How to keep productivity from killing your creativity

Illustration for post on productivity and creativity

When you think about your favorite day of work, what comes to mind? Was it the day you answered 80 emails in an two-hour sprint? Or was it the day you discovered a new way to solve a problem you’d wrestled with for weeks? Chances are, you remember the day you did your best work better than the day you did the most work.

Why is that? When it seems like every app is asking you to fill every minute with new activities to track, measure, and optimize, sometimes just chasing an idea can feel gratifying. Creativity isn’t the enemy of productivity. It’s the fuel that keeps the engine running. That’s what we mean when we talk about creative energy, and why Dropbox is so passionate about finding ways to keep it flowing. We want to put the grind behind us. We want to make work feel less like a hamster wheel and more like a Sunday drive. Here are five steps to get started.

Give yourself time

Creativity is hard to quantify. It can’t be measured by how many ideas you produce in an eight-hour day. It’s all about the impact—not just on your business, but on you and how you feel about your work. When you’re in a “flow state,”1 you lose track of time. That’s a good thing. When you’re lost on a train of thought, you’re not watching the clock. You’re not waiting to slide down the dinosaur. And you’re not worrying about a deadline.

As Art Markman points out, “Productive people move through the tasks they have to accomplish in a systematic way… They make effective and efficient use of their time. Creativity… doesn’t.”2 Part of the reason is, creative problem solving can take an immense amount of research. It often requires more input than output. That doesn’t mean the time spent isn’t productive.

Step one: Stop searching for more efficient ways to do the same thing over and over. Set aside an hour a week devoted to a new project. Spend that time doing something you want to do, instead of something you’ve been asked to do. See how it feels to play with an idea instead of working on one. Does that hour of exploration seem to go faster than your weekly status meeting?

Think beyond tasks

Even on productive days, it can feel like you’re adding mileage without moving anywhere. That’s especially true when you spend your whole day picking the low-hanging fruit of easy-to-finish tasks. But you’re not a hamster, and your job’s not the wheel. Studies show everyone wants meaningful work—not just millennials.3 If you feel trapped in a never-ending cycle of tasks and to-dos, though, it can be hard to see the big-picture purpose of your job.

Step two: Take a break from repetitive tasks and spend a day working on big ideas with an eye on long-term goals. At Dropbox, we encourage our teams to step away from their day-to-day work and devote a week to exploring blue-sky ideas. It’s more than just a break from our routine. Some Hack Week projects have led to the development of new features, like Dropbox Smart Sync.

Create and share early ideas with Dropbox Paper

Prioritize quality over quantity

What happens when we minimize chores and make more time for meaningful work? Shifting focus from quantity to quality might sound like it could threaten the bottom line of businesses. But recent research4 shows that companies with a culture of innovation actually see payoffs in terms of growth and profitability.

The push for productivity doesn’t seem to end when business hours are over. You can see its effect on our relationship to entertainment, too. Second screening is proof that we’re trying to make even our downtime more productive. Technology has made us super-efficient consumers of media. You probably watch more movies and hear more music now than you did as a kid. But do you feel more entertained? Or do you feel stressed by the fear of missing out?

Step three: Instead of passively scrolling through 25 headlines, try reading two full long-form articles. Or instead of watching 10 online videos, pick one new movie to watch. Taking deeper dives into one story might give you the same kind of fix, but with a more satisfying result.

Change your metrics

Time is a limited resource. But creativity doesn’t have to compete with productivity for your attention. It’s a matter of finding balance—and changing the way we measure the value of both. Learning how to find creative flow is time well spent when employees feel valued for the impact of their ideas as much as the number of hours they work.

Some companies obsess over growth and push to produce more every year. But overwhelming workloads can lead to employee burnout5 when hiring hasn’t kept up with growth. Could they improve employee retention just by shifting the way they measure results? And are workers less likely to burn out when they feel like they’re doing meaningful work?

Step four: Think of a new way to quantify your work. Stop keeping track of the number of boxes you tick, and start thinking more about exploring new ways to do old tasks. Create a spreadsheet to capture fringe ideas for projects. Challenge yourself to spend a few more minutes every week daydreaming.

Wander a while

When you’re struggling to solve a problem, it’s easy to get into the habit of endlessly researching how others have approached similar issues. But sometimes concentrating harder is the opposite of what you need to do. Studies show6 that letting your mind wander can make creative problem solving easier. So it’s helpful to unplug from external sources and turn to your instincts. And though your job title might make you think you’re not creative, anytime you’re using your imagination to solve a problem, you’re tapping into your creativity.

Step five: Next time you’re writing and having trouble finding the right words, resist the urge to sit down and scroll through an online Thesaurus. Get up, go outside, and take a walk around the block. Instead of fixating on the search for the perfect word, clear your mind and give your total attention to your senses. Forgetting about the problem for a few minutes might make it easier for the solution to present itself naturally.

The easiest way to create and share early ideas, together | Check out Dropbox Paper

1 https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-playing-field/201402/flow-states-and-creativity
2 https://hbr.org/2015/11/to-get-more-creative-become-less-productive
3 https://hbr.org/2017/07/every-generation-wants-meaningful-work-but-thinks-other-age-groups-are-in-it-for-the-money
4 https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/are-innovative-companies-more-profitable/
5 https://hbr.org/2017/04/employee-burnout-is-a-problem-with-the-company-not-the-person
6 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/allowing-the-mind-to-wander-aids-creativity/