Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Rhythms of Work vs The Rhythms of Creative Labor

Though I am guilty of using it from time to time, I’ve never particularly cared for the word “productivity,” which is defined as (1) the “quality of being productive,” and (2) the “rate of output per unit.”While it’s easy to imagine how to control for output in certain contexts — say, turning out 100 widgets of equal quality from your factory each day — it’s much more difficult to guarantee that you’ll write 10 pages of exactly equal quality for your novel each day.
In other words, all work is not created equal. Willing yourself to suck it up and make that client call or do that distasteful admin task is one kind of work (very controllable), while pushing through a creative block to give something new to the world is another entirely (less controllable).

Which is why I want to share a wonderful passage I recently discovered in Lewis Hyde’s classic book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, wherein he makes an elegant distinction between “work” and “creative labor”:

Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus–these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify… Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms — these are labors.Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule.

[Hyde closes with this striking footnote.]

There is no technology, no time-saving device that can alter the rhythms of creative labor. When the worth of labor is expressed in terms of exchange value, therefore, creativity is automatically devalued every time there is an advance in the technology of work.

As creative professionals, it’s easy to confuse “work” and “labor” — both are a regular part of our everyday. But when we confuse one for the other, we create the illusion that “creative labor” can be willed, managed, or measured, when, in fact, it can only really be, as Hyde points out, beckoned.

We can do much to create the time, the space, and the expertise that lead to incredible creative work. But there is no silver bullet; there is no “time-saving device” or productivity system that is going to alter the rhythm of invention.

Sometimes we’re better off accepting that certain processes can’t be rushed. Then we can set aside the accomplish, accomplish, accomplish mindset of willpower, and find the stillness that will help us move forward.

What Do You Think?

Do you approach regular work and creative labor in different ways?

How do you find a natural creative rhythm?

More insights on: Creative Blocks, Time Management

Jocelyn K. Glei

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A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with understanding how work gives our lives meaning. She has authored three books about work, creativity, and business, including the Amazon bestsellers Manage Your Day-to-Day and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.
load comments (29)
  • Jew Barrymore

    Its true. I’m a freelance writer and there is just no way, nothing out there helps me. I tried blocking sites, time management apps, you name it. it’s not happening. I do however, believe in a state of mindfulness to help complete tasks. I forgot who said it but it goes along the lines of washing dishes for the sake of washing dishes. Personally though I use music to keep a creative rhythm. 

    I also find that trying to justify ones own stagnation doesn’t help either, especially in this day and age. I’ve found myself saying time and time again, “the problem with writers, designers etc… is that we made the mistake of turning our passion into work”. It was never designed to be work in the first place. At the end of the day, if you want to keep your job, the answer is simple; don’t talk about it, be about it. 

  • Brian Moore

    Very true distinction between work and labor. In fact, I think it is captured in the common phrase “a labor of love” when talking about something we have invested our heart and soul into.
    Personally, I find one of my greatest blockers to creativity is worrying about the time it takes me and being concerned that others in my organization find me to be “productive” in my job.
    I have found that there are things we can do to “set the environment” for creative labors, but as you said and Jew Barrymore confirmed, there isn’t a silver bullet thing or app for that. I have been a sucker for trying to find that one app or to-do list website that will make me productive. These things can definitely be helpful, but it comes down to me using these as a tool and then establishing rhythms to allow creativity to come out.
    I have found Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit, to be very helpful in discerning my creative “DNA” and establishing those habits or rhythms to bring it out.

  • Srinivas Rao

    I love this. So true. I’m amazed by how often people consider their to do list as real work. When you segment your creation time you tend to produce things of far higher value. The problem is that so many people still buy into the notion face time and think hours have something to do with the quality of work. I think we’re going to see a dramatic change in that in the near future. The people who have succeeded because of putting in longer hours will suddenly be in for a rude awakening because they’ll have to start doing something that matters. 

  • Alvalyn Lundgren

    I appreciate the differentiation between labor and work. Labor focuses on the process, which is what creativity is, and work focuses on a result. To produce anything, both are necessary. Labor results in a “work”. Working on something is labor… bringing something into being.

    A lot of creative time is not visible or measurable. As a designer and illustrator, I stopped using an hourly rate structure long ago and switched to value-based fees based on a project scope rather than how long it takes to produce it. I charge a separate project management fees to cover the non-creative activities. This helps my clients understand that there is a difference, and that creative effort can’t be measured in hours. I’ve taken David Allen’s GTD principles and tweaked them to fit me.

    For me, creativity needs to arrive at some outcome or it’s not useful to others but is self-serving. 

