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Surviving Creativity: Do Less in More Time

Sometimes I feel like creativity and productivity cannot peacefully coexist in my life. I can either get stuff done, or I can be creative, but put the two in a room together and they fight each other like brother and sister. However like all siblings, Creativity and Productivity need to learn to get along because they’re stuck with each other. Being creative without actually producing something is eventually pointless, and being productive without any sense of creativity becomes downright boring. So like most moms, I’m stuck with the job of getting the two to work out their differences, and hug and make up. We need to find a happy medium somewhere.

I love all the books and articles out there about how to get more done in less time, and be a happier person. I devour them. I take notes. I buy planners. I lose planners. I give up. I read another article and am convinced that I’m just doing it wrong, and if I could just get a little more organized, I’d be able to get everything done. So I buy another planner. And lose it. Alas. It appears that I am doomed to a life of disorganization and unfinished projects.

But what if that wasn’t such a bad thing? In our society, we place a lot of emphasis on Getting-Stuff-Done. And I agree that certain things do just need to be done. The phone company likes it when I pay my bill on time. And I like it because I get to keep using the internet. Win-win.

But aren’t there certain things we do throughout the day that can’t be fit into the box that we call “Accomplishments”? What about all the works-in-progress that are good for our souls, nourishing to our brains, and challenging to our creativity? Those need to be accounted for as well when we’re looking back on our day, wondering if we got anything done.

The question is: How do we balance what needs to be done with what we just want to spend some time working on, even if it doesn’t actually get finished?How do we balance creativity with productivity?

So, for this third installment of the Surviving Creativity series, I’m claiming the title “How to Get Less Done, in More Time, and be Happier.”

The more descriptive title would be something like “Time Management for Creative People” but I like the first one better, so we’re going with it. If you’ve missed the first two posts in this series, head back and take a peek at them, so this one will make more sense. Just click on either image below.


How to survive and thrive in a creative environment by knowing what your priorities are

As I’ve gone through the last couple of weeks, analyzing how I spend my time, as well as how I feel about it, I’ve come up with a few suggestions that might also help you if you struggle with balancing creativity and productivity.

1. Stop Multi-Tasking

I keep reading how new research shows that multitasking is a fallacy. When you think you’re multitasking, what you’re actually doing is switching rapidly from one task to another. The problem is that your brain uses a little extra power and time to ramp up to speed each time it starts an a new task, so it can be exhausting and counterproductive switching back and forth so often. It’s better to pick one task, finish it, and then move on.

The problem is that our computers, phones, tablets, and TV are set up to thwart us in our efforts to do one thing well at any given time. Just when we settle down at the computer to work on a paper, we get a little notification of a new email. Or we go to check the time on our phone, and completely forget what we came for when we see the full notification bar at the top and oh look, someone liked my Instagram photo!

So what are we to do, since the very things that keep us from being productive are the tools we use to create?

My approach is to walk away, whenever possible. If I’m writing a blog post on my computer, I leave my phone across the house in the kitchen. That way I can hear it ring, in case it’s something important like the school nurse calling me to come pick up one of my kids. But all other notifications can wait, since they would require getting up from my desk and walking across the house. (Sometimes my laziness actually works in my favor.)

On my computer, I’ve disabled all notification sounds. When I have a spare moment, I can easily check to see if I have any new emails, but I don’t need to know when each one comes across.

Take back your time by making a conscious decision about what you want to pay attention to at any given moment. Notifications of all sorts are killing our attention span. As my pastor politely requests before each sermon, “Turn off anything that rings, dings, or pings.” Likewise, in your life, take out anything that keeps you from paying attention to the thing you’ve chosen to do at that moment.

2. Do the Next Right Thing

What if you find it impossible make a good choice about what to work on at that moment? My mom calls it Tornado Brain. She gets to call it that, not only because she is a Certified Life Coach, who helps people sort out their own tornado brain, but also because she’s a creative person herself, who struggles often with knowing what to work on next. It’s not that she can’t think of something she wants to do; it’s really that there are too many inspiring things out there, which makes it difficult to choose just one.

