Reflections on Productivity and Creativity

by Alexandra Green

Our lives are progressively becoming more “frictionless.” We don’t have to grind our own coffee, we can push a button and have it ground for us. We don’t have to walk down the street, we can hop on an electric scooter and ride it to our destination. We don’t have to write out a tedious email, we can input the points into generative AI and have it write it for us. Technology allows us to live convenient and efficient lives, but how are these conveniences shaping our character and values? A common reply that I hear to the use (potential abuse) of technology is that with the help of technology we are becoming more productive and that this increased productivity frees up time for us to spend time being more creative; but I would argue that we are being subdued by the conveniences we create.

Art Markman author and VP at the University of Texas at Austin wrote in the Harvard Business Review that creativity comes from a lack of, or less productivity:

Productive people move through the tasks they have to accomplish in a systematic way. They make steady and measurable progress toward their goals. They make effective and efficient use of their time. Creativity... doesn’t. Creativity needs time and space to grow. Although we can systematically engage in activities that are related to creativity, it is hard to systematize creativity itself. In particular, creativity is fundamentally about knowledge.

Creativity is not fueled by convenience; by accomplishing tasks and having more productive time. It is fueled by failure and learning from that failure, rambling until you come to a clear thought, and the careful observation of something that has been seen multiple times. In other words creativity is developed over a period of seemingly uselessly spent time. But it is this process that helps a person “build a knowledge base and explore it.”

Creativity is something that has to be nurtured, even for people who are naturally creative. Creativity is nurtured through the engagement of the senses. Once a person has a material to work with they explore it by seeing it, smelling, feeling it, even tasting it in new ways. This level of engagement takes time, in fact it takes all a person’s life. One of my favorite things about being an artist is how other artists refer to my work. They call my work “my practice.” Thinking about the things I create as a practice gives me space to continue to explore. It helps me stay focused on communication rather than completion; on learning about what I am trying to say through my work, instead of being driven by what I am trying to do.

I’ve also heard that you cannot judge an artist without knowing their entire body of work. This statement is true because as an artist grows so does their content. To judge a writer in their 40’s on a piece they wrote in their 20’s isn’t giving them space to be human. To be human is to be inchoate. Our humanity is defined by what we have yet to become, so we need to give ourselves the space to change. If we rush this process of exploring knowledge we forgo the opportunity to foster creativity; because creativity isn’t linked to optimization, but having the patience to look at something long enough until it becomes new.

The poet Ezra Pound said that it is the job of an artist to “make it new.” There is nothing new under the sun, yet we are constantly wowed by new technology and new art because someone took the time to do just that: make it new. This act of “making it new” sounds like God’s work of redemption. God didn’t do what was most convenient or even what was most efficient for the creation of the new heaven and new earth, but the process he took restored our hearts so that we can be in relationship with him, not just giving us access to a redeemed world, but a redeemed relationship where we really get to know God. In the garden Adam and Eve were chasing wisdom, which if the heart is aligned properly is a noble pursuit, but their hearts were not pure and it clouded their judgment. The snake appealed to their impure hearts and coerced them into believing that a fruit could give them access to what God is. God doesn’t just have wisdom, he is wisdom. In their disobedience Adam and Eve forwent their only access to wisdom by disconnecting themselves from their relationship with God, who is wisdom, and in doing this they also forwent their opportunity to experience God. But God in his mercy ultimately gave humanity what they were chasing from the start of creation by restoring what was broken in the garden through the sacrifice of Jesus. By sending his Son humanity’s relationship with God was restored giving all of humanity access to true wisdom, but also true truth and true relationship. In this restored relationship we are equipped to help in the creation of the new heaven and new earth.

In the Christian community a phrase that is thrown around is “kingdom building.” If we are being honest, how many of us actually see the choices we make on a daily basis as a contribution to God’s heavenly kingdom? Are the choices we make convenience-minded or kingdom-minded?

To be kingdom-minded is to act out of the fruit of the Spirit. Whenever we do so, we are creating spaces where God’s presence can be experienced on earth. Productivity is not a fruit of the Spirit; creating, though, is a mandate. The pursuit to be more productive—although it is helpful in accomplishing tasks—shouldn’t be how we are measuring time well spent. God is much more interested in how our daily tasks are shaping our character; so a good barometer of time well spent is actually the quality behind our creations, and not how much we got done. The creations we make are spaces that should be used for us—and others to experience God.

One of the ways “knowing” is used in the Bible is through experience—knowing is not just about head knowledge. To know God truly is to experience him, and if you ever hear Jesus say the terrifying words he says in Matthew 7:23, it is because he didn’t experience you.

This is time well spent: learning new ways to experience God; to acknowledge his presence. This isn’t permission to quit your job and backpack across the world—you can, but outward changes don’t bring about inward transformation— forgoing work or dismissing technology isn’t the solution, being intentionally aware is. Our attention should not turn toward being less productive; neither should it turn to creating more. What we should direct our attention toward is creating things well; creating things that reflect God’s character. Ask yourself, “how is the use of the thing I’m creating shaping my character and values?” It is important to constantly check how the things we create, and conveniently rely on are shaping our hearts. We should ask God to soften the areas of our heart that are being hardened against the experience of his presence.

1 Think of creations in a broad sense. We don’t just create tangible things, we also create experiences.