How Do You Balance Productivity and Creativity?

The gist: Focusing too much on productivity can stifle your creativity, which is what makes your work worth doing in the first place.

“What’s that?” I ask myself as I pore over my time sheets. “I’m making hundreds of dollars an hour doing this, but only a few dollars per hour doing that?”

This is my new hobby—figuring out how much money the different things I do make over time. I use a timer to track and record each of my business tasks so that, every so often, I can look back and see what work is most productive for my bank account.

But just as interesting as peeking at the inner workings of my business is the effect it’s had on other areas of my life.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t been great. The more I increase my hourly wage, the more irritable and stressed I am when I feel like I’m using my time unproductively.

Not just at work; everywhere. Watching a movie with my wife. Wasted time. Taking the dogs out. Wasted time. Driving into town to see friends. Wasted time.

When you’re working to increase your income, there are tradeoffs to make—you don’t get to just snap your fingers and make more money—but what I didn’t realize as I started this experiment is that I was falling into a subconscious trap: putting a dollar value on every hour—even if those hours shouldn’t be compared.

Ever felt like you were in the same trap? The more you earned, the more stressed out you became? It’s supposed to be the opposite! You’re not alone, though. Here are some ideas to solve the problem.

How Big Pay Checks Stress You Out

When people talk about stress related to money, they usually mean they don’t have enough. But, according to a simple but intriguing study, the opposite can also be true.1

The more money you make, the more likely you’ll experience stress and anxiety.

Sounds strange, but it makes sense when you consider how hard your brain works to create patterns (even when they don’t exist). Without careful attention to how you train yourself to look at money and time, your brain struggles to distinguish between hours spent doing different stuff—thinking about work, doing work, or thinking about and doing fun, non-work related things.

Once you’ve focused yourself on your hourly wage, you’ll be focused on it whether you’re toiling at some difficult task or watching a sunset—you measure your return in dollars per hour. Is watching this sunset going to make me $100/hour? No? Back to work!

Where Creativity Comes From

The problem, of course, is that there are things that help you work your best and are very valuable—relationships, downtime, sunset-watching—but can’t be measured with money. They inspire creativity and actually make your work more valuable.

To understand the concept better, just ask yourself, “Will a painter create their best work doing nothing but mastering brush strokes or do they need to spend time thinking about the purpose behind the strokes too?” Or, “Will an accountant do better work by editing spreadsheets all day or do they also need to spend time better understanding their clients?”

In both cases, you get paid for one task, but it’s the other that makes you more creative and allows you do that task better.

Restructure Your Work for More Money and Creativity

I’ve learned for myself that, if I want to make more money, I definitely need to pay attention to where my time is spent. I have to optimize for my most productive tasks.

But I also need to do a few things to make sure my creativity and happiness doesn’t plummet as a result. It’s hard to get this right, but here are two things that are working for me right now:

1. Only track work hours.

To do this, you first have to set some. Easier said than done when you work for yourself.

For me, it’s critically important to set my hours and hold myself to them by not letting work slip into time that should be reserved for other things. The separation also keeps my pattern-seeking brain from trying to squeeze productivity out of time that shouldn’t be optimized for that.

2. Schedule downtime into your day.

Whatever work hours you set for yourself, make sure you take frequent breaks to allow variety in your schedule.

For me, this is a morning exercise session, a quick walk with the dogs, and a break to run errands in the afternoon. This makes sure I take time during the day to think about work and not just do it.

Stepping back and looking at your work as a whole drives creativity. It helps you get out of your routine for a moment and look at the bigger pictures. You see opportunities that you won’t see when you have your head down doing the work.

This issue is far from settled, and it’s something I’m actively working  to understand better and improve at. I’ll report more as I learn more.


  1. Source: Do Higher Wages Come at a Price?