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Is Your To-Do-List A Creativity Killer?

Businesses are ultimately profit driven and a tangible measure of profitability is productivity and results. However, in the quest for meeting numerical targets, do we sometimes get lost in the endless pursuit for productivity which ends up being counterproductive? Are we so uptight in ticking our own checklists that we do not stop the constant busyness in our minds and on our hands in order to fulfil an innate sense of achievement?

According to an article by Bruce Daisley for the Harvard Business Review entitled "Don't Let Your Obsession with Productivity Kill Your Creativity": "Our current work world is obsessed with productivity. We read about other leaders’ productivity hacks, trying to model how to get into hustle mode. We are bombarded by books, articles, and experts urging us to time block, turn off digital distractions, and step into quiet spaces so that we can churn out our work with laser-like focus. But our relentless quest to be productive is undermining one of the most important abilities in today’s workplace: creativity. We’ve all been warned that in the future — when machine learning and artificial intelligence perform the perfunctory, routine aspects of our work — our most valuable contribution will be ingenuity and inventive guile.

Remember that it is the human thought behind a process which is the real generator of profit. Without human creativity, there can be no innovation. If we are too task oriented and focused only on the "to do list" for the day, we leave no room for ourselves to have a different or a creative perspective.

As established by a multitude of industry experts of every field, the business world is never static. If we keep doing the same things the same way, we will end up left behind, outdated and obsolete. There therefore has to be a balance between being goal oriented but also giving employees the time and breathing space to be creative.

Brace Daisley referenced an example from 1939 that is still relevant today. James Webb Young was a Madison Avenue advertising executive who wrote: "A Technique for Producing Ideas". In this book, Webb Young reminds us, “that an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” In his view, the skill of creativity is the ability to spot new connections between familiar thoughts, and the art is “the ability to see [new] relationships.” Fifty years later, Steve Jobs observed something similar: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

With this in mind, are we giving our team enough breathing space to see the same tasks in a new light?

Webb Young references a methodology in his book that seems so straightforward but is yet "the greatest anathema to the productivity-obsessed world that we live in. It is simply to do nothing. Webb Young urges us to find a way to disengage the mind to allow unconscious processing: “You drop the whole subject and put the problem out of your mind as completely as you can,” and then “turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions.”

Most of us can probably identify with this time-tested approach.

Our best ideas do seem to approach us in moments of disengagement. It is only when you empty your brain of the tasks at hand can you give yourself the space for new ideas or new connections to come into the fray.

If you are in a creative or technology role, these words may speak volumes. However, this creativity is undermined by SOPs, constant deadlines and work environments that were built to prioritise productivity. It is crucial for all of us to take time to declutter mentally.

Creativity can benefit every aspect of an organisation and in order to optimise a person’s potential, owners and leaders have to consider giving their employees this necessary downtime. More pertinently, are you practicing these yourselves? If you think about your day – is it listed out as daily tasks starting with getting up, showering, getting dressed and heading to work before coming home again, having dinner, squeezing in some quality family time, going to bed and starting all over again the next day?

Foster a Culture of Innovation

By pushing for quality over quantity, leaders will encourage employees to think out of the box and possibly invent more unique and productive processes and systems. This creative mindset comes in extremely handy when problem-solving and can save you an immense amount of time when challenges arise. Creativity is hard to quantify. That doesn’t mean the time spent isn’t productive. 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 busyness, but on how you feel about your work. When you’re in the "flow”, ideas start forming. When you’re lost on a train of thought, you’re not watching the clock or worrying about a deadline. However, if your tasks or projects have a sensitive timeline and need to meet customers' expectations, it is vital to bear in mind good time management. This culture of innovation actually sees payoffs in terms of growth and profitability.

Wander your mind or take a walk

Even our downtime nowadays, have to have a check-list. The ability to develop a conversation that engages the intellectual mind with co-workers have been impeded by never-ending deadlines and checklists. You can see its effect on our relationships in the workplace and even at home. Technology has made us super efficient consumers of the media but has it increased our human connections with nature and our surroundings? Take time to disengage and spend some time daydreaming. Studies have shown spending an average of 15 minutes daily daydreaming can actually detox the brain and hence stimulate new ideas.

Change Your Metrics

Leaders have to realise it is a matter of balance, changing the way we measure the value of productivity and creativity. Avoiding employee burnout and overwhelming workloads will ultimately help employee retention for your business. Introduce initiatives to promote safe space for employees to co-create ideas and solutions to enable better ways to work that will work for them. This coming together to innovate develops a creative flow for your teams and will lead to employees feeling valued for the impact of their ideas rather than the number of hours they work.

If your work day looks more like a series of meetings and emails with little in between, it could be time to explore new ways for creativity to flow. Put down your to-do list, step away from your desk, and turn off your podcasts on your commute. Have a moment every day where you’re trying to achieve nothing. Giving your brain a moment to relax might lead to your best idea yet. Encourage everyone to have a time out moment in the work day.


Key Contact:

Monica Tan, Engaging Leaders, leads our clients through a journey of performance and change. With more than 15 years of client and project management experience, she serves as a key advisor to our clients.


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