The Creativity of Getting Things Done

The Creativity of Getting Things Done – Part One
by Wayne Pepper

GTD for creatives? While many of our enthusiasts love the systematic approach of GTD, we’re seeing more and more creative types embracing Getting Things Done, including musicians, comedians, and television writers. This article (written in two parts) will address two ideas. The first is that being “creative” is no excuse for not doing GTD, and the second is about using GTD within the creative process itself.

First let’s define creativity. Creativity can be thought of as “art” and that certainly can be a valid and true definition, but perhaps one that’s too narrow for our purposes. Let’s define creativity more broadly. Let’s think of creativity as any effort where we are bringing our creative energy, thinking, or forces to bear. That could be starting a new company, brainstorming a solution to a management problem, organizing a launch party, envisioning a branding approach, creating ad copy, or designing a new video game—and everything in between.

So the good news is that just about everybody brings creativity to their work. Therefore, if you haven’t been considering yourself a creative person, maybe you would like to redefine that for yourself, and acknowledge that you do bring creativity to the work that you do. The next question then becomes, “What’s the strategy, the technique, the approach that you use to stimulate, generate, and organize creative endeavor?”

Sometimes artists are reluctant to adopt a systematic approach: “I don’t want to be systematized, I want to be spontaneous, impulsive, and free.” I understand that thinking, but I would suggest that by employing the methodology of Getting Things Done artists will have a better shot at generating, capturing, and organizing creative output in a more consistent way.

For those of you who up until this point haven’t considered yourself creative, then the GTD system will be a great way for you to bring creative thinking forward, and it will also provide a format for you to pay attention to and manage your creative process. This way you will spend less time tracking, monitoring, and storing creativity, and more time within the creative process.

As many of you know, GTD can be applied to all the “stuff” that’s not the creative process (buy dog food, email the supply manager, submit the quarterly proposal), and can be applied as well to the creative process itself. In that way, GTD can assist in pulling everything we’re not doing from our mental view so that we can focus on creative thinking, but we’ll also see how GTD can be applied directly to the creative process. The same principles that apply to “submit the quarterly proposal” can be used to gain control and perspective on creative thinking and projects, allowing you to generate more creative thinking, and manage and park it appropriately.

Before we explore how to use GTD for creative endeavors, let’s look at the popular excuses for not Getting Things Done, or not using Getting Things Done.

“How can I possibly be creative and inventive if I’m already being forced to apply constraints to my expression?” A popular belief is that true artistic expression must be unfettered by external forces and must always come from a spontaneous impulse. Some of the most successful artists would tell us this simply isn’t true. I remember back in the mid 90’s taking my school-aged children to a performance by the popular singer and musician, Bobby McFerrin. He told the young audience “Kids, if you want to be good at something, regardless of whether it’s the violin or playing soccer, do it every day.” He said nothing about “do it when you feel moved to,” or “do it when you are inspired.” He said, “Do it every day.”

So we can set aside the rule that structure inhibits creativity, and in fact we might want to rewrite that rule to say that structure fosters creativity. By imposing a degree of structure, by asking ourselves to behave in a slightly more focused way, we’re giving ourselves an opportunity to develop our creative muscles. It doesn’t always mean that what we create every single time every single day will be an act of great art and beauty, but if indeed the best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas, then using GTD principles to create windows of opportunity to generate lots of ideas, sounds like a good approach.

“I must be let free to explore the outer reaches of my creative impulses without any restrictions on them.” I agree. Write it, paint it, dance it, sing it, emote it, speak it, move it, and give yourself the freedom to move on to something else in the very next moment. At some point however, you will bring your own editorial process to your expression. The rock musician and GTD enthusiast Evan Taubenfeld told David Allen that he collects bits of musical writing all week long, then at the end of the week he brings his editorial process to bear and decides what’s worthy of keeping, what belongs grouped with what else, and where does all that go so that he can resource it later. Sound familiar? If you’re familiar with GTD it should. That’s applying the first three phases of Mastering Workflow&mdash:Collect, Process, and Organize—to artistic expression.

As a David Allen Company Coach, every now and again I come across an article that someone close to me forwards to me about “creative chaos”: individuals who thrive in and are inspired by completely cluttered environments. Of course the person is most of the time a creative genius, and people like to infer that if they had clutter like that person, they would be just as creative and as much of a genius. My strong guess is that it’s only due to the fact that the person is so creative and such a genius that they are able to function at all in the chaos.

