We all want to be productive. Checking boxes, crossing items off our lists—is there anything more satisfying? We tend to think of productivity as a measure of quantity. The more stuff we get done, the more productive we feel.
But sometimes, being productive is more about substance than volume. In other words, the struggle isn’t getting more things done but bringing a single big, hairy, messy problem or question to resolution. Sometimes the brand of productivity we’re seeking isn’t about efficiency, but about finding creative ways to reach a finish line.
If you’re struggling right now to produce something that’s been hanging over your head, then allow me to offer some of my favorite strategies for busting through this type of productivity barrier.
Try slow-motion multitasking
We live in an era of distraction. We’re overscheduled, over-alerted by apps, and overwhelmed with to-do’s. And the common wisdom of the day is to stop multitasking. Multi-tasking, they tell us, is detrimental to our attention and focus. It makes us less productive—the opposite of what we’re after. We’re told to focus on one thing at a time and do it well.
And in the context of most of what’s on your to-do list, that advice remains sound. Don’t, for example, try to compose an email while you’re also on that conference call … and possibly cooking dinner.
One exception to this rule is when you need a boost of creativity to bring something to completion. This is where slow-motion multitasking can come in handy.
Sometimes an intentional shift in attention can reinvigorate your idea-factory.
Think about a moment in which you have several projects in progress at once. Journalist and economist Timothy Douglas Harford suggests that moving intentionally from one project to another and back again allows us to take an idea from one context and move it to another, creating Eureka moments and pushing us toward a finish line.
This is slow-motion multitasking. It differs from traditional multi-tasking in that it’s not done out of desperation or overwhelm, but rather with intention to cross-pollinate ideas between pieces of work.
Struggling to get that resume done? Take a break. Go grab that coffee with the friend you’ve been meaning to reconnect with. Then dive back into the resume. Maybe something uttered over coffee will inspire a creative bullet or two on that resume.
Sometimes that intentional shift in attention can reinvigorate your idea-factory.
Ask “what if” or “why” questions
Sometimes the very thing that slows us down is … everything we know.
As we grow in our careers, we learn the rules of the road. When we understand our limits and constraints—budgets, timelines, approval processes—we know how to avoid hitting roadblocks. These constraints may guide us. But they also, shockingly, constrain us. We tend to do things the same old ways time and again to avoid hitting the third rail.
And yet sometimes being productive commands a fresh new idea.
Let’s say you’re preparing a pitch for a repeat client. The client has already seen your tried-and-true. They’re looking for a new direction. But the old ways of thinking have you stuck in a rut.
What if…, you asked yourself.
Warren Berger’s 2016 New York Times article highlights stories of legendary companies that started with simple questions.
- Polaroid: Edwin H. Land’s 3-year-old daughter asked him why we have to wait for a picture.
- Netflix: Why do we have to leave the house for video?
- Airbnb: What if hotels aren’t the only option?
These stories led to industry shifts. But the principles apply to everyday questions. Look again at your old client pitches and ask some “what if” questions.
- What if we tried a different pricing model?
- What if we pitched a collaboration with a different product?
- What if we bypassed traditional media?
These particular questions may or may not be winners for you, but what if you gave the strategy a shot? What new ideas might move you quickly to the finish line?
Force tight deadlines
The “what if” strategy allows us to be expansive in our thinking, imagining options and possibilities we might not otherwise have uncovered. But sometimes what we need is the opposite—a forcing mechanism to push us down a clear path.
That’s where a forced deadline can be helpful. In his article “Are Deadlines Good For Creativity? Of Course They Are,” blogger Shane Mehling writes about Stefan Sagmeister, famed graphic designer to the Rolling Stones. Sagemeister would put on an album and strive to finish a draft of a layout before the final song’s ending.
The kind of snap decisions that you have to make when a deadline begins at the first song puts you more in tune with your taste and gut instincts. When you don’t have time to second-guess yourself, and you’re forced to go with what your brain is handing you that day, you’ll wind up with something you would have never created if given more time.
Okay, now it’s your turn. Is there something you’ve been circling around without landing?
Maybe you’ve been working on writing something or designing a pitch deck or capturing product specs or organizing a meeting. Imagine its conclusion is due in the next 30 minutes. If you had to get it done what would you do? Put a stake in the ground and make that your rough pathway from beginning to end. You can edit and polish from there, but sometimes forcing those start and ending places can yield a decision that’s craftier than what hours of spinning would otherwise have produced.
Do creative work at fuzzy times
We’ve all been advised at some point to do our most important creative work at the times of the day when we’re sharpest. If that works for you, then keep on keeping on it! But for some, the opposite may actually bump up your creative productivity.
Sometimes doing creative work when your mind is a bit fuzzier allows your brain to wander and make new and interesting connections it wouldn’t have otherwise made.
In a 2019 New York Times piece about managing attention versus time for productivity, organizational psychologist Adam Grant says that sometimes doing creative work when your mind is a bit fuzzier allows your brain to wander and make new and interesting connections it wouldn’t have otherwise made.
This may help explain why some of us have our most creatively inspired moments in the shower when we aren’t being intentionally analytical.
One way I’ve put this idea to work is by writing a question to myself just before I go to bed—something I’ve been noodling on. I’ll print it on an index card, which I leave on my nightstand. And when I wake up in the morning, before I’m firing on all cylinders, I look at the card and invite ideas to flow in. Some days I’m luckier than others, but I’ve definitely uncovered a few gems this way—gems my 10 a.m. self wouldn’t have had access to.
And there you have it—some ways to bump up your creativity in service of producing meaningful outcomes. (It’s also the permission you need to go bumble around, rock out to your favorite album, or jump on into that shower.) What are your favorite ways to get your creativity flowing? Share them with me on the Modern Mentor Facebook page, Tweet @QDTmodernmentor, or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.