Why Too Much Efficiency Kills Your Creativity

Two Phases of Creativity

Creativity isn’t something that only “creatives” need. Anyone who creates useful ideas is always in high demand.

And in our services-dominated economy, we need to be creative to succeed.

  • Sharing a helpful idea during a work meeting
  • Making your pitch unique for a client
  • Creating “original” art
  • and so forth

Netflix is a great example of being competitively creative in today’s high-paced world.

In the early 2000s, Netflix was a struggling DVD-rental subscription service with little creativity. Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings tried to cut his losses by selling the business to Blockbuster, then a major video and game rental store. But Blockbuster declined.

With the country going through a recession, Hastings had to lay off 30% of his staff.

This forced him to rethink things. If Netflix were to survive, it had to be creative and think of new ideas. It wasn’t just about efficiency anymore. They had to do everything differently.

In an interview1Source: L.A. Times, Hastings looked back at some of Netflix’s low points. And he reflected:

“If you think of the last 300 years, we’ve had factories providing enormous economic value, and so a lot of our society has the factory as the model of the organization. Very top-down, very process, very efficient.

But it’s not the right way to run a creative organization. An organization that needs new ideas needs to be able to make mistakes.”

Nowadays, productivity books and blogs are everywhere (you’re reading one right now). This shows how much people want to live a productive lifestyle. But we can also overdo it.

Trying to be productive every minute has a major backlash: It robs you of the time and mental space to “do nothing.” And various studies have shown that the brain needs downtime.2Source: Fast Company

What downtime really means

A neuroscientist from Carnegie Mellon conducted a study to see how taking time off a task affects the brain’s results. He wanted to explore what happens in the brain when people tackle problems that are too big for their conscious minds to solve.3Source: Psychology Today

He wired 3 groups of people to an fMRI scan. And he had each group purchase an imaginary car based on multiple wants and needs. Here are their results:

  • Group A had to make a decision in a very short period. These people didn’t come up with an optimized decision.
  • Group B was given more time to consciously think about solutions. Their results weren’t much better than the previous group.
  • Group C was given the problem, then a distracter task: They were made to do something that lightly held their conscious attention, but allowed their non-conscious to continue working in the background. This group did far better at making optimized solutions.

Most people are familiar with the “sleep on it” concept: If you have to make a decision or are trying to come up with a good idea — simply take a day or two to distance yourself.

But this study found that more than “sleeping” on it, our unconscious mind works better when we do something that directs our conscious focus away. No problem-solving or idea-making activities at all.

This could mean taking a leisurely stroll without obsessing about your fitness tracker, doing the dishes without listening to a podcast, or even letting the mind-numbing activity of folding your laundry actually numb your mind.

Bottom line: Don’t try to be productive every single minute!

The thing with creativity is that it comes in phases. And when you know which creative phase you’re in, you can better leverage your time and attention.

The 2 Phases of Creativity

I’ve been writing and publishing new articles on my blog and on Medium every week for the past 7 years. During that time, I also published several books and online courses.

Yet, I never run out of ideas. I’ve learned how to get over writer’s block and other forms of creative ruts. That’s because I keep my creative process simple.

There are 2 main phases of creativity:

  • Creation
  • Execution

In the first phase, one spends more time creating or “incubating” an idea. For writers like me, this could mean reading relevant materials, researching, thinking about a book’s or article’s main idea, writing an outline, and so forth.

Then, when the creation process is done and the work’s core elements have been set — execution happens.

A good example of using both phases well is the late rapper, Nipsey Hussle. To me, Nipsey is the best example of an independent artist.

I’ve been a long-time fan of his music, but I recently read the biography about him, The Marathon Don’t Stop by Rob Kenner. I’ve also been watching nearly all the interviews he did in the last two years of his life (he tragically got shot in 2019).

He was not only a creative artist but also a creative entrepreneur. Early in his career, he got a major label deal which didn’t work out. That set him on a journey of independent success, which was built on a foundation of one creative endeavor after the other.

During his interviews, Nipsey often talked about how he was in full execution mode. By that time he had finished his album, Victory Lap, and he was all about promoting. He would wake up early and just do interviews all day long.

But when he was in creation mode, he would be in the studio all day long and just take things easy. It was more play.

Are you in Creation mode or Execution mode?

The most creative and successful people know how to switch between Creation and Execution. Whether that’s a business executive like Reed Hastings or an artist like Nipsey Hussle.

To make the best use of your creative energy and to optimize your life, it’s important to be aware of where you currently are.

Are you in Execution mode or are you in Creation mode?

Let me give you two examples of why it’s important to know the difference and how it can help you.

  1. When your career feels stuck. Then you have a creativity issue. There’s a need to rethink direction, goals, and objectives. At this point, you can take some time to step back and look at the bigger picture. It’s better to waste a few hours doing some thinking than waste years going after the wrong things.
  2. When you know what you want to accomplish. This phase is all about execution. You don’t need to be more creative and come up with more ideas. It’s time to put in the work. For example, if you have an article outline, then start writing. If you’ve determined your unique selling point to clients, then start sending pitches. And so forth.

When people do nothing during the Execution phase, they’re just procrastinating. It’s a common trap. So do your best to avoid that.

Awareness of the phases of creativity is critical for one reason: If you try to execute too much in the wrong phase, you will kill your creativity and you will stay stuck.

Turn challenges into creative problem solving

Being too efficient leaves little room for variation and experimentation. And the best ideas are often a product of obstacles.

Reed Hastings wouldn’t have been able to grow Netflix to the level it reached today if he didn’t fail to sell his business to Blockbuster.

Likewise, Nipsey wouldn’t have started his own label, clothing store, and movement if he didn’t face the challenges with the traditional music label he first signed with.

And remember that being creative takes time! You can’t put too much pressure on yourself during the Creativity phase because it will suppress your energy.

What matters is that you become good at switching your focus as you go through life. That’s how you can make your dreams a reality.

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