Just about everyone I know, when confronted with clutter around them, stresses out about it: “I gotta call that guy, I gotta trash that stuff, I just gotta file that stuff away. And that pile? I don’t even know what that pile is!” Our perspective is that before you attempt anything that resembles creative thinking, you’re better off having at least captured all that psychic input, and hopefully be confident that you will process it into your trusted system in not too long.

Perhaps it is the fact that cleaning up clutter has often been a favorite source of procrastination and a cheap win when faced with a creative task. David Allen has talked for years about how easy it was for his wife to get him to do chores around the house when he had writing to do, because the chores represented quick wins. Of course many of us remember the only times we cleaned up our dorm rooms were when term papers were due. I wouldn’t doubt it’s the association with clutter-cleanup that gives a systematic approach a bad rep when it comes to creative flow.

Please remember our criteria, however: Does it get in the way of your ability to focus on your work? So if I walk into a coaching and there are piles and stacks everywhere, one of my first questions usually is, “What’s on your mind in terms of your physical environment?” If the answer to that question is, “Nothing, I’m inspired by it all,” then we don’t do clean-up for clean-up’s sake, we just leave it all alone and move to what to what really has that person’s attention. It’s just that it’s very difficult to think creatively when “stuff,” physical or otherwise is pulling on your attention.

From 1987 through 2004 I worked in and around the entertainment industry, and for a time, in feature film development. At that time I came across the legend of writers who would write their screenplays in one day or one night, as if that was an ideal to be attained. In retrospect, the reason that could work is that with a ticking clock running, a creator is forced to make decisions. This directly maps to why some of our clients talk about being addicted (or habituated) to crisis in the past—because it forced them to ask the processing questions that are critical to getting “stuff” defined in such a way that it can actually move forward.

In the creative process there are always decisions to be made. Do I use the red font or the orange? Do I want the fountain behind the grass or in the middle of it? Do we want the main characters to fall in love in the first act or the second? In a state of stress or crisis we’ll make the best decision we can, given the parameters of time, and it will feel good to remove ourselves from that state of indecision, but it might not be the best decision if we came to it in a rushed manner or we were very stressed out about the decision.

By working in a more systematic way, even in the realm of creativity, you’ll have a much better chance at making smart decisions and feeling better about those decisions with the knowledge that they were made with the proper time and attention paid to them. In that way you can make the right choice in the right timing as opposed to making a choice because there is no time to consider anything else.

So how can Getting Things Done be of benefit to the creative process? While some people associate Getting Things Done with working off lists and bringing structure to thinking, the whole system is designed to allow us to have the freedom to follow creative impulses. Let me be more specific. By having a system in place we’re more likely to be confident that the particular task we’re engaged in is actually the best use of our time, so that will eliminate any distraction as to whether or not we’re working on the right thing, or working on the right part of the right thing.

Also, by using the GTD system to eliminate the distraction it allows us the opportunity to hear what only can be heard when the mind is quiet. It’s unlikely that you’ll hear the inspiration for the next chapter of the book you’re writing when your mind is consistently reminding you that you have to mail the rent by the end of the month. It is in the quiet that we’ll start hearing, and feeling comfortable capturing those creative impulses.

So now that I’ve convinced you that you’re not “too creative” for GTD, in Part 2 of this article we’ll take a look at how GTD can specifically be applied to the creative process.

Wayne Pepper is a senior presenter and coach with the David Allen Company.

Part Two will be posted to GTD Connect. Not a member? Try a two-week guest pass.

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  1. So true about GTD and creativity. The scripts I’ve written since using GTD have been the most successful.

  2. Hey Guys

    I second that. I have just made a post with similar content, only maybe from the other perspective, on a blog I just started. You can read it here –

    I am happy to say that I am an artist who uses GTD and I tend to agree with your post above. I think the argument from artists about structure can be said to be somewhat analogous to the argument from musicians for not learning theory to make for less constraints and so on. Indeed it is possible that you will make good music without learning theory, but for the vast majority of us some little theory will only improve our music and will be essential if we ever to make music that is ‘good’.

    It is no good having all your good ideas floating off, irretrievable, into the forgotten.

    Sign up you reprobates!!! :-p

    I guess the kicker is that most artists reading this will already be using GTD. I will add a link from my post in the hope of sending some your way.

  3. Might I just add by suggesting one of my favorite definitions of creativity. It comes from creativity expert Mark Runco and is defined as “judicious freedom of thought”. . . .


  4. **He said nothing about “do it when you feel moved to,” or “do it when you are inspired.” He said, “Do it every day.”**

    Sorry, my previous comment did not include the quote.

  5. So where is part two? I explicitly signed up for the guest pass, but can’t find it anywhere on site.

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