  • Jennifer Bailey

    I love the distinction between work and labor.  Thanks for that, Jocelyn.

    While I completely agree we can’t will creative labor, I think we can “manage” it in terms of creating space for creativity to happen. 

    The bottom line is it’s too easy to be pulled from the creative space to “work” To Dos. 

    I think we can give ourselves the best chance of creating if we manage the “space” (time, environment, mindfulness, etc.) in which we do it.

  • Matthew


  • Pencilneck

    Work being different from labor? Sure, but the bit about “There is no technology, no time-saving device that can alter the rhythms of creative labor. When the worth of labor is expressed in terms of exchange value, therefore, creativity is automatically devalued every time there is an advance in the technology of work” I say “Bah!”

    If this was the case, no writing of any worth would be created except by quill pens, and painters would still have to crush their own pigments.

    I contend that every great leap in creative work, whoops…I mean “labor”, is preceeded by some kind of tecnological advance. Not that technology guarantees art (far from it), but technology is invaluable in helping the mechanics of creation…it’s easier if you don’t have to fight with your tools.

  • ghuQ

    I agree that there’s no definite time to accomplish creative labor, but I disagree with that you can’t rush it, actually you can rush it by surrounding yourself with creative work groups, browse creative models, and try to get the best out of your time by observing what is good. And so you will get inspired easily. 

  • Tina Matsi

    I can appreciate the sentiment of this article. A lot of my best ideas have come not from just willing them by hours of work, but in those still moments when I’m doing something totally unrelated.

    Creativity is a strange mistress….

    I do agree with Pencilneck, technology has contributed the ease of output in someways…

    Great article…thank you….

  • jkglei

    Agreed, poisson! We can certainly do much to usher in the creativity. Since we talk about perseverance, tenacity, and hard work the other 99% of the time here on, I thought it would be nice to share a quote/moment of zen. : )

  • jkglei

    Agreed, Jennifer. Thanks for the great comments!

  • jkglei

    “The Creative Habit” is a fantastic book. I love how she stores each individual idea in a different box, and then lets them build/accumulate until they’re ready…

  • Sarah

    When I’m at the pinnacle of my creative moments, I’m also at my most irascible. If the phone rings, an email pops through about some mundane task that I KNOW will only take 3 minutes to do, or the neighbor’s dog starts barking, I feel threatened and ornery. People outside a creative line of work don’t understand why I ask that they make appointments for calls or simply pass calls to voicemail when I’m “in the office.” If I’m in the process of creating something – really creating, not just working – then I’m in a vortex. The world around me MUST cease to exist as it’s no longer work or labor; it’s euphoria. If I can reach that point, then the work I’m doing is enriching, the output lacks any sense of labor. It’s those moments that remind me that I’m not simply doing a job, but satisfying my purpose.

  • Makeitreal

    I think this work/labor distinction only confuses the real issue. All work should be respected. If you disrespect the work you disrespect the person who does it, aka yourself. What if we elevate our view of _everything_ we do? If something is totally uncreative, either a machine should do it or it’s probably just not worth doing.

    The worst problem with making this false split is that it will not pierce “the illusion that “creative labor” can be willed, managed, or measured, when, in fact, it can only really be, as Hyde points out, beckoned.” It just helps people rationalize that exact mistake by redefining all the tangible things people actually with their time as the “not-creative part,” leaving the “creative part” in some fairyland outside of real time.


    Great response Sarah. Creativity sometimes needs to be left in peace.

  • Sebastian A. Salazar

    Whether you call it being “in the zone”, focused or what not, when I find a nice groove and can get some serious editing done, I forget to eat, sleep, pretty much everything else. Trying to get there on the other hand is a monumental task. Great article..

  • Hallvar H. Johnsen

    Just what Mr.Salazar said. It’s probably not good for the body and the mind, but it’s a great feeling.

  • Antonia Balazs

    I don’t think there’s a value judgement being placed on labor over work here, but maybe it’s implicit.  I appreciate the distinction and in fact feel that both are necessary.  I love the way Thich Nhat Hanh puts it in his book ‘Anger’ ‘”My dear friend, if I did not grow lettuce, I could not write the poems I write'”. I absolutely agree with him and think that work is imperative to labor.

  • Mohamed Hassan

    Art is void of monetary value. It has an intrinsic value which can only be appreciated by those who realise it.

    I feel for instance that music is a creative output. But when we mix artists and corporate record labels, the creative output becomes almost nullified.

    In a world where it is all about productivity, creativity unfortunately has to compromise in what seems clearly a bad marriage.

  • Nora @ Logo Design

    Great. I have a Fantastic reading of this article. Useful Post. thanks for all.

