Since the tail end of 2013, I’ve seen a flood of posts alternating between productivity and creativity tips. On the one hand, we’re pressed to toil away at lightening speeds in the never ending quest to perform an inhuman number of tasks. All this productivity is meant to poise us at a performance pinnacle, sadistically aligning with a cultish need to thwart sleep and measure success by a barometer gauging our time-crunching “busyness”. And then there’s creativity. We’ve simultaneously discovered the imperative for creativity, derived from (as I perceive) a flexible marketplace that allows us to stretch ourselves to think outside the box.

Increased workplace flexibility and a spike in new media tools and technology have opened up a new space for a flourishing exchange of ideas. As with any time in history where cultures meet in an open space, we raise the benchmark by reaching new heights through exploration and collaboration. In more recent times this open space has been introduced in several dimensions: first, by start-ups redefining challenging traditional business model, and secondly by business needs that continue to evolve as necessary in order to cater to a diverging audience.

Social technology has also changed how we define ourselves, how we view each other, and how we interact based on those presuppositions. Not only are we building a greater number of bridges connecting people and ideas, we’ve also begun building a more fibrous bridges within ourselves. We’re no longer content with business as usual; just as our environment, as individuals we’re seeking innovative new ways to stretch limits. We want be productive and we want to be more creative about what we achieve within our hours of productivity.

The blinding irony of this creativity-productivity paradox is that we’re simply unable to do both or be both. At its core, productive creativity is an oxymoron that (while it can be conquered) leaves us presently in a workplace limbo. In fact, we’re failing at both because in a culture of instant gratification, we think simply reading about creativity/productivity tips is enough to get us creative and productive in nature. This is where we’re wrong.

In order for us to be creative, we need to understand the theories behind creativity; and in order for us to be productive, we first need to assess what it is that we’re striving toward.

This three part post not only aims to sift through the creativity-productivity fog we’re currently in, but it gets you through to the other side. I’ve been curating on this subject since December 2013, when I first noticed the paradox, and have boiled the list down to roughly 56 key posts on the subject (please leave a comment if you’d like the full list), which I’ll refer to in an effort to construct a functional two-way bridge between creativity and productivity.

We can begin by answering the question, “what is creativity?”

In business, creativity is ideation that’s either revolutionary or that diverges in an expressive way that merges “life as art” with nuts and bolts utility. Yet contrary to the myth, creativity isn’t exactly playful nonsense; it means more than just something most of us learned in art class.

At its core, creativity is a lens through which we view the world.

In fact, even you’re brain knows that the process of creative thought is not a fun-filled path; it requires discipline. A Fast Company article entitled “The Science of Great Ideas – How to Train Your Creative Brain”, points out the three areas required for creative thinking: (1) the attentional control network, which aides in targeted focus, (2) imagination network, and (3) the attentional flexibility network, which “has the important role of monitoring what’s going on around us, as well as inside our brains,” relied upon for switching between the other networks. Clearly, even your brain has a system for creative thought, one that respects a need for discipline and focus – and one that physically begins restructuring neural pathways the moment you start thinking differently. Your brain also knows that creative thought includes the ability to accommodate multiple streams of information and thought-exchange.

James Webb Young, author of A Technique for Producing Ideas, understands this concept. Like Albert Einstein, who believed that combinatory play was the secret to genius, Young believes that “an idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements,” and that “the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.” However, new ideas won’t come to people who lack passion for their field, who clock out at 5pm, or who lack a healthy curiosity about things. New ideas come to people who expose their mind to new information, thereby providing their brain with the saturated material it needs to ‘play’. When we talk about genius, when we discuss ground-breaking new ideas, we’re simply often drawing attention to people who offer us a new way to think about something. In this way, being a creative thinker doesn’t mean you have to reinvent the wheel; it means you’re able to think about the wheel in a new way.