I think, therefore
I am... productive.

Jenna van Schoor from South Africa is in charge of content creation and strategy at This is Productivity, an international company dealing with the future of work, and the online magazine Chaos & Rocketfuel. As she is dealing with topics like productivity and future workplaces, we got into an interesting talk with her about the importance of taking time out to think and the borders of productivity. 

all Images by   Florian Lierzer

all Images by Florian Lierzer

Hi Jenna. Everybody is talking about productivity – mostly meaning “getting shit done”. But you mentioned the importance of "thinking", meaning not being “obviously” productive.  What’s the value of thinking in creative work?

Yes, taking the time out to think in general is very important. For me, it’s giving myself time to enjoy my morning coffee, making time to speak to people in the office instead of being glued to my screen all day. Having adventures away from my desk, even if it's just a short walk. These things seem trivial when you’re under pressure but I think this mental space is really important to be able to have good ideas and have the energy to act on them.

...and what comes next? After taking time off to think?

The next step in creativity is execution, which is always the hardest part for me. But I think once you’ve given yourself this space to really think, you can also allow yourself the time to make it happen.

For me, the greatest change in behavior, and one that I believe has made me more productive is focus and planning. It’s wonderful to be creative for the sake of it, but to be truly productive, you need to know what your desired outcomes are. You’re only being productive if you’re achieving goals and producing results, not when you’re just sitting behind a desk looking busy.

Sounds easy - so you're always relying on "thinking first, execution second"?

Not all the time, it depends on what I’m writing. Giving myself time to think about ideas beforehand really helps. To “mind map” ideas is actually a very helpful tool for me, to be able to visualize my thoughts onto paper.

But sometimes, counter to my previous advice, I find it’s best if I just write, and then do the thinking. You can’t combine a creative and analytical process at the same time. So writing first, getting the thoughts onto paper, and then working with them is also a productive approach for me.

And how do you "legitimate" thinking at work? For your colleagues or bosses it might seem like “doing nothing”….

Definitely, but it actually makes so much sense. I often find the solutions to problems when I’m taking time out. For me, for work and life in general, it’s a balance between digging down into work and just letting things happen.

I’m lucky that I work remotely and don’t have someone breathing down my neck all day. I also work with people who understand the value of quality work and not just looking busy for the sake of it. I think working in an office there’s a lot of pressure to seem like you’re doing something, but working remotely, which has it’s disadvantages, has taught me to that quality work is about achieving goals. It’s not about the hours, it’s about the output at the end of the day. If I can get the same amount of work done, high quality work, in less time, what is the difference?

Talking about productivity... Corporations have continuously optimized productivity in recent decades – first in industrial branches, then also in office work or creative branches. Do you think that there is still room for more productivity or did we already reach the borders of human productivity and over-optimization?

I agree, I think the pressure to be productive is just as bad as feeling pressure to be happy. You can’t achieve it all the time. For me, productivity is a word that has been overused, but in a work-related industry, it’s still relevant. I actually think it’s about redefining what productivity means, shifting it from that industrial association with churning out a product to higher quality of work, meaning and fulfillment. 

No wonder there is a tension between burnout and a trend towards slowing down and taking time out. They’re both extremes for me and it’s difficult to find the balance. In the world we live in, when we share everything we do with everyone we know, it’s hard to justify doing nothing. At the end of the day, it’s all about balance, but it’s so much easier said than done.

So thinking about the future of work, a topic you and and your company are into... do you think corporations will allow their employees more free space for thinking and creativity in the future?

I think that this is critical, especially when it comes to creativity. I think the concept of free space for thinking might be subjective, as creativity and critical thinking are going to be two skills that will allow humans to thrive in workplace where a lot of current jobs will be automated.

I do think that the world is actually moving away from productivity and harnessing human potential to actually designing capabilities through artificial intelligence etc. In the future, for people, it’s going to be all about doing the critical thinking and problem solving that machines can’t do (yet), and less production, and productivity, because machines will be mostly in charge of that.

Do you think productivity tools like project management apps can foster more output in creative branches, or do we take out the creative “magic” out of work by applying "industrial" measures to an "artistic" work?

I think for me it’s about communication, and it depends on the tool. I don’t think project management tools need to take out the creative elements of design, I think if they are used correctly, they can just develop a less stressful way to manage projects and also the space for the thinking and execution that we’ve talked about above. I don’t see them as the be-all-end-all, they’re just a tool for better communication, and for having all the necessary information about projects in one place, which is essential for remote teams.

A tool is only helpful when it benefits the people using it!

What are your productivity boosts in creative work?

Mostly, it’s about taking care of myself, I can’t work well and be creative if I haven’t slept well, exercised or had a good meal to start the day. Also do stretching and breathing exercises when I wake up. An early morning physical routine REALLY helps me deal better with stress. Writing first thing in the morning is also a life-saver for me. I practice a slightly adapted version of the “morning pages” ritual described in the book, The Artist’s Way. I just write, all my thoughts, random ideas and things I will never share with anyone, three pages minimum. It really helps to clear my head of all the things I’m worrying about early in the day so so I can start focusing on work.

Doing the most important task of the day straight after that, the most important and revenue-driving task, also helps a lot. At This is Productivity it’s called a “power hour”. With your most important task of the day done at the start, you feel a sense of accomplishment. 

I also map out all of my task onto Google calendar in different coloured blocks, with a time allocation for each task. It takes time to figure out how long each kind of task will take, but I’ve found that giving myself regular pockets of time for tasks helps me to work more consistently, with less last-minute rushing. 

But not every approach works for everyone, and some days are better than others, life happens! 

And coffee. Works most of the time :)