Is Disorganisation Stifling Your Creativity?

This post is part of the Break Through Your Creative Blocks series.

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If you have a creative block you’d like some help with, tell us about it – details in the first article in the series.

Artists and other creative people are not renowned for their powers of personal organisation. “A cluttered desk is a sign of genius,” we like to say, when challenged about our working conditions. And plenty of us can relate to Albert Einstein, whose wife had to chase him down the street to remove the coat hanger from the coat he was wearing, as he was too preoccupied with higher thoughts to notice such mundane details.

So I wasn’t surprised that several Lateral Action readers admitted to struggling with organisation when we invited you to tell us about your creative blocks.

“Organization – I have a lot on my plate and not completing any tasks.”

(Alexander Duque, Left Hook Fitness)

“I have problems with time management, and staying on task.”

(Are Morch, Twtrcoach)

“I put my personal creative work on the back burner. I think about it all the time, but cannot seem to bring the work to fruition… I am not good at structure {though I am very productive} and I don’t like the idea of to-do lists: just doing things to get it done. I want the process to be the creativity, the product to be the result of an amazing experience. With the kind of projects I am working on, the process needs to be soulful, mindful, thoughtful so the product I put forth will be too.”

(Alisa Barry, Bella Cucina)

Once upon a time, I wrote an article called Why You Need to Be Organised To Be Creative – leading to howls of protests in the comments:

“I’ve been in the business for 40 years and I know this- if you are organized you are probably not very creative. Ive never seen an organized creative person!!!”

“LIES!!! ALL LIES!! Organisation and routine destroy creativity. It destroys mine, and I become very lathargic and depressed when I sink into a routine, or structure things. Creative people dont need to be organised. This is all rubbish!”

Clearly, I’d offended against the unspoken artist’s code. My words didn’t fit the Romantic image of the artist who flouts the petty rules of society, surrendering to the divine madness of inspiration. And doesn’t wash the dishes for a week.

When I finished the series of articles, I released it as a free e-book: Time Management for Creative People. Several people told me it was the wrong title. “Creatives don’t want to know about time management, they run a mile from that kind of thing.” Undeterred, I went with the wrong title.

Then a funny thing happened. The e-book got downloaded. A lot. Some high profile bloggers wrote about it, leading to more and more downloads every day. I got a phone call from my hosting company: “What are you doing with that site? None of our other small business clients are using anything like the same bandwidth. I’m afraid we’ll have to upgrade your account.”

Last time I checked, the e-book had been downloaded 80,000 times. It’s led to numerous requests for workshops on the subject. And every time I’ve run the workshop, it’s sold out.

There’s an old saying that actions speak louder than words. While many artists and creatives scoff at the idea of organisation and time management, my experience suggests that there are plenty of people out there who are frustrated to discover that being disorganised can seriously damage your creativity.

Maybe this is one of the dirty little secrets of creativity. Maybe it’s not so romantic and exciting to be overwhelmed by an overflowing e-mail inbox, or to be perpetually anxious that you’ve forgotten something important. Maybe a little more organisation could actually make you more creative.

From my work with clients, I’ve seen that the biggest issue isn’t getting organised. That part isn’t rocket science. There are plenty of plenty of systems, books, blogs and software applications to help you with it.

The biggest barrier many creative people face isn’t getting organised — it’s getting over the resistance to getting organised. Once you deal with that, the actual process is pretty straightforward.

Is Your Work Working for You?

I’m not saying you have to be meticulously organised about every aspect of your life. I’m certainly not saying you need to be as anal as Lou, with his perfectly tabulated spreadsheets and project management systems. Alisa hits the nail on the head when she says there’s no point “just doing things to get it done”. You may look more organised, but it’s just foolish productivity if it doesn’t help you get your real work done.

Take a step back and look at your current work situation. How does it make you feel?

Does it enable you to set aside trivial distractions and focus 100% on your creative work? Are you getting the big, important, challenging things done? If so, I wouldn’t sweat too much about being ‘disorganised’, even if your office looks like a landfill site.

Or does your work make you feel anxious and frustrated, with e-mails, phone calls and mundane tasks getting in the way of the work you love? If so, then you could probably benefit from taking a different approach.

Create Your Own Structure

I find it telling that Alisa says “I am not good at structure {though I am very productive}” – which suggests to me that she may be better at structure than she thinks. It may not be a conventional 9-5 working day, but if she’s producing lots of good stuff, it may not need too much tweaking.

