impact that my changes have made on my life compelled me to share. And, as I already said, if you listen, more and more people are saying the same thing, even if they aren't using the same words. Technology has driven us to greater 'productivity', but often at the cost of deep concentration and thought. Not everyone is okay with that, and more and more people are beginning to push back in their own ways.


  1. nice post, I am in the same situation, I disabled all the push notifications, the notification centre and I've as little as possible apps on the iphone.

    I am still working on using less the mac while at home, I think it's easy to loose touch and spend too much time just lagging on it.

    Another idea I had is to plan for slack, so know that as some point there will be a moment with no music, no headphones, no devices around and just spend it as it comes.

  2. Thanks for the post Jay.

    Smart people are definitely noticing this and talking about it more and more these days. I just watched this and think you might enjoy it as well:

  3. Thanks Jack, I read that article as well. Great stuff. I'm interested to see where we go with this stuff in the future.

  4. Anonymous11:38 PM

    Great post. I'm definitely prone to the "always filling time" syndrome. I think this is also a life stages thing, though. The last few years I've been bootstrapping a programming career after switching from a nontechnical field, so I've been trying to soak up as much knowledge as I can. But I'm finding that I'm getting to a point where I understand the industry better, and I'm looking to slow down the frenetic pace, specialize and develop deeper knowledge in areas that really interest me. Thanks for the thought-provoking read!

  5. Great post Jay.

    I have one more point here: my wife won't let me listen to much podcast episodes, cause "it is not good overall for my mind state, to much pushing info inside, too little time to process it" (she is psychologist :) )

    Here is one great episode of TDL on this issue:

  6. Anonymous6:40 PM

    Good read, thanks


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