Most productivity systems don’t work well for creatives.
The truth is, from the outside, a lot of things we do don’t simply look like work at all. We need time we can ‘waste’, spaces where we’re allowed to be inefficient and unproductive. We need to play and explore, to disappear down rabbit holes.
To get the ideas and inspiration our work depends on, we need to think and dream, to make space for divergent as well as convergent thinking. We can’t do that if every waking moment becomes about getting things done, efficiently ticking items off a never-ending to-do list.
But there’s another hard truth. If we stay in the research/exploration phase for too long, it can easily become procrastination, busywork. We also need to make our art, our music, our writing and products. Then we need put them out in the world, sell what we’ve made and build an audience for it.
These books can help.
They’re the best productivity books for creatives because they all appreciate that the gaps, the downtime, the bits where it looks like we’re at our least productive are essential. They understand that those seemingly wasted hours are often where the magic happens.
1: Cal Newport, Deep Work
This tops many lists of productivity titles, and rightly so. It’s the best on finding focus in a world of digital distraction. Newport has written several books on the intersection between work and technology, and they’re all excellent. But this is the foundational one. I write about it in more detail here.
2: Charlie Gilkey, Start Finishing
One of the best books I’ve read on structuring and organising creative projects, full of actionable advice to help you make time, and bring them to fruition. His Productive Flourishing website also has great free, downloadable monthly and weekly planning sheets. I find them invaluable, in structuring my days.
3: David Kadavy, Mind Management, Not Time Management
A writer and podcaster, Kadavy understands creative mindset and our need for research, thinking, inspiration and ideas. He has lot of useful suggestions for managing your mindset, getting into the right state for each stage of a creative project, and switching from one mode to another.
4: Austin Kleon, Keep Going
Concise, unfailingly compassionate, funny and encouraging, Kleon is always spot on when it comes to creative process. He understands the blocks and barriers, and offers lots of useful tools to get you through them. This is a tiny little book that you’ll read in an hour – yet it’s packed with wisdom. I return to it, again and again.
5: Gary Keller, The ONE Thing
This is one of those shouty self-help books that flogs a single idea to death. But the idea is so fundamental it’s worth it: focus on just one thing at a time, and get it done. Preferably something that will make everything else on your list easier, or unnecessary. Read more about it here.
6: Jessica Abel, Growing Gills
A cartoonist as well as a creative coach, Abel just gets it. There is excellent advice here about meeting deadlines, organising work, and carving out time for your own creative projects. Even the ones without deadlines, where it’s hard to get motivated even though you know they’re important.
7: Chris Bailey, The Productivity Project
An entertaining and readable account of the author’s sometimes extreme experiments with becoming more focussed and productive, what worked and what didn’t. I’ve just bought his new book Hyperfocus, which also looks excellent. Will report back here when I’ve read it.
8: Jessie L Kwak, From Chaos To Creativity
Subtitled Building A Productivity System for Artists and Writers, this has lots of useful ideas for all creatives about organising your time and your ideas, and cutting out distractions. She is particularly good on shadow-work and busywork: the things we do to feel productive, rather than actually getting down to the gnarly business of creating.
“Doing real creative work is hard. It requires you to sit with the discomfort of not knowing your direction. It requires you to sit with the fear that what you are creating won’t be well received, or isn’t any good. It requires you to persevere when you are bored, uninspired or straight-up tired.From Chaos to Creativity
9: Tiago Forte, Building A Second Brain
If your digital life is a mess and you’re overwhelmed with information, ideas, projects, tasks, open tabs and things you really want/need to read, this is for you. This book has literally changed my life. I’m more organised, and I can access things I’ve read, listened to or thought about much more easily. And I’m able to write more now that I’m not using up so much bandwidth trying to remember so much. More on that here.
10: Oliver Burkeman, 4,000 Weeks
A book about time. How we use it, how little of it we have in a human life-span, and why we all feel so overwhelmed and busy. It will make you more productive. But it will also help you question why you want to be. And if you’ve got your priorities straight.
11: Paul Millerd, The Pathless Path
Millerd did the right things. An expensive education, the right consulting firms, hard work, New York apartment, big salary, all the conventional signs of success. So why was he ill and unhappy? This is about work, our attitudes to it, and creating a path where having time and following your interests are more important than status and salary. If you’ve already freelance, the first chapters about leaving the corporate world might feel a bit obvious. Bear with it. There’s some life-changing stuff here.
12: Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Rest
Subtitled Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, this will change your view on taking breaks, naps, holidays and sabbaticals. Full of great anecdotes and research, it’s about working smarter, not harder. And more to the point, it’s about being kinder to yourself.
PS All the links here lead you to Amazon. If you buy there, I get a tiny payment to help with the running of this website. But supporting your local bookshop is also a brilliant thing to do. Plus: libraries. Use them or lose them!