Creativity Vs Productivity—Yin and Yang

Canada Goose needle felting kit from our wool. Photo by Laura Berlage.

As the nights lengthen and the temperatures drop, I grow excited for the high season of fiber arts projects. Not only have I started several new pieces, but I’m also knee deep in designing and creating new kits and classes—all of which utilize the beautiful wool from our sheep.

This process spurred thoughts on the essential nature of the creative process and the relationship of balance for artists when considering creativity and productivity. Sometimes, it seems we confuse these very different concepts, so let’s examine what each mode is and is not and how, as artists and creative persons, we need both.

Creativity is not a thing—it is a flow.

You know that you’ve stepped into that flow when all experience of everyday measures of time evaporates. Hours rush by, and you’re not even exhausted. In fact, you’re exhilarated! Creativity is boundless and endless, infused with divergent thought. Ideas are everywhere—even really outlandish and crazy ones that are probably never going anywhere, but that’s ok. This mode is exuberant and joyful and full of discoveries and puzzle pieces.

Yet, creativity is shy. You have to build a relationship with it. You have to show up for this invisible wild horse without any ropes or bridles and show that you are trustworthy. When you ride the wild horse of creativity and imagination, the thrill makes you want to never get off, but at length you must. Creativity also needs times of rest, of contemplation, or letting ideas simmer in the back of your mind without forcing them. The horse must graze too, and you must sleep and let the dreams work their magic.

Productivity, on the other hand, is quite concrete.

We are all familiar with the world of productivity, which has dominated our Western culture since the Industrial Revolution. It’s deadlines and quotas and releasing the next product or filling the next order. It is measurable, tangible, and marketable. It lives and breathes the schedule of the weeks and months, the days’ emails and to-do lists. It is deductive thought—paring down from many possibilities to find the “right” answer.
Many artists bemoan productivity mode, wishing they could instead be with their creative wild horses all day, but I want to focus on why we need both and how they interact with each other.

It is helpful to visualize this relationship as a yin yang. This ancient Chinese circle shows yin (female energy) in relation to yang (male energy). One is white and the other black—opposites to one another. Both are the same size. All yin, and life is out of balance, as it would also be with just yang. All creativity with no productivity and there’s lots of ideas, but nothing gets done. All productivity with little or no creativity, and the work becomes dull and lifeless, chasing only what sells.

If, instead, we focus on the balance of the two, we can lift both our creative practice and our effectiveness of that practice.

For example, creative mode tends to come in waves. These waves are not always at moments when it is feasible to chase after them! Write/draw/jot them down. I mean it! I always carry a notebook with me everywhere, and it’s full of sketches, notes, design concepts, etc. It’s horrible when a flash of a wonderful idea comes that you can’t later recall. These notebooks are goldmines later when I have the time to revisit them.

But a flurry of a thousand ideas is not useful in itself—it must be honed and winnowed. This is where turning on productivity mode helps. For instance, which of these ideas is actually feasible? All concepts have pros and cons, and this is the work of productivity mode, which also has a strong sense for what might have the best results with audience (e.g., market appeal, gift-ability, etc.). I switch from creative mode to productive mode and back again all the time when designing projects for classes.

Another example of the interrelationship between creative and productive modes is during what we call “the creative process.” For me, creativity infuses the initial rush of the project—concept sketches, design, color choices, etc. Later, I hit a snag, and the project sits for a while as I percolate the solution. Quite easily, creative mode can be wooed by the next new idea and bounds off, leaving the previous piece behind.

This is where I need to switch to productivity mode, which is the “get ‘er done” powerhouse. It thrives on deadlines (real ones!), goals, and breaking a complex process into manageable, measurable steps. Harness this, and you’ll find out in the end that the wild horses of creativity adore the euphoria of the full fruition of an idea and visit more frequently and regularly than they did amidst a mess of orphaned concepts.

Neither of these modes, however, are purely their own. Notice that the swirl of yin has a spot of yang in it, and the swirl of yang also contains a spot of yin. This is critical. Creativity without a spot of productivity won’t yield results that are fully actualized or even workable. Productivity without a spot of creativity is dull and lifeless—“the grind.” Cultivating balance and agility at toggling between modes becomes the great dance. As with all things, practice makes it easier.

How might cultivating the yin and yang of creativity and productivity in your practice shake things up and bring your work to a new level? Pay attention to what mode you are in when, consciously shift when necessary, and see what happens. See you down on the farm sometime.