Foolish Productivity: The Hobgoblin of Creative Minds

You’re an expert at getting things done. Your inbox is empty, your desk is clear. You turn around incoming demands promptly.

Your projects are marching steadily towards completion. Your files are backed up, your filing cabinet a thing of orderly beauty. Your workflow system is a well-oiled, efficient machine.

The trouble is, you’re not getting much done that has an impact. Not much that grabs the attention of the people who matter. Not much that gets them talking. Not much that you’ll point to with pride in a few years’ time.

If you’re not careful you could end up like a certain person we know.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. I’d like to put forth for your consideration that foolish productivity is the hobgoblin of creative minds.

Sure… there’s a lot to be gained from time management and personal productivity systems. Having written an e-book on the subject, I’m sold on the idea. But I know from personal experience that such systems can become a distraction from your real work.

In the middle of fine-tuning your e-mail system and to-do lists, you can lose sight of the difficult and challenging creative work that only you can do. At one extreme, you can spend more time on your workflow system than on the work itself, the digital equivalent of shuffling paperclips. But even when you’re busy working, you can get caught in the ‘efficiency trap’ – what I call Personal Taylorism.

To see what I mean, let’s take a detour through early twentieth century heavy industry.

Frederick Winslow Taylor was ‘the father of scientific management’ – a system for managing human work by developing standard methods for performing each task on the production line. Procedures were designed for maximum efficiency and workers were trained to stick to them, rigidly. Hierarchy and authority were used to maintain control.

Richard Florida sums it up succinctly in The Rise of the Creative Class:

Under Taylorism, a manager could not only tell a worker to stoke a furnace, or install a bolt, or type a business letter, but could arrange the task and show the worker exactly how to do it for maximum efficiency.

In the early twentieth century, Taylorism was widely adopted and became one of the key mechanisms of mass production. (Lou thinks of this as ‘the golden age’). These days, in developed Western economies, Taylorism is a historical curiosity, usually cited as an example of What Not To Do when managing human beings. No one seriously advocates using it any more.


Because efficiency is no longer the name of the game.

As we saw in Innovate or die, China and other nations are out-competing Western economies on productivity, by churning out goods at prices impossible to match within the US or Europe. Western companies can no longer compete on efficiency – so they need to do something else.

This is one of the primary drivers of the creative economy, in which innovation is now the key source of competitive advantage. And Taylorism has a poor record on creativity.

Richard Florida links Taylor’s ideas with those of Henry Ford in what he calls ‘the organizational model’:

Despite the initial creative efficiencies of this new system, the eventual creative limits of the organizational age are obvious to anyone who lived through this time. Large organizations were beset by the conflict between creativity and control. The bureaucratic values of the period often functioned to snuff out creativity on the factory floor, smother it or ignore it in the R&D lab and discourage entrepreneurship…

So what does all of this have to do with you?

On a personal level, you face the same problem as modern businesses. Efficiency and productivity have become necessary-but-not-sufficient conditions of success. If they are the basis of your approach to work, then your options – and rewards – are going to be severely limited. If you want to succeed in the 21st century marketplace, you’re going to have to do something very different.

Outsourcing to India and China started with industrial manufacturing, but it has now spread to secretarial, administrative, accounting and legal work – even ‘creative’ jobs such as graphic design and programming. Why should I pay you top dollar for a website when I can get something that looks perfectly good (to me) for a fraction of the price overseas?

You might recall the story of AJ Jacobs, the editor of Esquire magazine, on his first experience of outsourcing to an Indian personal assistant as told in The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss:

Honey has completed her first project for me: research on the person Esquire has chosen as the Sexiest Woman Alive… When I open Honey’s file, I have this reaction: America is fucked. There are charts. There are section headers. There is a well-organized breakdown of her pets, measurements, and favorite foods (e.g. swordfish). If all Bangalorians are like Honey, I pity Americans about to graduate college. They’re up against a hungry, polite, Excel-proficient Indian army.

Organization, professionalism, efficiency, productivity and initiative – these are becoming ubiquitous, and depending on where you live, there’s a fair chance someone, somewhere, can provide them cheaper than you can.

So if your approach to work is based on ‘personal productivity’, you risk falling into the trap of Personal Taylorism. You’re becoming more efficient at the risk of losing your creative spark and your competitive edge, and you’ve already lost the efficiency game, anyway.

At which point, that ‘empty inbox feeling’ can start to feel a little… empty.

Right, Lou?

Over to You

Have you ever found yourself being busy and ‘productive’ at the expense of  being creative and effective?

If you got out of this cycle and back to your creative best, how did you manage it?

How do you stop your personal productivity system becoming an end in itself?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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Guests include Steven Pressfield, Scott Belsky, Jocenlyn K. Glei, Joanna Penn and Michael Bungay Stanier.