Have a look at this list of 25 Famous Thinkers and their Inspiring Daily Rituals. It includes some pretty unusual working habits – like John Cheever, who commuted to a basement where he stripped off to his underwear before sitting down to write; Gertrude Stein, who wrote her poetry sitting in her car (fortunately she parked it first); or Alexander Dumas, who began each workday by eating an apple at 7am under the Arc de Triomphe.

Unconventional? Yes. Organised? You bet. Effective? I think the results speak for themselves.

For some practical tips on devising your own creative routine, read my e-book on Time Management for Creative People (it’s free to download and share) and start experimenting with the ideas. It doesn’t offer a system, but principles for getting the important things done first – and dealing with the rest in a reasonably timely manner.

You may also benefit from some of the ideas in Block 3 of this series, Lack of Time.

Creativity Can Be Pretty Boring

Another part of Alisa’s description caught my eye, reminding me of something I’ve heard from many coaching clients:

I want the process to be the creativity, the product to be the result of an amazing experience. With the kind of projects I am working on, the process needs to be soulful, mindful, thoughtful so the product I put forth will be too.

I know how you feel Alisa, and sometimes creative work can indeed be an amazing experience. But sadly, that’s not always the case, otherwise I guess everyone would do it. Creativity can be incredibly frustrating — think of the days when things just won’t flow or fall into place, no matter how hard you try.

And sometimes creativity can be downright boring. Imagine doing the grouting on Notre Dame Cathedral or the Taj Mahal. Or proofreading War and Peace. Or stitching all the chainmail on the Bayeux Tapestry.

I used to draw elaborate Celtic knotwork designs. They took forever. It got so boring I listened to entire audiobooks, just to get through it. But people were impressed with the results – “I wouldn’t have the patience,” they said.

Last year, I visited a silversmith’s workshop, at Cockpit Arts. I saw some elaborately patterned silver bowls, and was told each one was hammered out of a single sheet of flat silver. Apparently, you have to do it one tiny tap at a time, otherwise the metal will split. “How long does it take?” I asked. “Weeks,” came the heartfelt answer.

In each of these examples, a boring, nit-picky, uninspiring process led to a product that was received with surprise and delight by its audience. I’d much rather have it that way round than vice versa.

I’ll leave the last word to the novelist Gustave Flaubert, who knew a thing or two about producing amazing work:

Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.

Are You Organised?

How organised are your working habits?

Do you find structure a help or hindrance to your creativity?

Any tips on getting organised for creative work?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a creative coach with over 15 years’ experience of helping people get past their creative blocks and into the creative zone. For a FREE 26-week creative career guide, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. My approach to time management is a combination of routine and instinct. I’ve learned to respect my own rhythms, and know when I write best, when it’s the best time to engage in physical activity, and when I’m pretty much useless at thinking.

    Sometimes I get flaky, but I know that’s because I’m trying to force something. That’s one of the reasons I don’t respond well to a regimented schedule.

    Structure is good, but too much can feel like punching a time clock. The problem for me, and I suspect many other creatives, is the *idea* of being stuck in a set of unbreakable rules, rather than the reality of sorting out my workday so I can feel satisfied with what I’ve achieved by day’s end.

    Reframing it makes a huge difference.

  2. Routines make habits.
    Good habits get things done.
    Bad habits waste.
    Plain and simple.

    I find that I work fine in short bursts rather than all at one go.
    That way I stay focused and have fun doing whatever it is I do.
    And I always try and do the most annoying tasks at first. That way the day just gets better and better.

  3. Good lord did I need this blog post today. I’ve been struggling to find some kind of way to better organize myself and my time. Ironically (or unsurprisingly, perhaps) I actually downloaded the ebook you wrote about last year … and never found/made time to actually read it. I just found it on my hard drive and I’ll definitely be doing it today. Thanks.

  4. I’m coming to resent many of these pronouncements about who creative people are. I consider myself to be highly creative and I’ve always been pretty organized. You might not know that from looking at my desk. While it appears to be cluttered, I know where everything is and regularly clear things off as I finish up projects. I’m also an inveterate list maker, making sure to add creative work to my To-Do lists so that it becomes a priority over chores like laundry and dishes.

  5. I think that “organized” and “creative work” don’t really go well together for me ;)

    One thing that really helps me out though is organizing *around* my creative work

    That means taking care of all my errands, phone calls, emails, all those little things that always distract me – and then time boxing and setting aside an hour or so for whatever I need to do.

