21 Keys to Creative Productivity

People think productivity and creativity are mutually exclusive. But they are not. The most creative people in the world are also some of the most prolific and productive. I would describe this approach to making art as creative productivity.

  • Seth Godin publishes a blog post every day and has written 17 best-selling books.
  • Ryan Holiday publishes content for multiple publications and writes an average of one new book a year.
  • A.R. Rahman has created such a massive body of work that it would take you a lifetime to go through it.

What makes these people so productive and creative is that they are prolific. Over the last 10 years, I’ve observed universal creative productivity patterns in the people I’ve interviewed.

If you’re short on time and want to learn how to be more creative and productive? The 21 Keys to Creativity PDF is a free, illustrated version of this guide you can read it at your convenience. Click here.

Defining Creative Productivity

The goal of creative productivity isn’t to get more done in less time. It’s not about reaching inbox zero or crossing off tasks on your to-do list.

It’s about spending more time on fewer things, to go a thousand miles in one direction instead of one mile in a thousand different directions. Your creative output is the measure of your creative productivity.

How much art have you made today?

Why I Wrote This

I come across a lot of talented artists with tremendous creative potential. But they waste that potential. As Robert De Niro said to his son in the movie, A Bronx Tale, “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.” If you’re reading this, you’re probably sick of wasting your creative potential.

Consider this short guide your wake up call or creative kick in the ass.

Part 1: Setting Yourself Up for Creative Productivity

Creativity productivity doesn’t happen by default. It happens by design. It’s the result of making deliberate choices, taking deliberate actions, and being intentional about how you spend your time, energy, and your attention.

1. Manage Your Attention

Attention is the currency of achievement. Before you can create something worthy of other people’s attention, you have to learn to manage yours. Good art comes from deep focus and deep work. Your ability to become prolific, create art that resonates, touches people’s hearts, and hits people in the face with a crowbar depends on your ability to focus.

It’s hard to carve out time and space for art that matters if you’re always distracted by things that don’t.

2. Make Your Art in a Sacred Space

Your environment has a profound impact on your behavior, creative productivity, and your ability to focus. The clothes you wear, the spaces you live and work in, and the food you eat all influence your creative productivity.

Be deliberate about everything you allow into your environment. This includes the apps you have open on your computer, the background noise in your workspace, the desk you work at, the content you consume, and even your clothes. If you download the latest killer app because some authority or influencer says you should, it might end up killing your creativity.

Treat the environment in which you do your creative work as a sacred space or sanctuary. Make it the kind of space that causes you to sit down and say, “I’m not here to fuck around. I’m here to work.”

3. Build Systems to Support Your Work

Having a system is essential to maximizing your creative output and increasing your creative productivity. Because your brain is a terrible place to store information, you need to design systems to capture ideas and make your ideas happen.

If you dissect the creative process for almost any endeavor, you’ll notice there’s a lot of repetition. Take something like writing and publishing a blog post.

  • Write the draft
  • Revise and proofread
  • Add links
  • Publish on WordPress
  • Share on social media/Send to your audience.

Without systems, you reinvent the wheel for something you’ve done 1000 times.

Part 2: The Creative Process

Everything that exists in the world is the result of the process. The process isn’t magical or mystical. In the words of David Brooks, “Think like an artist, but work like an accountant.”

4. Creativity is a Habit

Every prolific creator is a creature of habit. Because of this, they make a lot of good art. If you want to make good art, start by making your creative work a habit.

5. Don’t Wait to be Inspired.

Sporadic creators wait to be inspired. Prolific creators act in anticipation of inspiration. If you show up at the same time every day and do the same thing, you won’t have to rely on inspiration. Instead, you’ll develop a habit.

Action leads to inspiration. If you wait to be inspired before you act, you’ll be screwed.

6. What You Consume Will Determine What You Create

Our motivations are heavily informed by the media. Our social feeds are populated by endless images of wealth, travel, power, relaxation, beauty, pleasure, and Hollywood love. This virtual runoff perpetually seeps into our consciousness, polluting our sense of reality and self-worth every time we go online. We compare our lives to these largely artificial constructs and structure our plans accordingly, hoping to eventually afford a golden ticket to these misleading fantasies — Ryder Carroll.

You’ve heard the phrase, “garbage in, garbage out.” The same is true for your creative productivity. If you consume junk, you’ll create it. Treat the content you consume like the food you eat.

Most of the content on social media is the digital equivalent of eating donuts for breakfast and washing it down with a glass of whiskey. If you’ve ever eaten a donut first thing in the morning, you know it feels good when you eat it. But you feel terrible afterward.

If you want to write great books, read the books of great authors.

If you want to make great movies, watch films of great actors, directors, and filmmakers.

The other trap you need to avoid is getting caught up in an echo chamber. It’s hard to have original creative ideas when you’re reading the same books, listening to the same podcasts, and watching the same movies as everyone else.

