I’m from Britain, so the rules of American football are a mystery to me. But even I know “armchair quarterback” is not a compliment. It means someone who sits on the sidelines, watching and criticizing instead of doing.As creative professionals, we pride ourselves on doing — making ideas happen — instead of passively consuming, like the couch potatoes with their remote controls. As Jakob Nielsen said, television is “lean back” media, and we prefer the “lean forward” experience creating something with our computer (or canvas, or notebook, or piano etc).
But there comes a point where leaning further forward won’t get you much further. Where nose-to-the-screen productivity becomes unproductive. You know the feeling — you’ve been hunched over that keyboard too long, the caffeine has burned out, and so has your inspiration. When you reach this point, reverse is often the fastest way forward.
In my office there are two chairs: my swivel office chair in front of the desk; and the comfy armchair by the window, flanked by my bookshelf and the stereo. No prizes for guessing which one sees the most use — it’s easy for me to feel diligent and productive in the first chair, hammering away at the keyboard. Every time I recline in the armchair during working hours, there’s a little part of me that asks, “Are you sure you have time for this?” It feels a bit lazy and self-indulgent compared to the other chair.
But the thing is, the time I spend in the armchair is usually some of the most creative and productive time in my whole week. I go there when I need to stop and look at the big picture, or think through a complex problem that has me stumped. The armchair is strictly analog — no laptop or phone, just a notebook or a blank sheet of paper and a pen. Or even just a book. Or even nothing at all.
The armchair takes me into a different space, where my mind can drift and I can see the big picture of the projects I’m working on, notice the patterns that emerge and my gut feeling about the best way forward. When I get up from the armchair, everything is clearer and sharper. My body feels lighter, and more energized. And I get a hell of a lot done when I return to the other chair.
This year, I’ve resolved to be more of an armchair creative. If you’d like to do the same, here are some tips on getting the right balance between the two chairs in your working life:
1. Get an armchair for your office. Or have a breakout space or café close at hand, and give yourself permission to use it.
2. Pay attention to your energy levels throughout the day. When they start to dip, it’s time to take a break — or switch chairs. A change is as good as a rest, remember!
3. Notice how you feel after sitting in your armchair. If you feel bored or sluggish, you’re spending too much time there (more couch potato than armchair creative!). But if you feel fresh enthusiasm, it shows the armchair is doing a good job of recharging your creative batteries.
4. Switch tools. If you normally type on a laptop, get a pad and paper. If you normally use a pen and paper, use a different pen and paper! (I’m serious — your nervous system will register different associations with different tools. Try it.)
5. Ignore sludge. “Sludge” is the name Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson (creators of the Results Only Work Environment approach to corporate culture) give to the sarcastic comments co-workers make about behavior that doesn’t conform to their idea of productivity. E.g. “I wish I had time to loaf around in the middle of the day.”
6. Look back on your week on Friday afternoon. Where did your best ideas come from? Where did you do your most productive thinking? Where did you add most value? (Just make sure you do this review from the comfort of your armchair!)
Are you an armchair creative?
Do you ever find yourself caught in the “productivity trap” of looking busy instead of making things happen?
Is there an armchair — or equivalent in your workspace? How do you use it?
Could you make more productive use of downtime during working hours?