  • Tara_imani

    Enjoyed both of your viewpoints… I’m sure Thomas Edison would probably have been irritated if Alexander Graham Bell called him during one of his attempts to invent the lightbulb. As both you and others ate saying: work/tasks are different from the act of creativity. They’re a yin-yen; when I process mundane tasks like doing chores, my subconscious mind is free to ‘work’ on solving problems. When I’m in the flow of a great idea, any interruption would result in a loss of work. Finding the space and the place to create is a balancing act.

    Add to that, the new concept of creative collaboration where we are asked to be inventive on teams. Brainstorming and Venn Diagrams are great tools; yet, eventually each person will need time and personal space to process new concepts and digest shared ideas. But wait too long and momentum could be lost.

    In architecture these days, for example, there’s a lot of talk about making cheap simulation models to test ideas- just as early inventors kept at their task, it seems that is the way to succeed on finding new breakthroughs…

    The new mantra is “fail early and fail often”– not sure if I have the order correct!

    Thanks for letting me sound off on this topic. I still need to finish reading that other book, too: The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry.

  • Jennifer Leigh

    Hmm.  There is some validity here, but I also believe the old adage, “The harder I work the luckier I get.” Sitting down and writing every day makes it a heck of a lot more likely I’ll turn out those 10 brilliant pages than waiting for inspiration to strike. 

  • jeffshattuck

    On debates such as this one, I often go old school and open up a dictionary. Here’s what Merriam Webster says:


    activity in which one exerts strength or faculties to do or perform something:a : sustained physical or mental effort to overcome obstacles and achieve an objective or resultb : the labor, task, or duty that is one’s accustomed means of livelihoodc : a specific task, duty, function, or assignment often being a part or phase of some larger activity

    a  : expenditure of physical or mental effort especially when difficult or compulsoryb (1) : human activity that provides the goods or services in an economy (2) : the services performed by workers for wages as distinguished from those rendered by entrepreneurs for profits

    Given these definitions, I think it’s fair to say that while the line between the two terms is a bit blurry, work is what goes into creating art and labor is what happens at a Wal-Mart checkstand. But regardless…

    I think the real challenge is that artists never want to be subject to a value measuring mechanism, especially a free market, as a way to determine the worth of their works. So I think the real debate around art is not what work or labor means but what worth means. Who has it, who doesn’t, what has it, what doesn’t? I don’t have the answer, except to say that the art you produce should be worth a lot to you. 

  • Susan Ladue

    I find that slogging my way through drudgery sometimes provides a breakthrough into creative rhythm.  If I’m not feeling inspired I sit down and write anyway, even if it’s a list of thoughts as disparate as “prayer does help” and “need to buy milk”.  Often when I study such a chaotic list, a theme or set of ideas emerges and I want to start writing.

  • Bojan

    I’ve tried to approach creative work from schedule point of view. More often than not it resulted in new and new barriers creating, but somehow I never gave this a second thought. I guess that letting creative work and the process itself flow in it’s own course is probably the best way of handling the task. When I think more about it, I come to realize that making schedule for other things to let room for creative work is probably the best approach.

  • Jitendra Shah

    procrastinating sometimes helps creativity

  • shammer53

    There are surprising parallels between “work” and “creative work”


  • Matte

    I feel like this is reversed, the first definition on labor via Google is “Work, esp. hard physical work: “manual labor”, not to mention the usage of “slave labor” rather than “slave work”.

    Then again, maybe “work” is too neutered, or even “confused”, something like that, to be meaningful either way; I can do good work, or bad work, I can work-hard (positive self-effort) towards a goal or be a hard-worker (secretly meaning “give my all to the boss, not myself”!). In this way, “slave labor” and “labor of love” end up being too ends of the same thing, the passionate extremes?

  • Stewart McDonald

    Oh vocabulary, what do you mean?

    Labor? Work? Let’s not limit this brilliant observation to the confines of common and grayed terms.

    The point is there is a difference between designed planned routine and reoccurring tasks and the pursuit of the creative arts applied to our vocations.

    The message needs to be heard by both the manager and the managed. We can set aside time and space for the predictable rhythm our non-creative tasks. These are the things we often need to do to prepare time and space for the creative endeavors that rush us forward to type of success that is both financially productive and personally satisfying.

    To have a creative rhythm requires more than the vibe of a beat. The rhythm must been felt and also seen through the right two “i’s”. One must be able to imagine and initiate to produce a pulse pounding creative rhythm.

    I am a superintendent of schools in Kodiak, Alaska. I work with one of the most innovative assistant superintendents a person is likely to meet. She is always reminding us to engage with out two i’s.

    Thank you for the article.

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