Do GTD and Creativity Clash?

From C.J. Chilvers:

I’ve been posting a lot lately about productivity, or un-productivity really, and wondering why I’m dissatisfied with apps like Omnifocus and Things for task management.

I don’t believe I’m alone. I believe it has to do with the difference between analytical thinkers and creative thinkers. […]

I don’t know how it works for analytical minds, but for my writer’s mind, GTD has become a crutch, not a productivity tool.

I now believe, for creatives, the easier a system is, the more will get done.

Damn, I love the way C.J. Chilvers thinks. I could barely decide what to quote here, so please do yourself a favor and read his entire post. Especially if you are a creative person struggling to make GTD mesh with your process. I do, however, want to offer some counterpoint.

While I walked away from his post considering some of the fundamental differences between creative and analytical minds, there was a question that kept popping into my head. Does the analytical nature of GTD impact creativity? The answer: only if you let it. Those who obsessively tweak their system aren’t GTD fanatics, they’re distracted people doing distracted things. If I spent my day fiddling with my tools, I wouldn’t ever manage to get anything done. This has nothing to do with distinction between a creative or analytical mind. GTD at its core is not about finding a trusted system, it’s about having and using one to do your work.

I tend to approach my work from a more analytical standpoint, but I do see where C.J. is coming from. While structure occasionally helps my writing, I find I do my best work with a certain level of freedom. The writing on this site rarely comes from anything related to GTD or OmniFocus. I know how many posts I want to create a week and no one or no thing has to remind me to write them. However the structure that GTD offers has provided me with the focus I’ve so desperately needed to clear my head and write. Even in the face of the endless distractions from all aspects of my life that have often derailed me in the past.

At first, the thought of projects, perspectives, contexts, open loops, weekly reviews, monthly review, annual reviews and reviews of my reviews (that one’s a joke) scared me away from GTD. I’ve had to mesh the “rigidity” of GTD with the chaos of my ADHD (another post for another day), but over time I’ve found a balance that pushes my work forward. It wasn’t until I read the book and then started taking one concept at a time and evaluating it against the way I naturally like to work, that my system began to fall into place.

Knowing I have my system to fall back on gives me the confidence to focus in on what I’m creating. And I’m a big believer that finding a system, no matter what that system might be for yourself is essential. Where C.J. “picked up a cheap legal pad at the office supply store and began copying my tasks by hand with a cheap pen,” I wanted a technological solution to work around my contemptuous relationship with paper. Sure there are simple tools such as Task Paper that mimic the basic functionality of paper and only add the bare minimum features, but this didn’t lend itself to many of the tasks that are required of me.

In choosing OmniFocus, it wasn’t about the price I paid or its popularity. It was about the ease with which I can create tasks from a variety of media. It was about the long-term gain in the time it takes to process my tasks that proved to be well worth the short-term learning curve, which can be steep. It was about the flexibility of the application to be as present or as passive as I want depending on what it is I am trying to accomplish. If I were using a legal pad, it would be staring me in the face and pulling me away from my work. This doesn’t make C.J. or my way any better, we just both have our own versions of “enough” and have found different tactics to be effective.

Toward the end of his post, C.J. mentioned that, “I’ve learned that if I’m thinking about my productivity tools, I don’t have enough enthusiasm for my projects.” While this is a possibility, it’s not the only option. If you’re consistently thinking about the tools its just as likely that you’re either 1) using the wrong tools or 2) misusing the right tools by obsessing over how to use them. I’m also sure this phenomena extends to creative tools as well. It’s just as easy to obsess over the cameras, paintbrushes, paper stock, image editors or any of the other tools that creative minds use to accomplish their work. If you’re over-thinking any aspect of your work, you’re probably not creating all that much.

The mission is to do the thinking about your tools upfront. To find the system that works best for you so that you can use the tools and think about your work. To get to place where you only review the efficiency of these tools periodically rather than fiddling with them constantly.

