Creatives need license to waste time – and here’s why

A creative’s favourite things to do: chair spin, notepad doodle, people stare, window watch and otherwise procrastinate. Because eureka moments can’t be anticipated, creativity requires license to create freely. Paradoxical to, well, life, time wasting is a form of creative productivity, or in the words of our dear Einstein: “creativity is the residue of time wasted.” Basically, the things creatives don’t do are of equal importance to those they do.  

There’s no guideline to say how many hours a new idea takes to conceive. Whilst a construction project may take a set number of days or weeks, deciding upon the perfect tagline has no real precedent – no barometer – because it’s new each time. You may stumble upon the solution in a matter of minutes, a number of days or a hapless pile of weeks. Naturally, this is a nightmare for management.

Such behaviour is sometimes called laziness. Whether working independently or through a company, every creative will have experienced the frightful shadow of management looming over their work, demanding results, imposing new time restrictions or tarnishing their character in performance reviews. Humans need evidence of effort to know there’s effort taking place. Managers desire to see some sweaty brows, furious scribbling, frantic typing or even a blackboard covered in squiggly lines connecting one fantastical idea to another.

But this damages creativity. It’s a difficult game because creative types aren’t not lazy. In fact, their proclivity for reverie and flighty thoughts may mean they’re inclined to avoid and skirt around mundane tasks. Likewise, some creatives will abuse the idea that ‘it takes as long as it takes’. A penchant for imaginative thought doesn’t exclude them from the temptations of human vice, and many of us would prefer to not be working than to work. The point is that creatives aren’t perfect people, but it’s necessary to trust them to allow creative teams to do their job – to be efficient and productive.

Let’s take an example. A designer may be carefully watched and scrutinised for each brush stroke and toilet break. The amount of produced in hour A may be directly compared to the amount produced in hour B, and a conclusion formed that the artist was less productive in hour B. Everything viewable on the surface will be picked apart and delineated, to see whether a creative worker is spending their hour-to-hour time wisely. But here’s the thing: working relentlessly to solve a single problem diminishes the chances of an effective solution, like bashing your head against a wall. Distraction is necessary to frame the problem anew and discover the optimal outcome. That’s how writers solve writers block: they distract, go for a walk, have a drink or sit in a café. And despite its name, writers block isn’t exclusive to writers – it’s a phenomenon shared by all creative types. Forcing a creative to beat their head against a single task shows limited understanding of the creative process, and a distrust in the creative.

There’s no definitive amount of time it takes to complete a creative project: it needs to be open. Creatives must be free to create, to take the scenic route to the answer and not feel throttled by the lofty pressures of time. Of course, if the final result is nothing more than brain storms and scribbles, there might be a problem. Discounting this, however, creatives work best when they’re trusted. It doesn’t have to go as far as Mad Men – which depicts the lives of leisurely, hedonistic copywriters cajoling and drinking in office time – but it should be that distractions and side-tracks are forgiven, so long as the final result is solid. The mind may fallow, but that’s important when it comes to harvest.