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Sites That Link to this Post

  1. links for 2008-10-16 - bplusd | October 17, 2008
  2. Impegno per impegno | September 7, 2010
  3. Huge Wasp | Bees and Wasps | October 15, 2011


  1. This is a battle that I continue to fight.

    Thank goodness for Dan! He’s so creative that he compliments my extreme organization. Just to give you an idea, my last corporate job was as an IT Process and Methodology consultant. While just the title puts most people to sleep, I really love process – especially technology and business process.

    So when Dan and I attack a problem, it’s a push pull battle – he likes to feels the numbers and like to see charts and graphs. Anyway, back on topic.

    How do I overcome these tendencies? The 80/20 rule from “The 4 Hour Work Week”. I apply the 80/20 rule everything, including my processes…

    Dan and I have tried many different time management routines. Simpleology was the only one that worked for both of us, but we still had the problem of Dan putting 150 new ideas into his dream catcher every day and we would end up spending 1-2 hours going over his list.

    We have still kept most of those ideas, but I’m working with what’s called my “Critical 6” from James Arthur Ray’s “Harmonic Wealth”. One of my goals in life is balance – that’s why I left my day job – to actually spend time with my kids (and now have the added benefit of being able to work from anywhere!). You’ll have to read the book to know what I’m talking about…

    As you can tell my my post, I’m a voracious reader and my suggestion to anyone who finds themself doing a lot but not producing a lot of results – READ. READ. READ. Try the different ideas that are presented and keep the ones that feel right to you – and know that it’s OK to use different systems at different points in your life.

    Most importantly apply the 80/20 rule to everything you do and check yourself often…

  2. This is very true Mark. When I worked for a mid-sized company a year ago I found myself staying busy and being super efficient. No one wanted to hear my creative ideas because they were stuck in the here and now and couldn’t envision how things could be. I was very fortunate that they laid me off due to slowing business.

    I went to work on my own as an illustrator and I am loving it. The one thing I didn’t expect was the amount of time to ramp up my creativity after leaving that job. Even though I had been do illustration on the side, it was being smothered by the full time job.

    I think the first step in getting to your creative best is awareness that you are not at your creative best and it is time to kick things up and make that a priority.

  3. John Wooden is credited with saying “Never mistake activity with achievement.”

    When you describe cleaning out an email inbox and keeping your desk clean, you’re describing activity, not achievement.

    Fredrick Taylor is frequently attacked by people who probably never worked in steel mills. They are dangerous places to work. Even today people losing fingers, getting hurt by flying pieces of metal, etc. are not uncommon. When Taylor came along, he elevated manual work in steel mills to a field deserving of study and elevated the people working there as people worthy of protection.

    Not only did he greatly improve productivity by identifying the difference between “activity” and “achievement”, he also improved safety.

    Someone joining a large organization may well have a great deal of difficulty figuring out what will achieve productivity and improve the organization and what will simply be activity to fill in the time. Lacking direction, their “creativity” will come up with activities which might lead to achievement, but in all likelihood will not.

    You could probably go into any large organization (large meaning over 500 employees) and fire 30% of the workforce and not effect the companies productivity one bit. Quite likely, productivity would improve. This is pretty well known up and down all organizations. There are reasons companies don’t do this unless they are forced to, but that is a different question.

    Will Lou keep his job? That’s an interesting question. Is Lou in an area of the company that is achieving something which is helping the company succeed? That will have more to do with whether Lou keeps his job than is own creativity. If he is aware, he can probably figure out if he is in a productive area or not, but his creativity will have little to do with.

    Outsourcing to China and India have nothing to do with creativity. They have everything to do with finding the lowest cost labor for low skilled tasks. China’s manufacturing boom started when they devalued the Renminbi. If its value increases too much, look for manufacturing to move to Mexico, Vietnam or back to Thailand. There is something magical about low exchange rates, there is nothing magical about Chinese workers, other than the fact that there are lots of them and they will work at very low relative wages. There are costs to this, as Mattel found with lead paint last Christmas and many are now finding (unfortunately) with Chinese Milk.

    It is not creative tasks that are outsourced and neither China nor India have particularly shown that they have the structures to enable productivity. This is not to say their people are not innovative, just that the community structures in those environments hamper effective innovation.

    You comment about foolish productivity is great and I enjoy your writing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t disagree with aspects of what you write. And while this has been an enjoyable activity, it has not been productive.

    Thanks for fueling mental gymnastics and keep up the good work,


  4. In the past year, I’ve made the switch from doing everything myself to finding competent freelancers and delegating some of my tasks to them. I’ve learned that while they may not do things exactly the way I would have done them, what’s most important is that the task gets completed.

    I’ve used the time gained to explore different marketing strategies, develop new skills, and brainstorm ideas for the future. The result has been less tangible productivity but more creativity. And that’s a good thing.


  5. Right on Susan! In order to grow our business, we know full well we have to “get out of our own way”.

    So we bring in others to help us with everything that “doesn’t require my specific brain or Jennifer’s”.

