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What lessons can we learn from artists about productivity in a time of coronavirus?

woman putting her feet up
Today's schedule: Half an hour of emails in your dressing gown before online exercise session. Teleconference then put a wash on. Staring out of the window while the kettle boils and then back to writing that proposal. Graze on snacks. Break up the kids' afternoon wrestling match. Go for a long walk.
How can we deal with a much more fluid working life when we are used to routine? How should we judge our productivity and the value of our work? Dr Chris Bilton, from Warwick's the Centre for Cultural & Media Policy Studies says we should look to cultural producers - artists, writers and musicians when it comes to methods of working during this period of uncertainty.

How much work have you done today? Have you been ‘productive’?

Most of us are adapting to a new unstructured work life, without the familiar patterns of commuting, offices and working hours. Even those who are used to working from home now find their home office invaded by other family members – not just children but spouses, adult offspring, housemates, all day, all of the time. Resources – physical space, broadband capacity, food, toilet paper – are suddenly being squeezed. We are crowded by our families whilst feeling disconnected from our colleagues and clients. As one writer colleague recently remarked, ‘every day is a Sunday now’.

Unless you are in that small group of ‘essential workers’ it has also become clear that what you are doing all day actually may not matter that much, not any more. Given how much our self-esteem and social status are dependent on our work identity, how are new ways of working changing the meaning of ‘productive’ work?

Artists, writers, musicians – cultural producers – have long had to negotiate an unstructured existence where work has no boundaries, and the value of their labour is indeterminate. Coping with extended periods of ‘unproductive’ work, punctuated by temporary projects and contracts is the everyday reality of much creative work. In this new reality, what might the rest of us learn about the value of work and productivity from the practices of artists and creative workers?

Being unproductive

Models of creativity acknowledge the need for periods of incubation and reflection in the creative process. With a few exceptions, most writers, musicians or artists do not follow a conventional working day. Most will devise their own routines and structures which will inevitably include some fallow periods. Actually, these ‘unproductive’ intervals may be the most productive in terms of new ideas. A writer recently commented that when he was most busy he felt he was becoming stupider. ‘Wasting time’ was vital to his work. Last week he described his experience of coronavirus to friends on Facebook. Might this experience of boredom, fevered dreams and unproductivity eventually count as valuable creative work?

Measuring value

The answer to this question is to some extent one of market economics. The value of creative work is measured not by input but by output. None of us knows how long it took Hilary Mantel to write The Mirror and the Light – its value is measured in critical reviews and sales. For most artists, the pay-off for creative work is much less certain. Between 5% and 10% of published films, games, albums and books actually turn a profit. The market value of cultural content is notoriously unpredictable. But artists must find value and meaning in their work even if the world disagrees. That might make creative work delusional, self-exploitative and precarious, but it is still necessary for the mental health of the worker to believe that the work has value.

Living with uncertainty

The reality is that artists do know something about the value of their work. A best-selling author once explained to me that his success depends not on coming up with better ideas, but recognising which ideas to pursue, and for how long. Prioritising tasks and knowing when to drop them was the key to his productivity. Creativity theory emphasises the importance of ‘intrinsic motivation’ in the creative process; creative work is driven by ‘task fulfilment’ rather than extrinsic rewards. In practice this means that artists have an internal compass which orients them to direct their resources of time, energy and imagination productively rather than answering to external directives. Of course some external boundaries exist in the form of deadlines or direct commissions. But the majority of daily tasks have to be organised based on the artist’s own experience and knowledge within a field, as well as a shrewd self-knowledge.

As our daily routines start to become more like the experience of artists, without structure, with no certainty or boundaries around our productivity or value, old measures of productivity begin to unravel. What is the value of work beyond its economic outcomes? Can we be productive by not working? How do we prioritise our time and resources? Not all of us can be ‘essential’ workers, nor can we measure our value by how many hours we work, but we still need a sense of our own value and purpose. Artists may help us to find that internal compass, building up the resilience, self-knowledge and self-belief we need to be authentically ‘productive’ in a time of coronavirus.


2 April 2020


Dr Chris BiltonDr Chris Bilton is Reader in Creative Industries in the Centre for Cultural & Media Policy Studies, and Creative Industries Lead on Warwick’s new Global Research Priority on Productivity and the Futures of Work.

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