Is Our “Busyness” Sabotaging Our Creativity?

About 14 months ago I started writing a book. It’s done now, save for final production and page layout. It’s business non-fiction and focuses on how lawyers can build profitable legal practices through creative differentiation. My publisher began taking pre-orders for it this morning. Fingers crossed.

The process was quite a whirlwind. Starting the book was hard – getting that first word on the page was a mighty struggle – and finishing it was a killer. Moving our home and business at the same time didn’t help matters. But it’s done, I’m proud of the final product and I’m about 10,000 words into my next manuscript.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the writing process lately. And more broadly, I’ve been thinking about the creative process.

Many think of creativity as a rare skill possessed by artists or those who come up with big, breakthrough ideas – visionaries such as Steve Jobs, for example. But it’s more than that. We’re all capable of creativity.

The question is: Have we structured our lives in ways that inhibit our ability to express ourselves creatively?

Different Types of Creativity

Creativity scholars distinguish between “Big C” creativity and “Small c” creativity. “Big C” creativity is the breakthrough kind of thinking that most people associate with “creative thinkers” such as Jobs and Thomas Edison, but it’s rare.

“Small c” creativity, on the other hand, describes the seemingly small ideas that can make a big difference in our lives, like a new organization system at home or project management system at work. A single “Small c” idea won’t bring fame or fortune, but lots of them will, over time, lead to significant advances and daily improvements.

Creativity, therefore, is not about talent or some flash of inspiration. It’s about showing up and doing the work. That’s how a book gets written or a painting gets painted – doing the work.

The Modern World inhibits Creativity

The problem is that our lives have gotten so busy that there is little space to express creativity, even of the “Small c” variety. Between work, family, kids’ activities five days a week and social obligations, we run ourselves so ragged that whatever time is left is spent watching TV, surfing online, and keeping up with social media.

Digital devices don’t help. Instead of thinking through an issue we jump on Google for the quick answer. Rather than experiencing a moment and making memories, we spend time snapping photos and taking video. Traditional writing has been reduced to acronyms, abbreviations, and 140 character sound bites. Feelings are expressed through emojis.

I’m not passing judgment here. In many ways advancements in technology have helped to simplify and streamline my life. For example, cloud based technology allows us to operate our business virtually, and apps permit me to work only with an iPad, thus increasing my flexibility and reducing hardware expenses. The problem is that in most instances I’ve just filled in gaps achieved through technological efficiencies with more tasks, obligations and responsibilities. I pack more in, and raise my expectations – and those of others – about what I’m capable of.

I don’t think I’m unique. I think this challenge is ubiquitous. Technology, meant to simplify our lives, is leading to more “busyness” and pushing us to our productive limits.

There’s a cost to “busyness” beyond the personal toll it takes. It also inhibits the creative greatness we are capable of. At risk of sounding like an out of touch 40 year old, I don’t think we’re producing art – be it novels, paintings, music or movies – of the same quality that we did prior to the modern technological era. And I think that’s because the fast-paced, mass produced, technologically sophisticated world we live in doesn’t foster the type of environment in which brilliant art creation thrives.

Art takes Time

It took Leonardo da Vinci almost 15 years to paint the “Mona Lisa,” and Michelangelo four years to complete the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Brahm’s “First Symphony” took over 20 years.

More recently, J.R.R. Tolkien spent 12 years writing “Lord of the Rings.” Margaret Mitchell labored 10 years to write “Gone With the Wind.” It took Michael Crichton eight years to research and write “Jurassic Park.” Bruce Springsteen spent six months making lyrical edits to “Born to Run.”

The modern world of multitasking and digital distraction fuels the first stage of the creative process – the idea phase. With so much information available at our fingertips, ideas come fast and furious. But once that initial burst of inspiration fades, and the hard slog must begin to transform an idea to a reality, the same abundance of information makes it easy to abandon one idea for the next.

That’s why it’s important to understand the “Big C” and “Small c” creativity distinction. Michelangelo didn’t complete his Sistine Chapel masterpiece in a caffeine-fueled, 48 hour burst of “Big C” creative genius. He envisioned, planned and meticulously painted (standing up on wooden scaffolding and reaching over his head, not lying down as is popularly believed) over the course of years. His work took a tremendous physical toll.

In a poem written for a friend, he described his “knotted” spine and stomach “squashed under my chin” resulting from the difficult project. Michelangelo, who considered himself a sculptor, finished by stating: “I am not in the right place – I am not a painter.” But he stuck with it, and created one of the world’s greatest works of art in the process. Michelangelo’s initial vision may have been a stroke of “Big C” genius, but his four years of spine knotting work consisted of day after day of “Small c” perserverance.

A Double-Edged Sword

Technology has removed barriers to putting creative work product into the world. No longer do gatekeeping publishers and curators hold the exclusive set of keys. Today anyone can express thoughts through a blog or post a photo on Instagram. And that has led to some tremendous creative breakthroughs.

Andy Weir’s blockbuster novel “The Martian” started off as a series of self-published chapters on his personal blog. He then self-published on Amazon and started selling the book for $0.99. “The Martian” became wildly popular online before being picked up by a traditional publisher, and the rest is science fiction history. Without technology, Weir’s manuscript may still be sitting in his desk drawer next to a pile of publisher rejection letters explaining why a story filled with complex mathematics and science about a guy stuck on Mars would never sell.

But while the creative world may be more democratic today, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. Gatekeeping does serve a useful function. The ease with which technology allows people to put content out in the world all but guarantees that much of it will be uninteresting and unoriginal. Instead of taking the time to create something thoughtful, we create something quick and hit publish. Our rush to create content is often driven by our desire to get back to consuming content. It’s a cycle that perpetuates itself.

Getting Back to Basics

“Busyness” may be inevitable, but it comes at a cost. Some wounds are self-inflicted, such as when we stretch ourselves too thin because we’re trying to get ahead. What we don’t realize is that we’re sabotaging our ability to get ahead by stretching ourselves too thin.

Formulating and executing great ideas takes time. Crafting creative solutions and creating worthwhile art takes time. While modern technological advancements ostensibly make our lives easier, in reality they make our lives busier. And “busyness” is anathema to creativity. It’s only by creating space for creative thinking that creative output will be produced. {tweet that} But creating space is no easy task. For most of us, our digital devices are appended to us 24/7, raising expectations that we are “on” and available at all times. But all trends reverse course, and there are signs that people are looking for another way.

The desire for simplicity and mental space is reflected in the modern minimalism movement. New generations, most prominently the “Millennials,” are moving away from mass produced goods in favor of authentic brands, handcrafted goods and locally grown produce. People are flocking to places like Traverse City, where the pace is slower, and the arts flourish. {tweet that}

So perhaps our tendency to overload ourselves and hinder our creativity will change someday. Perhaps we can help change it, at least for those who come after us. That’s a worthy goal, because we’re not the only ones in a creative rut – our kids are, too.

Children’s test scores on the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking – considered a better indicator of lifetime creative achievements than childhood IQ – have been steadily dropping since 1990. Scores have decreased most significantly among kids in kindergarten through third grade. Experts attribute the decline to too much screen time, too many activities, and too little unstructured free play in which a kid can let his or her creativity and imagination run wild. In other words, kids are less creative today for the exact same reasons we are.

We could all – adults and kids alike – use a break from our devices and from our hectic schedules. Next time you feel the urge to pick up your smartphone, pick up a pencil or notebook instead. Who knows what you’ll create.

Jay Harrington