Balancing Practice & Production as a Creator

If you’re a creative person, you’ve probably experienced the tension between making something right now and learning something new so that you can make something better (or even just different) in the future.

Today I want to explore that tension, with the help of a simple Venn diagram.

When you’re focused on production, your job is to make and ship things. It’s like there’s a conveyor belt in front of you and you’ve just got to keep up with the work that comes passing by.

Practice feels very different from production. Here what you’re doing is a bit more exploratory. You are building your skills, either learning how to do more with the tools that you’re already familiar with or learning how to use completely new tools, in the service of current or future work.

In many ways, those two activities of production and practice live at opposite ends of a spectrum that represents your relationship with time.

On the side of production, you feel time pressure. There are certain things that you need to get done within a specific time frame.

On the side of practice, you’ve got time freedom. You have the space to explore new skills, to experiment with things that might not work out, to focus on your development as a creator rather than on a single specific thing that you’re creating.

But as suggested by the Venn diagram and the spectrum of time, it’s not just a binary. We can actually see three distinct places where you might live. Let’s give each of those a name.

  • Beast Mode: This is where you’re focused on production. You’ve got your head down, doing the work as well as you can but also as quickly as you can.
  • Balanced Mode: You’re still focused on production, but you’ve got a little bit of time freedom to do some experimenting and some skill development.
  • Broaden Mode: Your focus is exclusively on practice, on skill development. Here what you’re doing is broadening your skills and the tools with which you’re able to do your work.

I think it is helpful to identify which of these zones you’re in right now and also acknowledge that you get to walk around within this space, finding value in each location.

If you’re in the process or creating a sustainable system for yourself, perhaps establishing a publishing schedule or discussing work commitments with your boss, then shooting for balanced mode is a good goal. There you’ll feel a bit of helpful pressure and incentive to make progress on your project, but you’ll also have enough time to develop new skills and explore possibilities while you’re in the midst of that project.

Even if your goal is to spend most of your time in balanced mode, do try to carve out some space for exclusive practice, where your only job is to broaden your skillset. When you’re in that expansive mode you’ll make discoveries and build skills that you wouldn’t necessarily have had time for if you were in balanced or beast mode.

You might also find joy (yes, joy) in entering beast mode for a while. It feels good to get things done. And it feels good to stop worrying about self-improvement for a day or two.

Putting skill development on the back burner reminds me of a metaphor that I sketched out a while back, from writer Kris Windley, who pictured progress on your craft as the act of making your way up differnet floors in a building. Each floor represents a new skill or tool that you can use within your work. Windley reminds us that it’s okay to stay on your current floor, and just do good work from there. You don’t always have to be climbing.

And if “beast mode” feels like too aggressive a term, consider instead just chilling on your current floor, enjoying the view out the window while you plug away on your work.

That’s probably the mode that I’m in right now as I focus on making weekly YouTube videos and developing a handful of other projects behind the scenes.

Not too long ago, though, I was more in broaden mode, focusing on building my visual vocabulary and implementing some techniques from the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. I used a shoebox with index cards (word on the front, sketch on the back) and colorful dividers to put into practice the Lietner method of spaced retrieval.

So what I’ve slowly embraced for myself (and what I encourage for you) is to walk along the line between production and practice. Even if your preferred space is balanced, acknowledge that in some seasons you’re going to be in heavy production, and that hopefully you can balance that out with other seasons when you get to focus exclusively on broadening your skills.

If you happen to find yourself either in balanced mode or broaden mode right now and want to develop your visual thinking skills, then check out our library of courses.

I’d love to help you bring more clarity to your work with simple visual representations like the one I’ve shared here.

I’d also love to hear about what you’re working on. I’ve recently begun hosting monthly live Q & A events for anyone who’s picked up a course. It was in a recent live event that we chatted about this topic of practice and production.

So if you want to build your skills and hang out with creative visual thinkers from around the globe, come check us out.