    That might be brainstorming, or writing, or whatever – but trying to stick to a schedule (e.g., “I must have a headline in the next 15 minutes!”) doesn’t work for me – too much pressure

    I definitely agree with having a routine though – helps me get in the right frame of mind for whatever I want to do, and also helps make sure all the little things get done and the trains keep running on time ;)

  6. @ Stacey – Yes, as with so many things in life, the (exaggerated) idea is much worse than the reality.

    @ aDeeb – Love the ‘most annoying tasks first’ approach!

    @ Stacy – Don’t worry, you’re not alone! I’ve had companies ask me to come in and teach the material in the time management e-book “Because everyone’s too busy to read it!” :-)

    @ Mary – Yep, the creative stuff is always top of my list.

    @ Sid – Sounds like you’re doing a pretty good job of marrying organisation and creative work! And if you ever visit the UK, we could do with having a few more trains running on time. ;-)

  7. Funny. The only way I CAN be creative is to be organized. Without it, I end up chasing random errands around all day and then try to squeeze creative work into a tiny slice of time that I spend most of looking for the right tools and preparing to work, leaving very little to time to actually create.

  8. Heh, you’ve just described my life a few years ago. ;-)

  9. I have to agree that organization is vital to accomplish anything, really. It may not look the same to all people, but it is definitely an important element in the creative process. If you don’t put the time and energy it requires, it tends to fade away… My studio is not organized per se, but I keep trying to get my day organized. Not an easy task, I must admit…

    Procrastination can take many faces and anything can become procrastination, even cleaning your desk or studio. So i go more for a time management system and allot time for each of the things I want/need to do. I prioritize. I spend less and less time in front of the computer… ;-)

  10. How timely that I was directed to these comments. I am retired from having a job and I am creative. All that said, I get very uncomfortable if my life is to schedualed and lately I have to many of my days with set appointments . I am also moving my studio from one place in the house to another and it always seems that what I need is in the other place. I spend way to much time looking of things and realize that this takes away from my time to create. Conclusion… I need to be organized enought to find what I need but unorganized enough to feel spontaneous and create freely. Thank you for sharing and making me and others think about what we need!

    Judy

  11. @ Yol – Wise words, although ‘computer time’ CAN be productive for some of us – depending on what we’re doing with the computer. ;-)

    @ Judy –

    I need to be organized enough to find what I need but unorganized enough to feel spontaneous and create freely.

    Thank you for summing up my entire argument in one sentence! :-)

  12. Mark, you’re right. I guess I should have clarified (because I spend a lot of time in front of the computer, too)… spend less time reading email and browsing web sites because I can jump from one to another and end up spending hours that I could have used creating stuff!

    I wrote a brief post on one of my blogs that has a cool video on procrastination. Check it out:

    http://sacredjewelry.wordpress.com/2010/03/11/art-plus-fear-equals-procrastination/

  13. Yol – Sorry, I was just teasing. My British sense of humour. ;-) Also I’m a writer, so I have the challenge that the computer is both my biggest productivity tool and my biggest distraction!

    Nice post, thanks for sharing.

  14. Mark, I hear you, and even though you were teasing you were also right. I am a writer too, and spend hours in front of the computer (both writing and marketing), but I know I can also get awfully distracted with email, Facebook, and such…

    I have to prioritize things on a daily basis so that I don’t get carried away by any one thing I am doing, or I’ll end up feeling frustrated that I didn’t put any energy into the other things I like to do (such as jewelry, which takes, oh so much time!).

    I’ve definitely cut down on the mailing lists I am in, the action alerts (political, environmental, etc.) I receive and respond to, Facebook chatting, and so on. Not to mention TV! ;-)

    Otherwise I wouldn’t find enough hours in the day to do what I want to… at least a little at a time.

  15. I agree that you have to have some organization to be effective and creative. While lots of my house is full of piles (using the “pile-y” method of filing), my workspace is always clear and organized… whether it is my paintbox, my leather tools, my computer notes, or my library.

    The area I am actively working is always organized and it shows in my results. The rest of my world may appear chaotic and/or messy (and actually may be chaotic or messy) but my workspace is clean.

    And I know that I am a tremendously creative individual. So it can be done.

    I also use a to-do list… but I am the one who decides what is on it, so I don’t feel tyrannized by it. It is more my “get to do today” list. My creative projects are on it, too. That helps keep me on track.

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