Measuring Creative Productivity

Austin Kleon just wrapped up a tour for his latest book. During a stop in Chicago. Eddie Shleyner asked him a great question: “Do you ever feel like no matter how much work you do, you can or should be doing more?”

This question immediately resonated with me; it’s an issue I’ve personally struggled with and am currently struggling through.

Thankfully, Eddie recorded his answer and transcribed it on his blog:

“Yeah, always,” he said. “If you get into that productivity trap, there’s always going to be more work to do, you know?

“Like, you can always make more. I think that’s why I’m a time-based worker. I try to go at my work like a banker. I just have hours. I show up to the office and whatever gets done gets done.

“And I’ve always been a time-based worker. You know, like, ‘did I sit here for 3 hours and try.’ I don’t have a word count when I sit down to write. It’s all about sitting down and trying to make something happen in that time period — and letting those hours stack up.

“So that’s sort of how I get over it.”

I love this. I love that the answer is simply to sit down and try and get some work done. If you don’t make it, that’s okay: try again tomorrow.

I think most people — certainly creative people — put a lot of pressure on themselves to deliver every day. We aim for perfection. I think the pursuit of output, rather than the joy of the chase, keeps us from doing our best work. Perhaps even more dangerously, it leaves us worse off as people.

A friend of mine told me that Cormac McCarthy, the author of No Country for Old Men and The Road (among many other popular novels), had to stop hanging out with other writers after he stopped drinking. All of his writer friends drank until inspiration hit, and he thought that was a poisonous attitude.

That idea, of creativity beholden to vices, keeps us from doing our best work. It keeps us from facing the blank page and making something. The fear of perfection will literally drive us to drink.

So what can we do instead?

We can sit down, measure our hours rather than our output, and make something. As Shawn Blanc says (and I love this), we can create without overthinking.

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May 22 2019 in Miscellany