11 Reasons Creativity + Productivity Is About Mind Management, Not Time Management

How to be productive when creativity matters

David Kadavy
Nov 17, 2020 · 5 min read
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Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

Ten years ago, I got my first book deal—with almost no writing experience. I quickly realized nothing I had learned about productivity had prepared me to write a book.

Since then, I’ve dug into the neuroscience and psychology behind creativity, I’ve redesigned my life around creative work, and I’ve even worked on a productivity app that sold to Google.

More than anything, I’ve learned that—when creativity matters—productivity is about mind management, not time management. Here’s why.

1. Time management is squeezing blood from a stone

“There’s only 24 hours in a day,” people say. They think that means you should get as much as you can from each of those hours.

What that actually means is there’s a limit to the time you can save. Time management is squeezing blood from a stone.

2. We’re entering the creative age

According to Kai-Fu Lee, AI and automation are poised to take forty- to fifty- percent of jobs in the next couple decades.

But not all jobs will disappear at the same rate. Jobs that require creativity will be out of reach for AI.

We’re entering the Creative Age.

3. Creative thinking is different from other thinking

We know thanks to the work of neuroscientists John Kounios and Mark Beeman that creative thinking is a unique type of thinking.

Creative thinking is promoted by a positive mood and relaxation.

The creative state is also a fragile state. It’s hard to get into, easy to get out of.

Here’s what the moment of insight looks like in the brain.

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Animation by John Kounios and Mark Beeman (Northwestern/Drexel)

4. You’re most creative when you’re least sharp

We each have our “peak” and “off-peak” times of day.

Counterintuitively, the science shows you’re most creative during your off-peak time of day.

If you’re groggy in the morning, don’t reach for coffee first thing: That grogginess is a creative gift.

5. Creative work happens in stages

A great idea doesn’t mean your idea is ready to ship. There are four stages of creativity:

1. Preparation: Learn about the problem
2. Incubation: Let it sink in
3. Illumination: Have the idea
4. Verification: Get it ready to ship

Respect these stages, don’t get blocked.

6. Not all hours are equal

Some hours are great for having ideas — other hours are great for executing on those ideas.

Dan Ariely and I noticed working on Timeful (Google acquired) there aren’t 24 hours in the day — there’s an hour here or there for each type of thinking.

Here’s what the late, great, Anders Ericsson saw when he looked at the practice schedules of the very best violinists: Intense practice in the morning. Sporadic practice the rest of the day.

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Redrawn (by the author) and adapted from “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” Ericsson et al., 1993.

7. The world works in cycles

You can work with cycles in your world to propel your ideas forward.

Days, weeks, seasons, and years can be harnessed to cycle through the Four Stages of Creativity.

For example, you can use a night’s rest, a relaxing weekend, or a cozy winter as Incubation:

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Illustration by the author.

8. Creative work is best tackled by mental state

If you look closely, you’ll see that creative tasks you expect to power through are actually best tackled with a variety of competing mental states.

I’ve identified seven mental states of creative work, and I organize my week by those states. Like this:

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9. Creative systems ride your mental state

Instead of cramming work into time, work according to stages of creative thinking, and mental state.

I have systems I’ve built to go through the four stages and ride the waves of my mental state.

Here’s how I work on my podcast, throughout the year, the month, the week.

I conduct podcast interviews during two three-month “seasons”:

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Illustration by the author

Each week of the month I spend on a stage of podcast production:

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Illustration by the author

Throughout the week, there are days I don’t work on my podcast (such as Mondays), and days I work on my podcast heavily (such as Thursdays).

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Illustration by the author

The systems I use to produce my podcast, my weekly newsletter, and write books, make special use of incubation.

What used to be an hour-long, grueling task, is now spaced into three 5-minute bursts. Incubation does the work for me.

10. You need to be in the right mental state to do a task

Organize tasks not by project but by mental state.

Who cares what project the task is in? As long as your due dates are correct, it doesn’t matter. What matters is you’re mentally able to do the task.

Here are the tags I use to organize my tasks in my task-management system:

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Illustration by the author

11. A chaotic world presents creative opportunities

In a chaotic world, your systems have to be antifragile.

When you work according to mental state and have the right slack in your systems, chaos doesn’t throw you off-balance.

Instead, chaos presents creative opportunities: Ideas you can store for when you need them.

Getting Art Done

Creative Productivity is About Mind Management, Not Time Management

Thanks to Amardeep Parmar

David Kadavy

Written by

Author, ‘Mind Management, Not Time Management’ https://amzn.to/3p5xpcV Former design & productivity advisor to Timeful (Google acq’d).

Getting Art Done

The public exploration of how creativity gets done. New book, “Mind Management, Not Time Management,” order now at https://kdv.co/mind

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