Author Robert Greene once said to me, “The more species you have in an ecosystem, the more diverse and rich it will be.” By diversifying your inputs, you build a rich creative ecosystem.

7. Limit Your Inputs

Information overload decreases the creative productivity of so many aspiring artists. The overwhelming majority of what we consume adds very little value to our lives.

Don’t watch the news for two weeks.

Check your email once a day.

Pick one social media tool to use.

Limit your inputs, and you’ll increase your output.

8. Create More than you Consume

The world rewards creators more than consumers. The balance of rewards between creators and consumers is disproportionate. The overwhelming majority goes to the creators. You’ll get more from writing 100 blog posts than you ever will from reading 100.

Consumption is deceptive because it makes you feel productive when you’re not. Artistic progress is the result of creation, not consumption. Create more than you consume.

9. Compare Less. Create More.

Every minute you spend comparing yourself to the writer who has sold more books, a podcaster with more listeners, or the painter who has sold more paintings is one less moment you could have spent creating. Comparison is kryptonite for artists. Compare less and make more.

10. Volume over Quality

Your cumulative output matters more than any individual piece of work. If you focus on volume instead of quality, the quality of your work will increase. This frees you from the pressure to create something extraordinary every time you sit down to work.

Even the best art sucks when artists start making it. Pixar is the most successful animation studio in the world. But CEO Ed Catmull says, “All our movies suck when we start.” You have to make bad art before you can make average art and average art before you can make good art.

The best creative work is like shoveling a mountain of shit to find an ounce of gold. There’s a reason Anne Lamott calls it a shitty first draft. Most of the time, your creative work feels like it’s coming out the wrong end.

If you make more art, you’ll eventually start making good art.

11. Embrace the Freedom of Being an Amateur

There are few times in our creative life that you’ll have the freedom you do when you’re starting out.

Nobody knows who you are or expects anything from you. But in the desire to get ahead, accomplish ambitious goals, and rise in our fields, we overlook and undervalue the gift of this time.

As you progress with your career, the more you gain, the more you have to lose. This reduces our risk tolerance, our willingness not to know and conduct experiments. It increases attachment to outcomes and makes our creative identity more rigid and less flexible.

Being an amateur is a beautiful time in any artist’s life when they can combine the childlike playfulness of being an amateur with a professional’s habits to do interesting work. Don’t waste this opportunity because it often contains the seeds for the most interesting work that lies ahead.

12. Steal Like an Artist

One of the biggest mistakes aspiring artists make is copying what someone else does and assume they’ll get the same results. But they rob themselves and the world of the contribution that nobody else could make but them. Learn from other people. But mix up their ingredients and create your own recipes.

13. Always be Creating

One of the common phrases you hear in sales is ABC (Always be Closing). The equivalent for artists always be creating.

When you’re always creating, it liberates you from the expectations of producing something extraordinary every time you sit down to work. It gives you the freedom to create shitty first drafts, write shitty first sentences and accept the fact that a big part of the creative process is shoveling a mountain of shit to find an ounce of gold.

It’s better to be average at something and do it often than to be exceptional and occasionally do it. The paradox is that someone who does average creative work consistently is more likely to produce something exceptional in the long run.

Even if you’re average when you start, the more you do something, the better you’ll eventually get at it. Having the guts to do average work often is the precursor to doing exceptional work in the long run.

Most of the writing I do every day is average at best, complete shit at worst. After writing two books with a publisher, I’m convinced the only reason I ever write anything worth reading is that I’m an average writer who just writes a lot.

Seth Godin is anything but an average writer. But he writes a lot. And one thing you’ll hear him say is that NONE of his blog posts have ever gone viral. What makes him such an exceptional writer is that he does it a lot.

You might have to write 100 blog posts before you write one that’s worth reading. It took me almost 1000 blog posts (many of which were average) before I got a book deal.

What prevents most people from doing this is fear of how the audience will respond, fear that their work isn’t good, and that they are impostors. But everybody is an impostor who is making it up as they go along.

They also underestimate the power of consistency and overestimate the power of intensity. Intense bursts of occasional creativity fueled by inspiration lead to digital graveyards on the internet and creative projects that people abandon.

The other thing people don’t realize is that they don’t have to share everything they create. As I said in my last book, the work you do in private can help you plant the seeds for your most resonant work for public consumption.

Inspiration doesn’t fuel creativity for too long. Showing up consistently and doing the work is what leads to sustainable creativity.

Part 3: Accomplishing Creative Goals

14. Measure Progress Instead of Outcomes

If you’re making progress towards your creative goals, it’s easy to stay motivated. But it’s much more challenging when you’re not. Visible progress is one of our most significant sources of motivation.

Most aspiring artists lose their motivation because they measure outcomes instead of progress. Every prolific artist knows outcomes are out of their control.

