Operationalizing creativity

I walked into my local bar the other night and took out my laptop. The bartender, a friend of mine, came over a few minutes later and asked, “What life art are you currently working on?”

I explained that I’d set up an Asana workspace for my creative projects – two podcasts, two books, this blog, my ongoing Year of New project, and a social media strategy to support all of the above – and was about to crack it open to figure out what to work on next.

My friend was surprised to learn that I use Asana, a project management platform, for creative endeavors. There’s a common conception of creative projects as hazy, otherworldly, and borne of random inspiration. I think all of this can be true. I also think that if you don’t sit down and take specific steps toward your creative goals in an organized, methodical way, you’ll never accomplish any of them.

This is why my focus for the second half of 2017 was not simply creativity but creative productivity – which is what I call the intersection of my creative inspiration and how I put it into action to reach my creative goals. It’s also what I call the workspace I set up in Asana to plan and track my progress against said goals.

Shifting my focus toward creative ops has not only helped me create more art; it’s also helped me create better art, because systematizing creativity has cleared up space in my head to produce new ideas.

Now that I’ve begun thinking about creative operations as much as creative inspiration, I’m actually starting to execute on the ideas I’ve been carrying around for years — or, in some cases, replacing them with better ideas that make more sense to act on.

As a result, I wanted to share a few approaches that have helped me operationalize my creative process:

Think big – and granularly

It’s easy to conceptualize a major project and a timeline along which you’d like to complete it. It’s even easier to let that entire block of time pass by without even taking the first step toward your goal. To avoid that eventuality, I start by breaking down large projects into mid-sized sub-projects, and then creating lists of tasks for each.

For example, I’d like to write an epistolary essay book. The letters are to musicians (there’s more to it, but that’s the amount I’m comfortable sharing right now). I’d like to write it by the end of 2018. Right away, I identified a few quick, simple tasks to take care of:

  • Determine the number of essays/chapters to include
  • Figure out the shortlist of musicians/bands
  • Narrow down the list (Charles Bradley passed away during this step; that sucked)
  • Create a schedule for writing each chapter, including the order I’d write them in (first, then last, then the rest in numerical order)

From there, I had a table of contents, and a timeline with clear deadlines and milestones. And taking a first step early in the process gave me something else — momentum.

Use a project management tool

I recommend using a project management platform to help you identify, order, and complete tasks on the way to your goal.

As an obsessive to-do-list maker, I use Asana’s list format, but something else may work for you. Trello allows you to set up a project in a card format where you can move different cards (tasks) from one column to the next until they’ve completed a process (Asana offers a similar option, but I haven’t used it). Basecamp is another popular option that I’ve used. I felt generally fine about it, but Asana makes the most sense for how my brain is set up. There are also other options that I haven’t used but which may work better for you. I spent a bunch of time comparing the platforms mentioned above, only to confirm that Asana works best for me.

Creative Productivity Team Asana.png

In particular, I like that I can set up a workspace for all of my projects, color code each through tags, and then view all of my projects in that workspace in the same calendar, as seen above.

The most important thing, though, is figuring out the option that works best for you, and that you’ll use regularly.

Streamline where possible

Anything that doesn’t actually require you to do it manually should be automated. IFTTT – IF This Then That – allows you to set up applets that will automate a lot of tasks you’d otherwise be doing manually.

Discover IFTTT and Applets   IFTTT.png

For example, if you want your Instagram photos to show up as native images in your Twitter feed each time you post to Instagram, there’s an applet for that. If you want your WordPress blog posts to automatically publish to your Facebook page, you can do that, too. IFTTT makes it easier to distribute your content without having to think about it.

Create a daily practice that supports creative thinking

As I mentioned in my Resolutions blog post, my daily practice includes:

  • doing one new thing
  • giving something away
  • sending an email to someone I’d like to connect with
  • coming up with 10 new ideas (I borrowed this one from James Altucher)

These are things I strive to do each day in part because I find that they pay creative dividends. Doing a new thing every day has made my life feel expansive. Giving something away daily makes me feel like I’m contributing to the world outside myself, which in turn improves my overall outlook, which translates to being more optimistic and present in my interactions with others, which opens doors.

Sending a daily email transforms email back into a means of connecting with people instead of  It also helps me detach from outcomes. If I send seven emails in a week, I don’t notice as much when half of them fail to garner replies. I first discovered this during my job search earlier in the year, when my dream company ghosted me mid-process and I didn’t notice for two weeks.

Thinking of 10 ideas per day is an iterative process that leads to better and better results the more I do it.

This might look different for you. Maybe your practice involves waking up early to meditate or the morning pages from The Artist’s Way.

Get serious about time management

As Laura Vanderkam points out in her book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, um, well, just reread the title. There are 168 hours in a week, and you’re probably spending at least some of them in a way that could be improved upon. Start by tracking where your time is going, then recoil in horror, then do a time makeover to unlock some hours that you can put toward fulfilling creative work. (You can download spreadsheets from Vanderkam’s website to track and reconfigure how you’re spending your time.)

Once you’ve sorted out where your hours are going, and where you’d like them to go, it’s critical to protect the time you’ve set aside to work on creative projects. If you’ve blocked out three hours to sit at your laptop and write, honor that. Treat this time as if you’re equally as busy as you would be were the three hours on your calendar dinner plans with a friend or a play you’d already bought tickets to.

That’s what creative productivity looks like for me. How do you ensure that your creative work gets done?

3 thoughts on “Operationalizing creativity”

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