The Tension between Creativity and Productivity

Katy BurkeUncategorized

A girl focused on creating a painting

Share this Post

A quick Google search for “to-do list” pulls 6,430,000,000 results in .45 seconds. I didn’t realize there was so much to say about a concept so simple that it’s literally defined by its title.  But I guess gettin‘er done is the name of the game. In contrast, the word “idea” pulls 2,100,000,000 search results in .94 seconds, less than 3 times the result for “to-do list.” Maybe this is just a silly game and doesn’t mean much. However, I find it jarring that we put far more emphasis on task completion than just about anything else including, thought.

Even our task list before we get out the door in the morning can be overwhelming. has “34 Quick Habits to add to your morning routine.” Thirty. four.  And none of them are “shower,” “change the kitty litter” or “try waking the kids the up (again).” The article boasts special tasks, such as “research a side hustle” and “drink an antioxidant smoothie.”  While trying to be efficient with our time, we can lose a great deal of it studying countless productivity gurus, apps, books and blogs (or at least 6,430,000,000 of them). I speak from experience. I recently tried a new app to track how I spend my time. The first step to finding more time, I thought,  is discovering how I currently spend it. Because I spent so much time figuring out how I spend my time, I added a selection in the app for “productivity planning,” which included time spent on the app itself. I’m not kidding.

Now, I’m not saying that production isn’t valuable. It’s essential. How could the world move forward without it? The sun rises everyday like it’s supposed to, and I’m mighty grateful. I like when things work. I like when people work. And some people are frankly fantastic at production. They are naturally inclined to be decisive, prioritize, measure time, manage time, observe details, and remember them. It’s been awhile since I heard the term, but we used to refer to such a person as a Type A personality. Of course, to every Type A, there is a Type B, the person who doesn’t easily do any of the things previously mentioned. I don’t actually believe we can divide the population up into two camps, but I do believe we have personalities and natural talents. The problem, in my mind, is that our current climate, including our education system, greatly favors production over almost anything else.

“Downtime” has become a dirty word. Many teachers will tell you that keeping kids busy at work from bell to bell is the expectation. And this is to be taken quite literally. A few years ago, my daughter’s third grade teacher announced at Back-to-School Night that the kids were permitted to bring a snack since their lunch was late in the day. However, they could only bring “working snacks,” those that could be eaten with one hand (Banana, yes. Applesauce, no.) Why? You guessed it…so they could keep writing with their free hands. Their days were scheduled down to the minute, and I couldn’t blame the teacher. As a former public school teacher myself, I know the fear of an administrator walking in to find students “at ease.”

But so what? Isn’t productivity great? Can’t we only get ahead with it? Some believe that overproduction comes at the cost of creativity, and of greater concern to me…it comes at the cost of creative people, creative kids. Those who struggle with productivity, tend to have rather flexible minds. They get off task easily, are distractible, and can get “lost” in their heads. Rather than having minds built for consistent focus, they have minds built for searching, like antennae finding signals.  Our culture calls this a problem (often a problem labeled ADD). I call it creativity. But, a mind that is highly receptive to incoming ideas doesn’t make decisions easily, especially deciding what to pay attention to, what to prioritize. …Can you see how this could get in the way of productivity? Creativity and productivity are at polar ends; one aims to birth and the other aims to complete. Therefore, a culture that prioritizes production will inevitably shame kids who are creatively-inclined. It’s not only unfortunate, it’s wrong and detrimental to all of us. Educational author and speaker, Sir Ken Robinson, says that “creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” While creative thinking gets in the way of production, a focus on production gets in the way of creation–the creation of fresh ideas, which, occasionally, are brilliant. One brilliant idea could bypass a multitude of tasks. However, that’s not going to happen if we aim to crowd out every idle minute of our children’s lives. It’s not going to happen if we send the message that if they’re not busy, they’re broken.

Nourishing conditions and time are necessary to bring forth anything new, to create. Gardeners know this. Parents know this. And I believe most educators know it too.  An education system that provides the time, space and flexibility for kids to think, come up with their own ideas, and take chances, is one that honors creative individuals. This is precisely what we aim to do.