  • Focus on your daily word count instead of the best-seller list.
  • Instead of worrying about how many people listen to your podcast, focus on how many episodes you create.

Focus on the process instead of the prize, and you’ll be much more likely to accomplish your creative goals.

15. Create on a Consistent Schedule

Friends was on the TV for 10 seasons. Millions of people were in front of their TV on Thursday at 8 pm. If there were only new episodes when the writers felt inspired to write, they would have never had an audience.

If you want people to consume your art, you have to make it on a schedule. Your habit creating it will become their habit of consuming it.

The internet is littered with the digital graveyards of people who start ambitious projects fueled by temporary bursts of inspiration. Create on a schedule, and you’ll avoid becoming one of these cautionary tales.

16. Focus on Mastery Instead of Metrics

An occupational hazard of artists in the modern world is an obsession with metrics.

  • Baby bloggers check Google Analytics multiple times a day.
  • Newbie podcasters check their downloads every chance they get.
  • Likes on Facebook, hearts on Instagram, and retweets are meaningless vanity metrics for any person who is serious about making good art.

This is what Scott Belsky calls “insecurity work.” And it’s a perfect way to let yourself off the hook from doing the thing that improves the metrics: the work.

Checking your metrics doesn’t make them go up. Creating something worth consuming does. Focus on mastery instead of metrics, and the metrics will move in the right direction.

The Creative Productivity Mindset

You have a voice in your head. And he’s an asshole. He’ll tell your work is no good or that your art isn’t worth making. Steven Pressfield calls this “voice resistance.” Resistance stands between you and the work.

Resistance mutates into fear, self-doubt, and procrastination. Creative productivity is about getting past resistance and fighting daily battles in the war of art.

17. Don’t Talk About Your Work Until it’s Finished.

Every day, artists announce to the world about the books they’re going to write, podcasts they’re going to start, and projects they plan to ship. It’s the epitome of caving into resistance.

But nobody gives a shit what you’re going to start. All that counts is what you finish. Don’t talk about your work until it’s finished. Finish the work, then talk about it. It’s much more likely to speak for itself if you do that.

18. It Doesn’t Matter Unless You Ship

“If you build it, they will come” is one of the biggest myths about creative work. But the creative life is not a field of dreams. If you create something but don’t tell people about it, how could you expect them to know about it?

If you build it and tell them about it, they’ll come. Nobody else will be excited about what you’ve done unless you tell them about it.

When the work is done, ship it. Then get back to work and do it again.

19. Your Best Work Is Not for Every One

If you don’t dare to piss people off, you’ll struggle to create anything that resonates with an audience.

It’s tempting…

To look at the top of a best-seller list, Billboard chart, or top 100 list, reverse engineer someone else’s path to artistic success.

To cater to the lowest common denominator and sacrifice the possibility of touching hearts for reaching more eyeballs.

But it’s ineffective. That’s a high price to pay for something that isn’t even guaranteed. As novelist Justine Musk says, “If you have a bold and compelling point of view, it will piss people off.”

You can spend your time arguing with your critics or creating for your fans. Doing your best creative work means having the courage to piss people off and say, “Sorry. I didn’t make this for you.”

20. Stay Humble. Stay Curious.

When you get really good at what you do, there’s a risk of getting too high on your own bullshit.

Shah Rukh Khan is one of the most famous Indian actors in the world. When David Letterman asked him about his success, he said, “I’m an employee of the myth of Shah Rukh Khan.”

Every iconic artist who stands the test of time is an employee of the myth they’ve created. It’s an excellent way to maintain your humility regardless of what you accomplish.

21. Creative Success is an Infinite Game

Many people wait for the day they see their name in lights, at the top of the best-seller list, or the one when they’re sitting across from Oprah with the opportunity to talk about their work. Talk to any artist who had this experience, and they will tell you that the buzz of validation eventually wears off.

There’s no such thing as an “I’ve made it” moment. The second you start to believe you’ve made it, you rest on your laurels, and your work suffers. Creative success is an infinite game.

Becoming rich, famous, or an “influencer” isn’t the point of commercial creative success. The point is that it allows you to keep doing something you love. You get to keep playing the infinite game of creativity.

The most successful artists don’t stop working hard when they achieve success. They double down, work harder, and make more art.

One last piece of Advice

When you’re too obsessed with your art’s outcomes, the work you love can quickly become the job you hate. Create for an audience of one, and you’ll be more likely to reach an audience of millions. Make the art you want to see exist in the world. If it doesn’t meet your expectations, at least you’ll have something you’re proud to put your signature on.

Get the PDF of This Article

If you’re short on time and want to learn how to be more creative and productive? The 21 Keys to Creativity PDF is a free, illustrated version of this guide you can read it at your convenience. Click here.

Candidate Conversations with Insanely Interesting People: Listen to the @Unmistakable Creative podcast in iTunes http://apple.co/1GfkvkP