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When Your Creative Process Isn’t Productive

typewriter, books, notebooks, glasses-dustin-lee, unsplashWe tend to think that everything we do has to have a greater purpose or some productive end point. It must be profitable or valuable in some way. At the very least, it must be good. And if it isn’t any of these things, then performing that activity is a waste. And that includes creativity. So we assume that writing a short story, painting the sunset, penning a poem, playing the guitar, taking pictures of our surroundings or creating in any other way just because—without any goal other than play or pleasure—is a total waste of our time (and money and energy and effort).

One weekend author Elizabeth Gilbert rented a recording studio with a few of her friends. They decided to turn one of her not-so-good poems into a song. Later that week Gilbert met with some publishers in New York City, who asked about her weekend. When she explained what she did, someone in the meeting asked: “But what is it for?” Here’s Gilbert’s great response:

What is it for?

It’s for because I wanted to.

It’s for because it wasn’t there last Thursday and now it’s a thing that’s in the world.

It’s for because I love the idea of cocreating the universe and being a participant.

It’s for a sense of community adventure.

It’s for because we’re not just here to pay bills and die.

Your creative process does not need to lead to a product that you publish or sell or even share. It doesn’t need to lead to something that’s extraordinary or even good. You don’t need to earn the right to create by making something worthy. You don’t need to create something special as an offering at the altar of creativity in exchange for the privilege of making. (How interesting that this often parallels our other beliefs about life—we need to work hard so we can earn rest; we need to exercise so we can earn dessert; we need to look a certain way so we can earn love.)

You can create, whatever the result or product. Maybe your creation will be crap. Complete, utter crap. Maybe it’ll be useless or ugly. Maybe it’ll be ridiculous or bad. Really bad. This is OK. All of it is OK. Maybe you create because you love exploring and experimenting. Maybe you create because it’s fun or relaxing. Maybe you create just because. All of these reasons are valid.

Why must everything we do be efficient? Why must every minute be filled with productivity? Why must we hyper-focus on effectiveness and work, work, work?

As Oliver Burkeman writes in the piece “Why Time Management is Ruining Our Lives” in The Guardian:

One of the sneakier pitfalls of an efficiency-based attitude to time is that we start to feel pressured to use our leisure time “productively”, too – an attitude which implies that enjoying leisure for its own sake, which you might have assumed was the whole point of leisure, is somehow not quite enough. And so we find ourselves, for example, travelling to unfamiliar places not for the sheer experience of travel, but in order to add to our mental storehouse of experiences, or to our Instagram feeds. We go walking or running to improve our health, not for the pleasure of movement; we approach the tasks of parenthood with a fixation on the successful future adults we hope to create.

In his 1962 book The Decline of Pleasure, the critic Walter Kerr noticed this shift in our experience of time: “We are all of us compelled to read for profit, party for contracts, lunch for contacts … and stay home for the weekend to rebuild the house.” Even rest and recreation, in a culture preoccupied with efficiency, can only be understood as valuable insofar as they are useful for some other purpose – usually, recuperation, so as to enable more work. (Several conference guests mentioned Arianna Huffington’s current crusade to encourage people to get more sleep; for her, it seems, the main point of rest is to excel at the office.)

So create because you simply want to create. Because you aren’t a robot. Because, to paraphrase Gilbert, we don’t exist solely to pay bills and perish. We don’t walk the earth to be efficient. That’s not the whole point, right?

We are creators and makers who dream, devise, design, develop, do. Which, to me, sounds as far from a waste as you can get.

Photo by Dustin Lee.
When Your Creative Process Isn’t Productive

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2017). When Your Creative Process Isn’t Productive. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 25, 2019, from


Last updated: 15 Jan 2017
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