Perhaps you feel this way too sometimes? I know I do. And as with most character flaws I deal with in my life, I blame my mother. Fortunately for me, she doesn’t take it personally. Also fortunately for me, she has a great solution.

It’s simple: Do The Next Right Thing.

I don’t know who said it first, but I recently heard it on a Michael Hyatt podcast. He was talking about how to dig yourself out of “Overwhelm.” You know the feeling. There are so many things on your to-do list that you don’t know where to start. Or you’re at the beginning of a big important project, pretty sure you’re the wrong person for this job. Or you have a creative idea in mind with no idea how to actually make it a reality.

It sounds deceptively easy, but you just need to identify one small thing that needs to be done and do it. Don’t plan for it. Don’t write it down. Just do it.

Every large project is made up of gazillions of very small tasks. Just find one of those tasks and get it done. Don’t worry about whether it’s the right thing to do in order of steps, or even if it might be undone later. Just putting something on paper (or the computer screen) or swiping that first brushstroke on the canvas can help to break you out of the overwhelming feeling of not knowing where to start. Once you’ve started, then it gets easier to just keep going.

3. Make a List, then Break It

I love lists. I like making lists so much that I wrote a whole post about it. Can we all just agree that making the list of things you have to do today is the easiest and most fun part of getting all that stuff done?

Lists are great for when you need to get all the stuff in your head out on paper. But you can easily become a slave to the list and feel bad if you don’t get everything done. That’s why I like to have two lists going in my head: one for the optimist in me, and one for the realist. On the optimist list goes everything that I’d like to get accomplished that day, week or month. Then on the realist list, I only keep the things that absolutely have to be done by a certain time. That way, I can capture all the thoughts that I’m afraid I’ll forget if I don’t write them down, like:

  • Write a book
  • Go back to school for graphic design
  • Finish my daughters’ scrapbooks of their first year (they’re 8 and 10).

But I don’t have to feel bad if I don’t get those things done by a certain time. On the other hand, it’s good to have a list of the things that really do matter, such as:

  • Get $5 cash to send in for the 3rd grade field trip
  • Find something to cook for dinner
  • Call mom and apologize for upcoming blog post.

Think of your list as a starting point, not a report card. It can be helpful, but don’t let it run your life. If something fun comes up that requires you to move a few things around, go for it. You’d hate to miss out on an impromptu lunch with a friend in favor of staying home and doing the dishes, just because it’s on your list. You’re in charge of your list, not the other way around.

4. Productive Procrastination

I can’t seem to get anything done without a deadline, but I also find that I can be the most productive while procrastinating.

This drives my husband crazy. One of the things I love most about him is he’s a “Do what you say you’re gonna do, when you say you’re gonna do it” type of guy. He balances me out. (I like to think that he appreciates my free spirit as well, but I have a feeling that one may not even break the top ten.) Anyway, I can’t tell you how many times procrastination has saved me work, or even resulted in something better happening before I could get to the thing I was supposed to be doing.There are no limits to what I can accomplish when I am supposed to be doing something else.

As with everything, it’s a balance, but I say take advantage of those moments of procrastination! Yes, you probably should be mopping the floor, but look at the amazing blog post you just wrote in order to have a reason to put off that chore. And yes, perhaps the family will be eating takeout tonight (again) but you just got a great deal on school clothes for the kids because you stopped in to the mall instead of going grocery shopping. And they needed clothes too, right? Otherwise you were going to have to go shopping this weekend when the sale was over and everyone else in town was fighting for the leftovers on the racks.

It may be that I’m just really good at deluding myself and justifying my procrastination, but I truly believe that good, productive things can happen while you should be doing something else. Now it doesn’t count if you spend all that time watching TV or surfing Pinterest. Wait, I didn’t mean that last part. Pinterest is a perfectly good use of time. It fosters creativity right?

5. Leave Room in the Margins

This is my favorite one of all. If you’re like me, you’ll find that your best ideas will often come in the margins. That little bit of space between the print and the edge of the page. The times when you’re not actually working on what you’re supposed to be doing, but while you’re daydreaming, doodling, or otherwise not “working.”

