Does self-tracking help (or hinder) creativity?

The Quantified Self movement, in all it’s various shapes and sizes, is giving us the opportunity for an unprecedented view of ourselves. Examining ourselves through a lens of data holds the promise for better health, increased productivity, even greater happiness.

But what does self-tracking do to your creativity?

Now, it could be argued that all this careful measurement and instrumentation is really just a misguided way to optimize all spontaneity out of life. Albert Einstein said “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” There’s absolutely truth to that. Today’s knowledge workers need to be creative. It’s probably the most important skill to have, especially as more process-oriented work is increasingly automated. The problem, from a self-tracking standpoint, is that creativity is subjective, and damn near impossible to express in a structured way. Some people are certainly trying, but I think it will be a long time (if ever) before any broadly agreed upon metric is established.

I think that’s just fine. Self tracking can still do amazing things for your creativity.

New problems, new solutions

“self-tracking paints an interesting picture in the negative space around our creative output.”
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Just as we’re faced with problems we didn’t have 20 years ago (when you could work for more than three minutes before being interrupted by email), we need to discover new coping strategies. A data-based approach makes a lot of sense.

Sure, it’s true, quantifying creativity is problematic. But do you know what’s not problematic? Quantifying emails, meetings, workflows, and all the other process-oriented stuff that takes up increasing amounts of our day. All of that is easily measurable, and self-tracking paints a pretty interesting picture in the negative space around our creative output. One of the observations we hear over and over from RescueTime users is “wow, I spend WAY more time in email than I thought!” Multiple studies have shown that the average desk worker spends about 30% of their time in email. It doesn’t feel that way because it’s generally spread out across the day in small chunks.

Switching back and forth on tasks takes a toll on our cognitive performance, and some research suggests that heavy multi-tasking diminishes our ability to recognize a breakthrough idea. Humans are nearly universally bad at multi-tasking, but it’s increasingly difficult to escape. But we can at least keep track of it, and that can bring an awareness that allows us to take steps to minimize it.

Different strokes for different folks

It’s easy to imagine creativity as this innate quality that manifests in spontaneous bursts of genius, but if you look at creative minds throughout history, you’ll see a very sophisticated creative process that’s been refined over time. It’s part of mastering your chosen craft. But what works for one person may not work for others. Hemingway only wrote in the morning, and had a very specific flow from handwritten pages to the typewriter. Picasso on the other hand, worked late into the night and slept in. Self-tracking can enhance this process, allowing individuals to methodically tweak their behaviors to find the ideal state of flow. Is the time you wake up more or less important than the total amount of sleep you got the night before? What about the quality of your sleep rather than the duration? Or is the really important thing the strong cup of coffee you drink before work? These are questions you can answer with self-tracking.

Let’s admit that maybe some of that creative output can be measured, and that’s really awesome

Even though there’s really no way your creative genius will be fully expressed by some numbers sitting in a spreadsheet (unless you are a mathematician, I suppose), most any creative endeavor has output that can be be revealing when tracked. Hemingway kept a daily log of his word-count “so as not to kid myself”. He used this to keep track of his progress, but also to reward himself. After a particularly productive day of writing, he could spend the next day fishing, guilt-free.

Motivation is key to creativity, and consistently measuring output is a fantastic way to stay engaged, especially with creative projects that require long slogs of work before seeing a finished outcome. It’s the digital equivalent of turning around after an exhausting uphill hike and beholding the beautiful view you’ve trudged into. Services like iDoneThis make this as easy as giving a short reply to a daily email. Another example is National Novel Writer’s Month, where daily word count is celebrated as a way of keeping authors pumped up about writing their novels.

Your turn. Do you think self-tracking impacts your creativity?

Obviously, we’re a little bit biased here at RescueTime. We think the greater awareness that comes from self-tracking has a huge benefit on one’s creativity. But I’m curious what you think? Do you agree? Or is it too clinical of a lens for such a organic thing? Or, is it simply navel-gazing, and a distraction in and of itself?

Further reading:

NPR.org: The Myth Of Multitasking

99u: The 5 Most Dangerous Creativity Killers

Courting a Muse In a Data-Driven Workplace

MeasuredMe.com: My Attempt at Tracking Creativity

RescueTime Blog: 5 habits of highly motivated novelists


3 Comments on “Does self-tracking help (or hinder) creativity?”

  1. Todd Haugen says:

    So why does tracking have anything to do with creativity?

    Tracking is about choosing how to spend your time. I personally find my creativity comes AFTER I have had a particularly focused work session on some distinctly non-creative task and then I go do something distinctly non-work related but one where I can think. In other words after reviewing a bunch of product specs if I then sit by the pool, ride my bike, or shower I will have that a ha moment. If I decide to play soccer or video games I flush my brain of all that information and I miss out on the a ha moment this time, often a worthwhile trade.

    More important than your discussion on creativity is the idea that you spend your time the way you want to spend your time. I would say email is not it, certainly it is not a big rock. I block out time in my day for email, no more than 2 hours, and at the end of the day I delete all emails I have not completed. I do this because, if I cannot complete my email in a day what are the odds I can complete it the next day. Now I star the next day free of the pressure to get caught up and I am much more likely not focus on the work that will drive my success.

  2. […] Does self-tracking help (or hinder) creativity? → […]

  3. Alex says:

    I wish so much that we cud get both the things together. But one is about quality and other only about quantity. However, a lot of offices are helping employees to achieve this at an individual level plus at the team level as well.
    No Wonder, this is the most talked about and written about topics, only in different words. Wud love to share a link: http://www.become.com/hub/business-office/employee-time-tracking/how-to-track-promote-employee-work/

    I really liked reading your article. Thanks!