C.J. is certainly onto something. There’s a difference between the tools that help you do your best analytical and your best creative work. It’s only through discovery that you will find the right set of tools that help you do yours. If you aren’t struggling, keep doing what you’re doing. If you’re still looking for something to help with creative work, I’d consider giving GTD a look from a less dogmatic perspective. I’m only able to speak from my own experience here, but it’s proven to be a big help, even in my creative endeavors. For those who have a hard time keeping your arms wrapped around everything in life, it can be a great framework to, well, get things done.

11 Responses to Do GTD and Creativity Clash?

  1. Great post! I have a tendency to get a little fiddly with my tools at first. I allow for that to happen for a few days… but after about a week, it’s time for me to assess whether the tool is genuinely helpful or if it’s just pretty and shiny. If it is useful, I use it without much more fiddling. If not, I toss it. Either way, it’s time to get back to work on the creative project I’m working on…

    • Fiddling at first (that just sounds wrong) is pretty essential for me. I try to learn how to use the hell out of an app as quickly as possible so I can use the hell out of it. I find walkthrough videos to be exceptionally helpful here, especially ones from pantless guys talking about Scrivener.

  2. I truly don’t think that GTD and creativity clash. At least, they don’t in my world. I think it’s like you said – you have to find a process that works for you. Mine might seem more organic or “creative,” but it’s built upon a framework of getting things done and possibly belied by the fact that I obsess over the details. I know that when I draw, I have to have all my tools available to me – my books, my art supplies, and anything else I think I might need during the time I’ve allotted to drawing. If I’ve set the stage, I’m much more comfortable and can relax and enjoy being creative.

    And, no, I’m not going to tell you if you won.

      • You’re making it really hard for me not to say who won.

        Hmm. That’s a good question. I haven’t actually gone through the official process of learning GTD, but I’m slightly familiar with it due to Rhone’s first book. I didn’t even know the acronym until someone said I should use Evernote since I seemed to be a GTD person. Does that put me in the GTD club?

        I suppose I have my own version of GTD. I know that it doesn’t work well for individual poems, but it’s instrumental when trying to piece together a collection. It helps me to identify gaps and, when needed, to write poems to fill those gaps. I may have to think about my process some…Do you have an example of GTD in practice? I might be able to compare my method if I have a comparison piece.

          • Consider the book added to the reading list that never seems to get smaller…I’ll also have to listen to the podcast.

            You’re probably right about the GTD. I think my process is based on a slightly obsessive-compulsive nature. I also grew up in a household where things got done. If they didn’t, there was, well, there was something to be paid. My mom swears this incident didn’t happen, but I remember being sent to my room until I wrote some paper that was due that very day (My brothers and I were homeschooled for a few years.). After some tears and resentment toward my two brothers who were outside playing, I learned the importance of a well-planned and executed project – all at the age of twelve. Ha!

  3. Hi Mike, thank you for sharing this, and introducing me to CJ, another fan of Mr Bungle!!

    I believe that the “clash” in any Productivity system is always with your mindset, what ever that may be. Perhaps you are a Creative. Perhaps you are an Operator. Some of sit at desks all day, some work on sales floors or in back-room logistics.

    This uniqueness of situation creates an inherent resistance to being able to Get Things Done, simply because we all have some kind of list of things to do that we would rather not. My internal situation is that I’d rather go fishing than work on this press release, for example, but my external situation requires that I write and then send an invoice.

    That is where the clash is.

    • CJ is amazing. Don’t miss out on his Lesser Photographer site and Lesser Photographer Manifesto as well.

      I’m like you, I need GTD to handle all the little things. It doesn’t play a key role in my overall focus, but boy is it essential for not forgetting the little things that are important to others.

      Like I said, I think its a matter of finding where it fits and avoiding where it doesn’t.

  4. Fantastic post Michael. This sentence is my favorite ” Those who obsessively tweak their system aren’t GTD fanatics, they’re distracted people doing distracted things.”

    • Thanks! Vardy and I actually dragged CJ onto Mikes on Mics for a future episode where we dig into this some more. Damn fun arguing with him as he is WAY smarter than I am :)

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