I’ll let you in on a little secret here. I take a nap almost every day. After I spend my morning working, I pick up the kids from school and while they’re decompressing in front of the TV for a little while, I go in my room and lay down on my bed for about 20 minutes. I don’t often sleep, but I do stare at the ceiling and let my mind wander aimlessly. It’s amazing to me how many of my creative ideas spring up during that time. I think that’s because if I didn’t take a few minutes to do nothing, I would be so busy working on whatever I already have on my list, that I’d never have time to dream up new ideas.

I love the word “Margin” because although it has a specific definition related to book printing, it also perfectly describes why we need more space in our lives. There are two good reasons that books contain margins. One is that the printer cannot physically continue the text to the very edge of the page. It’s a function of how printing and book binding works. There just needs to be a little empty space so that everything fits and lines up correctly. The other reason is that our eyes need a little break. We need some blank space on the page, in order to make sense of all the words. This is also called “White Space” and it’s very important visually to have some white space around what you’re trying to look at and decipher. The brain needs a little break.

So whether you’re reading a book, or changing the world, leave yourself a little bit of margin in your day. Try scheduling in some time to do nothing. If you have to, put it on your calendar and give it a name. I call it a nap, because I like to leave my options open…

Leave room in the margins of your life

All of these strategies have one thing in common. When you’re less focused on getting “More” done, you have more time and opportunity to be creative. From there, the getting-stuff-done will happen. But don’t put so much pressure on yourself to have something to show for every minute of your day, or even every item on your list. A lot of life happens when you’re making other plans, and that’s the glorious thing about life. It can’t always be pinned down, quantified, and measured. It’s meant to be lived, so get out there and live it. Try doing less, in more time, and seeing if it makes you happier. I think in the long run, it will even make you more productive, at least in the things that really count.

Whew, this was a long one! In hindsight, I probably could have written five whole posts on this topic. I hope you’ll join me in trying out a few of these strategies, and then let me know how it goes in the comments below. Also, I’ve started a fun pinterest board, called Creativity. Turns out, lots of people are thinking and talking about these same challenges, and most of them say it better than I do! Go check it out for a little encouragement, inspiration, or just a good chuckle.

Check out the next post in this series, on Finding Fulfillment. And here’s to less productivity and more creativity!

Draw Out Your Creativity! - The Palette Muse

Monday 2nd of November 2015

[…] November, and welcome to my new and improved site! I’ve tried to take my own advice and leave a little more margin and white space, both in my life and on my blog. I hope you like the […]

Surviving Creativity - The Palette Muse

Tuesday 20th of October 2015

[…] Check out the next posts on Setting Priorities, Managing Your Time, and Finding […]

Surviving Creativity: Setting Priorities - The Palette Muse

Tuesday 20th of October 2015

[…] multiple demands on our time, and still leave room for being creative. Check out that post on Time Management, and the following on on Finding Fulfillment. For your homework this week, try composing one of […]


Saturday 10th of October 2015

Can this series please be the trumpet call for the "Do Less in More Time" revolution? I want to sit back in a comfortable chair on my porch in 20 years and tell my Grandchildren that the stress-free life balance we achieved in 2035 began with this blog post.


Wednesday 14th of October 2015

Yes! Grandchildren everywhere will be thanking us for starting this movement and making their lives a little easier! I love it...

Anita C. Lee

Saturday 10th of October 2015

What a lovely idea. Let's start a movement!


Saturday 10th of October 2015

great post and series Meredith. I also want “Do Less in More Time” on a t-shirt. I can relate to the struggle between creativity and productivity. the story of my life LOL!


Wednesday 14th of October 2015

Thank you! I guess I'm going to have to follow through on that t-shirt design, due to popular demand! :)


Creating a color-filled life. Conquering my little world one DIY project at a time. With lots of coffee and chocolate. Albuquerque NM. Pinterest ~ Instagram ~ Facebook