Productivity for Misfits, Makers, & Other Creatives

by | Jun 17, 2017 | Observations, Possibly Helpful

Productivity for Misfits, Makers, and Other Creatives

This past Sunday, on June 11 2017, I spoke at the 2017 Vancouver Mini Maker Faire. The topic: productivity for people who aren’t conventionally productive. Because of course, I’m one of them.

It’s something I’ve been obsessing about for years. Recently, I think I’ve I’ve found a useful way of thinking about it.

I will be writing series of posts to provide more detail for the ideas I presented on Sunday. But for those of you who askedThanks Matthew!...hope I got your name right!, here is version of what I covered.

I tend to be verbose, so it’s not exactly a summary. Okay, I admit it. This post is LONG.

I should probably make a slide show or something.

Or a download.

If you didn’t happen to be there, I hope you won’t find this post too mysterious. If you were there, thanks for attending!

In either case, if you’re intrigued by the ideas below, I hope you’ll subscribe to this blog and follow along. I’d love to hear your thoughts, insights, and observations.

Your Productivity. Problem?

If you struggle with “productivity”, the problem might not be a lack of time, a lack of discipline, or a lack of access to the “one great productivity hack” that will help you manifest your true potential.

It might be that there is a mismatch between the way you think you should be creating value, and the way you actually create value.

Productivity? Or Value?

Human beings work – and I mean “work” in a very broad sense – to create value.

For most of us, our life’s work is not truly about creating “more, more, more”, or racking up points in a largely imaginary game.

It’s about creating value.

It’s about doing something that’s meaningful to us. Valuable to us, and to those we care about.

Productivity As Distraction

Pursuing productivity, for me, can be a distraction. A tumble down a rabbit hole.

Sometimes I chase productivity – or rather, the feeling or idea of productivity – rather than focussing my efforts on something I actually care about. For me, those are bad days. Even if I do manage to check 14 things off a list.

The Maker’s Problem

If you’re a maker, a crafter, an inventor, an artist – you are someone who creates value by working on ideas and bringing them into the world.

You might be frustrated by the idea that you’re not being productive. That you’re not making progress. That you’ve made a huge mess and have nothing to show for it. For days on end.

Sometimes the frustration isn’t with yourself.

You may know that messes and seeming lack of progress are part of the process. Your frustration might come from having to explain yourself to those who judge your value by how “productive” you seem to be.

“How much money have you made?” they ask.

Or: “Are you shipping yet?”

Or: “Have you actually sold anything?”

Or: “What do you do all day, anyway?”

And of course, some of those incredibly irritating people may be our very own selves.

Good Days, Bad Days

For me, the difference between a good day and a bad day is determined NOT by how “productive” I look, but whether I’ve worked on something I value.

In fact, when I think about it, the days I feel best about are the ones when I work on something that matters to me, even if I seem to spend very little time or seem to get very little done.

And my bad days? Those are the ones in which I spend the entire day chasing the feeling of productivity; the idea of productivity. The days I chase productivity instead of giving myself permission to work – even briefly – on something I actually care about.

Two Amorphous Concepts


Work, for me, is really about the creation of value.

I’m not thinking physics here, in case you’re wondering. I’m thinking about what humans do.

Work doesn’t have to be “work” in the sense of employment. It doesn’t have to be restricted to things we do for compensation.

Our work as humans can include raising children.

Developing new ideas.

Making others laugh.

Exploring a way of thinking.

Creating something beautiful – even if it’s ephemeral.


Value is amorphous.

We can try to measure it, but often we fail. Sometimes we think we succeed, but then mistake the measurement for the value itself.

What is the value of a child who grows up to be resilient and kind? A technology that fails, but shifts our perspective? A story that reminds us of someone we’ve lost?

Value coalesces. It is context dependent. It may not be realized in the moment of delivery.

The value we create might be for ourselves, for others, or for some amorphous common good. We don’t always know.

It might exist in a moment. It might persist over years. It might perpetuate across generations. We might never know.

Value is amorphous. Because it is.

A bit quantum.


Rethinking Productivity

Even if value itself is amorphous, I believe that we can improve our ability to create value if we think more clearly and specifically about how we create it..

Productivity – in the classic sense of efficiency of production – shouldn’t always be our goal.

Maximizing efficiency of production makes sense within a particular value creation model, but not all value creation models. Efficiency isn’t always the best way to create value. It depends upon the work you do.

Five Models To Rule Them All. Possibly.

I believe we can use five models of value creation to describe much of the work we do as humans.

They are:

  1. The Production Model
  2. The Performance Model
  3. The Cultivation Model
  4. The Coordination Model
  5. The Optimization Model

Using the models can help us organize what we know about value production in particular contexts, and help us clarify our thinking about what we need to do.

