When Productivity Apps Kill Creativity

As a writer of non fiction (lectures, articles, my PhD thesis on occasion) I generally consider writing to be a matter of productivity rather than creativity. That’s not to say that I don’t see my work as creative, but when a lecture has to be written by first thing tomorrow, or a chapter of my thesis is due to my supervisor, then the mindset that I often find myself entering is one of needing to be productive rather than creative.

And like many writers and doers of tasks, I’ve become aware of the vast array of productivity apps available to help me focus on the task at hand. I discovered my favourite app in April 2020 – a couple of weeks into lockdown I wasn’t achieving what I felt I should be. I had essays to mark and after what felt like a year long semester I could finally put my teaching aside for a few months and focus on my PhD. But it wasn’t happening. Procrastination was setting in and days were going by where I wasn’t achieving anything. The marking deadline was looming, and my PhD deadline, well, as the Pet Shop Boys would say, it’s just Always on My Mind. And it was then that a fellow PhD student said ‘try Forest’… And my love affair with the Forest app was born.

For the next few months I used it religiously, planting trees at the start of each task. Keeping focused on writing or reading or whatever I was doing and avoiding my phone, lest I should kill a fragile sapling. And it definitely worked for me. In August, right on schedule (ok, 3 days late, but who’s counting) I handed in a draft thesis chapter which I’m pretty sure just wouldn’t have got written without my shrubby buddies.

My 2020

However, around this time I was also starting to notice a downside of my Forest app. A growing dependency on logging every little thing I did. When I started using it I was setting a timer and focusing on what I needed to do. After a couple of days I started using the tags function, so I could see at the end of the day whether the time I’d spent had been spent on marking or writing (useful information to know when you’re trying to strike up a balance between work and study, or whatever). But I was frustrated that some days my focused hours were down, and I knew this was because I’d spent time doing learning activities with the kids, exercising, housework, or I’d cooked a particularly time consuming meal. Sometimes there are just things that have to be done, even when your kids are quite self sufficient – watching magic tricks, opening bottles, refereeing arguments, clearing up spillages… So I started adding other tags, like housework or family time, and planting trees for those things too. And this was really helpful not to beat myself up on days when I thought I’d been less productive – to see that actually I’d spent several hours cooking, cleaning, and doing general parenty things.

A typical week in August 2020

Before long I was logging pretty much everything I did, but I was starting to feel restricted. Like I couldn’t sit down and just write something spontaneously because I had to decide to plant a tree and how long I was going to spend on it before I started. I didn’t want to do something ‘productive’ if I hadn’t recorded it properly, and if I did plant a tree and get into my writing, then the timer telling me that my 30 minutes was up sometimes shook me out of my concentration and stalled my momentum. Or more likely, I’d get 5 minutes in and realise I wanted to write something else instead, but because I was trying to be productive, I’d stay unproductively ‘focused’ on the task I’d intended to do for the time I’d intended to do it, and not do the more creative thing I’d thought about doing.

Basically, in trying to focus on being productive, I’d sucked the spontaneity out of my life. And I wasn’t giving myself the time or space to be creative.

The way I work is sometimes chaotic and doesn’t lend itself to time focusing apps. And I don’t necessarily see that as a weakness. Not always, anyway. Sometimes I’ll be writing a lecture and I get an idea for a blog post, so I make some notes or write a paragraph on it, then I go back to the lecture slides. Or I start writing, then doodle for a bit, have a daydream, or have a quick look at a book and end up reading a whole chapter. A couple of weeks ago I was reading a magazine article about found poems and felt inspired to create my own which I then turned into a blog post. I didn’t really intend to spend an hour on it at that particular moment, and if I’d stopped to think about it and to plant a tree I’d have probably decided that I didn’t have an hour to spare, and the moment would have passed and that blog post would never have been.

So what’s the point of this directionless waffle? It may be that I’ve just realised I’m a monumentally unfocused person that even an app can’t cure. Focused blocks of time definitely have their place and when I’m up against a deadline (like my upcoming PhD submission), the assistance of a productivity app like Forest will be exactly what I need. I still use it for certain tasks that I really have to force myself to do (marking, mainly). But I chose not to use it when I sat down to write this – mainly because I wrote this by accident when I was intending to write an article about gambling, and I had a nap in the middle too (my next blog post should probably be about ‘productive procrastination’). I’m not sure if I’d have written it quicker if I’d been more focused, but either way it’s done now.

And that’s the thing. In order to nurture my creativity, I need to put the focusing apps to one side and enjoy being spontaneously unfocused instead.

Finding time and space to write can be challenging, but finding time and space to *think* about what you’re going to write is the far greater challenge.
Thinking Time is my regular(ish) letter about productivity, positivity, and (ugh) procrastination, and is dedicated to writers and students who want to get more (thoughtful) writing done.

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