In my last article I looked at the problem of Foolish Productivity or Personal Taylorism, in which you become pseudo-efficient at the expense of your creative spark and your competitive edge. But there’s another problem with Taylorism, one that should matter even more to you.
In my student days I spent a few months on the shop floor in my local Taylorist emporium, a factory manufacturing industrial steel chimneys. Clock in. Clock out. Put the steel tube in the machine. Align the seam with the notch on the machine collar. Make sure the entire rim is flush against the collar. Press the button. Take it out. Put the next tube in the machine. Align the seam with the notch. Do as you’re told. Faster, faster… I still remember the faces of the guys who had been doing it for twenty years.
It doesn’t have to be this way, even on a production line where rules and procedures are essential:
For years the Victory Optical plant had been an exception to the organizational age rule: it was operated entirely by foremen and self-made managers like my father, who had worked their way up from the factory floor. These workers had tremendous respect for the ideas of the factory workers. I can even remember the workers looking at samples of the latest designer eyeglass frames from overseas, and coming up with their own designs to improve on the high-priced imports. (The Rise of the Creative Class, p.65)
No-one could reasonably have blamed the factory workers if they had been ‘too busy’ to take a step back and do the hard thinking that saved a fortune on imports. And maybe no-one will even notice the next time you are reorganising your files, emptying your inbox or ticking off items on a to-do list when you could be doing something bigger and better.
Something infinitely more satisfying.
Have you ever got to the end of a day spent busily responding to demands from clients and colleagues, ploughing through e-mails and checklists, and asked yourself What have I really achieved today? If you’ve ever had the same feeling over weeks or even months, then you don’t need me to tell you about creative frustration.
If you look at the best writers on time management and productivity, Personal Taylorism is not what they intended. They teach us to manage the small stuff in order to free ourselves for bigger challenges.
Steven Covey tells us to prioritise ‘important but not urgent’ tasks over the ephemeral demands of the moment. David Allen recommends taking time out to look at your life ‘from 50,000 feet’ and ‘intuiting your life purpose and how to maximise its expression’.
Leo Babauta reminds us to put the ‘big rocks’ into your schedule before the time is filled up with ‘pebbles and sand’. Tim Ferriss takes this to extremes, advising us to eliminate all tasks apart from the mission-critical 20% that delivers 80% of the results.
So how does this apply to you in the context of the creative economy? What can you do to make the biggest difference – and reap the greatest rewards?
- Nothing someone else could do as well or better.
- Nothing someone else could do for the same price or cheaper.
- Nothing you do to feel ‘busy’ and justify your salary/invoices.
- Nothing that keeps you inside your comfort zone.
- Not the easy option.
Or to put it more positively:
- It’s something only you can do – solving an unusual problem, or doing it in an unusual style, or both.
- Because it’s so distinctive you can charge more than the next guy for it.
- If you do it – and sell it – well enough, you don’t necessarily need to be ‘busy’ all day every day.
- It’s in ‘the zone’ where you find your greatest fulfilment.
- It’s a challenge that will fascinate you for the rest of your days.
OK so what are we talking about? It sometimes goes by the name of ‘creativity’ or ‘innovation’. But while we like those terms, they can be ambiguous. There’s a tendency to equate creativity with creative thinking and to see it as wishy-washy daydreaming that doesn’t achieve much.
So we propose the term Lateral Action.
‘Lateral’ means sideways or unexpected. Lateral Action means not just getting things done, but getting unusual, distinctive, valuable, creative things done.
Lateral Action means getting up at 5am to write your novel before work.
It means saying No to an ‘urgent’ meeting in order to fully explore a problem and think it through.
It means letting the e-mails pile up until you’ve finished the critical first draft of a design.
It means staying late and revising something everyone else thinks is ‘good enough already’.
It means redesigning your business and your offering so that you are operating in a space where effectively you have no competitors.
It means meeting the difficult, uncomfortable challenges head-on, and using all your ingenuity and determination to succeed.
It’s second nature to someone like Marla.
Rest assured, it’s also about fulfilling your professional obligations and being someone your clients and colleagues can rely on. But you can only really do this well by devoting most of your time and energy to your biggest creative challenges, day after day after day.
To leave no room for doubt, we’ve wrapped it up in this little formula:
Creativity + productivity = success
Success can be about fame, money, status or other forms of external reward and recognition. It can also be about the fulfilment you get from using your talents to create something remarkable.
Ultimately, your success and satisfaction come down to how much Lateral Action you are taking. Today.
Over to You
Have you ever struggled to find time for a creative project that was close to your heart (but maybe of no interest to people around you)?
How did you manage it?
What was the payoff that made it worthwhile?
What difference does it make to your quality of life when you spend even a few minutes every day on creative work you care about?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.