Each model has its own characteristic rhythms and pattern; its own characteristic relationships between inputs and outputs. Each model seems to have core behaviours or skill sets that will help us optimize the value we create.

I will go into detail about the various characteristics of these models in other posts.

For now, I’ve listed some details for each of the models below. The details include:

  • a couple of sample contexts so you can understand how they differ, and
  • a short note about how I believe value is primarily delivered.

The Value Creation Models

The Production Model

  • Sample Context: mass manufacture of goods
  • Value Created By: maximizing the delivery of a good or service of value, usually to many recipients, as reliably and consistently as possible

The Performance Model

  • Sample Contexts: theatrical, music, or athletic performance, but also in-the-moment application of expertise and experience (e.g., coaching, diagnosis)
  • Value Created By: application of skills within tightly constrained boundaries of space, time, and circumstance, e.g., a 100 m sprint event in the Olympics, a one-hour coaching interaction, a theatrical or musical performance, a 5 minute diagnosis

The Cultivation Model

  • Sample Contexts: agriculture, parenting, relationships (including sales or networking relationships)
  • Value Created By: nurturing and tending to potential that grows and manifests over time, creating  and periodically adjusting conditions for growth of value

The Coordination Model

  • Sample Contexts: military command, enterprise management, event planning, project management, filmmaking
  • Value Created By: coordinating the efforts of multiple entities to produce a successful unified end result

The Optimization Model

  • Sample Contexts: technology R&D, scientific research, writing, crafting, making
  • Value Created By: optimization of an idea, an object, or a technology

You vs the Ideal
…of Conventional Productivity

Our conventional notions of productivity generally fall within the Production Model. It’s not an accident; it’s history.

The Production Model of work is characterized by regularity, efficiency, and relative constancy of output over long periods of time.

In contrast, many makers and artists often seem to spend long periods of time not producing “ready to deliver” output. We have long cycles of input with very little output, and the measurable “output” may seem dwarfed by what we put into our processes.

Performing artists, for instance, spend huge amounts of time, energy, and attention working on skills fundamental to their performances. The process seems inefficient, because the most valuable output for a lifetime of training and preparation may in fact be a sub-10 second sprint, a 45 minute set that wows an audience of 37, or a game-winning goal that sends an entire country into a frenzy of celebration.

Makers and other people who work with new ideas also seem to have an “inefficient” process. The process of developing, prototyping, and refining an idea tends to be messy, full of fits and starts and re-starts.

We often use the word “iterative” for the kind of work we do.

Making is process of iterative optimization, where we approach an optimized form through successive cycles of ideation, refinement, and testing against a set of desired qualities.

A Maker’s life is full of failed projects, collapsed prototypes, and quantities of materials and resources that don’t end up in a finished, deliverable product. It’s part of the process. The process may eventually create something that can be produced using a Production Model, but that’s not how a Maker creates that something.

Your Models?

We’re all different.

What are you good at?

Each of us is likely to have one or two preferred methods of value creation.

We tend to be strong in at least some of the skills required to do well with certain value creation models. As a result, we tend to be drawn to activities that take advantage of those skills.

What are you bad at?

We may find that we suck at certain activities. There may be a pattern.

We might hate having to work a certain way.  We might continually try a certain activity and consistently fail.

Our difficulties can tell us what kinds of value creation we want might want to minimize in our lives, or suggest areas in which we might simplify, offload, or improve the processes for ourselves.

My Example

In my case, I tend to be drawn to work that fits the Performance Model,. However, because I like to write and research and develop ideas, I am also drawn toward work that uses the Optimization Model.

On the other hand, I love plants, but am a terrible gardener. My garden is a graveyard of neglected ambition. Some things thrive. But I didn’t plant them.

My history shows that I have been terrible at cultivating conventional gardens. I’m a good person to ask for advice, but my garden doesn’t reflect what I know.

My analysis? I have trouble with the core skills of the Cultivation Model.

Questions to Ask Yourself

So how about you?

How do you create value?

What activities do you love?

What activities do you avoid?

What activities do you keep trying, yet continually have problems with?

When we understand each have our own preferences and affinities for the various models, we’ll get a better sense of the skills and knowledge we already have for the work we do.

But Then What?

If we’re having trouble with a particular kind of work, then it may help us to:

(a) decide whether to avoid that particular model and its associated activities,

(b) hone our skills, or

(c) recruit help.

Ready, Set…

I believe this way of thinking about the work we do, and the work we want to do, can help us make better choices about the work that we find satisfying and valuable.

Productivity may elude us, and for some of us, that’s going to be perfectly okay.

So stop feeling guilty. Stop chasing the idea of productivity. Stop trying to fit yourself to systems that don’t really fit the way you really work.

Let’s go create some value…