Creativity vs. Productivity: Are You Cheering for the Wrong Camp?

“Are you the creative type or the productive type?” he asked me (Julia here) with a smirk that suggested he thought himself pretty hot.

My blood boiled over and I wanted to slap him across the face.

Pausing to analyze this visceral reaction that left me baffled, (and you should always pause to analyze before slapping potential employers across their anything), I realized it wasn’t his smirk that irritated me; he was pretty damn hot, after all.

It was his question.

Creativity and productivity have nowadays turned into two opposing camps

Us Vs. Them.
The Creatives Vs. The Productives.
The Dreamers Vs. The Hustlers.

The dichotomy implies that Creatives are the divas at work, the “idea people” that don’t get much done besides doodling (and possibly gossiping). But they get a free ride on the basis of the brilliant ideas that strike their lazy asses every once in a while, causing everyone to groan because divas are a bitch to work with.

The Productives by contrast are the busy bees and buzzword-y (but hardly buzzworthy) entrepreneurial types who get up early and stay up late burning both sides of the candle. Until one day, the flame reaches right up their ass and they burst up in flames exhausted and disheveled.

Which would you choose to be?
Because to be honest…
Neither of those sounds like a camp I’d like to join.
(Unless there’s bacon. I’ll go where there’s bacon.)

Yet, the question isn’t a rhetorical conundrum.

It’s a vital question that affects how we all do our work and how we perceive ourselves.

Pro•duc•tive: producing or able to produce large amounts of goods, crops, or other commodities.

According to the dictionary, being productive means that you produce a lot. Great. But you produce commodities. Terrible. Commodities are cheap. Stuff that anyone can produce. A factory worker punching 500 holes per minute on whatever material runs on the conveyor belt before her is productive. But her work is a commodity. And so is she in the eyes of her employer.

Cre•a•tive: relating to or involving the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.

Being creative, the dictionary says, means using your imagination to produce something original, something that not anyone can do. Great. But with the implication perhaps that you don’t produce much. Not so great. You may be special, but at what cost?

David Ogilvy—the granddaddy of modern-day advertising and one of the original “mad men”—once wrote about creativity:

‘Creativity’ strikes me as a highfalutin word for the work I have to do between now and Tuesday.

Today, when everybody wants—and wants YOU—to be productive (with approximately 876,458 articles written just this last week on how to increase productivity), I’d flip the quote and say:

‘Productivity’ strikes me as a proletarian word for the work I have to do between now and Tuesday.

The question of Creativity vs. Productivity only sets people up for failure.

If you’re productive without an ounce of creativity in your thinking and process, then you’re just a replaceable cog in the corporate machine. You repeat the same task ad infinitum and ad nauseum hoping that time will run out before your stamina does. And you keep producing commodity after commodity after commodity. (Or crap, after crap, after crap.)

If you’re creative without being productive you spend a lot of time contemplating the ceiling, doodling nonsense, and ruminating thoughts without actually producing anything. Zero execution. Your would-be creations only live in the fantasyland of your third eye (where everyone recognizes your unproductive talent and brings you cupcakes as a tribute every day).

But the people who find success in life? Are the ones who break the rules and camp out in the middle.

Those who are Creative and Productive.
Those who can Dream and Hustle.
Those who Imagine the outcome and Do the work (between now and Tuesday).

Good work requires both creativity and productivity. You need to both allow room for your imagination to run wild and have the discipline to produce an outcome.

And here’s how you do it:

  • Build your schedule around your creative moments. Are you a 5 am writer? Get up early and write. 10 pm doodler? Make sure you clear your nightly schedule for doodling.
  • Stick to the schedule. Don’t wait for the muse to strike. We all know she’s capricious. You get to work producing, and she will eventually come in creating.
  • Be a little weird. Don’t do things that are only related to your work and don’t do your work only in the expected ways. Go outside, find crazy hobbies, eat Cheetos with milk (or DON’T; that’s disgusting), mix some chocolate with caviar, create a picture using cat hair. Do something different. Get a little weird. And then keep going. No one was ever known for “average.” Even if he produced A LOT of average. Break the mold.
  • Stick to your starting time and your cut-off time. Don’t procrastinate. Start working. And when the buzzer goes off, close shop for the day. Productivity is enhanced by sleep, and creativity by divergent thinking that happens on the back-burner of the unconscious. Case closed. Stop working before you fall asleep.
  • Produce crap. A lot of crap. And don’t feel bad about it. Once you get tired of producing the same thing over and over and over again, your mind will take a creative leap and create something new. It’s inevitable. Cherish your a-ha! moment and then go back to producing (crap or not).

Don’t accept the divide. Build a bridge. (Unless your unicorn can fly.)

That’s what I did when I looked at my smirky guy in the eye (having decided not to slap him) and answered his repeated question:

“So, do you consider yourself creative or productive?”

With a big, fat, resounding:


that wiped the smirk off his face faster and better than any slap of mine ever could.
(Needless to say, I refused the job.)

And if you ever feel caught between your creative outbursts and your productive hustle, just remember:

Those who are creative and productive are those who WIN.

How do you play the game?