    For example, we may choose the topics we cover in our videos per what we’re inspired to touch on, and we prep and film those videos, but we don’t do the video editing. It’s not our strength, and we don’t have time to do it. We also have an editor that cleans up the articles we publish, etc. And a VA that takes care of a lot of other things that need addressing.

    You can’t do that with everything and not at first, but over time, budget permitting of course, it tends to be money well spent – or perhaps better said, it tends to be money “well invested”.

    Most people don’t realize and appreciate the value of their own time, and where they should strategically be investing the resource of time.

    Have an awesome day!

  6. Jennifer – sounds like you and Dan have a good balance of creativity and productivity between you. I also find the 80/20 rule very useful for separating the wheat from the chaff.

    Andy – “Never mistake activity with achievement.” Nail on head, excellent quote. I’ve not worked in a sawmill but I have worked on a factory floor operating potentially dangerous machinery – so looking back I can certainly appreciate Taylor’s safety improvements. And as you say he made valuable improvements to productivity. All of which I would class as ‘Sensible Productivity’. My only gripe is with Foolish Productivity, in which systems and processes become an obsession and a distraction from ‘achievement’.

    ‘I enjoy your writing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t disagree with aspects of what you write.’ – That’s cool, we’re a broad church here. 🙂

    Susan, Dan – I couldn’t agree more, I’ve been my own worst enemy at trying to do everything myself. It makes a world of difference when I get some help.

  7. A compliment about not just the content, but presentation: wowza! This blog is refreshingly clean and easy to navigate. I’d say “minimalist”, but the funny cartoons belie that.

    (I came here from Copyblogger.)

  8. First off Mark, great new blog. I love the design, the approach and the thoroughness of each post. It’s the only current blog I take the time and read completely through.

    What’s a guy to do when his creativity feels held hostage when organization goes awry? My creativity comes and goes with the tide, at times, and often I have things that stack up on me in no time. What’s the best balance in that situation?

  9. Excellent post. For me, the most important thing in preventing me from being efficient at the wrong thing, is to understand my major goal. Once I know my major goal, I allow other things to fall by the wayside if there are more important things to do towards my major goal. So my major goal may mean at times that my RSS reader remains unread, my email box remains full etc.. Now these habits shouldn’t become the norm, but when there is a big goal and the timing is right do it.

  10. My biggest problem with Taylorism is its assertion that efficiency is, in itself, good. Which has survived in a lot of the current productivity noise, although I think it’s a notion that, say, David Allen would find absurd.

    I know quite a few professional writers, artists and musician. I don’t know if any of them much follow the “productivity” model. They do, however, all use one word: discipline. Creative work may or may not be efficient. It may or may not be productive. But without discipline and focus, it doesn’t get done.

    Maybe it’s a sign that I’m getting old that I am dismayed at the way systems, process and multitasking have replaced discipline and focus as the dominant model for making something happen.

  11. Maybe it’s a sign that I’m getting old that I am dismayed at the way systems, process and multitasking have replaced discipline and focus as the dominant model for making something happen.

    Sonia, we’re here to fight the good fight against that notion. And there’s a very clear reason why I find you so valuable. 🙂

  12. Jeff – I think Sonia may have answered your question for me:

    one word: discipline

    Establishing the habit of putting your own creative work first is one of the hardest but also the most valuable things you can ever do. It means there’s no decision to make and no chance of excuses – when it’s time to work, it’s time to work. After a while the momentum starts to carry you through the resistance, like a car gathering speed. Rest assured we will have plenty more to say about this.

    Once I know my major goal, I allow other things to fall by the wayside if there are more important things to do towards my major goal.

    That’s it in a nutshell Professor!

  13. Wonderful post. It’s the thesis of many, including Dan Pink, Seth Godin, and Merlin Mann. It cannot be stated enough. Creativity trumps efficiency in the new, global economy.

  14. Yes – Somewhere down the line the concept of value-addition got mixed up with value-accumulation….and hence creativity got diminished…

    Open minds have become rarer… Thanks to the ‘University Teaching and their ‘water tight Departments’ interdisciplinery forums have all disappeared… and hence again knowledge dissimination in the general sense had almost disappeared from public discourse … Things though are changing as of this 2008…

    Thanks mostly to the Internet…

    social anthropologist
    Bangalore – India

  15. This was just the ticket.

    As a programmer/engineer/allaroundgetherdone type of person, I need to spend more time surfing.

    Because no matter how hard I seem to work and how much I do, when I finish, invariably, someone else has done it faster/better/cheaper.

  16. for some us, self defeat is our worst enemy when it comes to being creative especially in peculiar climes like Naija- for Nigeria – where creativity is smothered before you spell cre…….
    Your post is challenging all of that.Pls keep it up

  17. Excellent points that are quite heartening, as I’m currently learning to live a never-enough-time life. Strategizing what I can do without or what others can do will ultimately make my firm highly successful.

  18. This is a great article one of the methods I use for stay creative is taking a day off during the week and doing nothing. That one day a week really relaxes me and gets my creative juices charged.