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Are You An Armchair Creative?

It turns out that armchair creatives actually get MORE done. Find out how alternating intense "desk focus" with a relaxed setup can increase productivity.

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?

Comments (94)
  • Mark McGuinness

    Great story! Apparently the poet Andrew Motion takes cold medicine when he gets writer’s block, even when he’s not ill, as it reminds him of the kind of state you’ve just described.

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  • Lilywhite

    The US creative culture currently seems to favor “doing” over “thinking”…even in the increasingly cliché DIY movement there is an anti-intellectual trend, anything conceptual seems to be pushed aside in favor of anything that instructs, shows productivity, solves a social/economic problem.

    This is fine if this is confined to this sort of socially activated work, but it’s overflowing to generalized creative culture. It’s defended by the idea that “Creatives Create” and the belief that thinking without doing is not tangible and therefore of no value. I’m all for play and experimentation, but at some point introducing longer periods of reflection is integral if you care to transcend the short term satisfaction that constant automatic production can provide. Conceptual work is being branded as Serrano-esque and being brushed
    aside as a waste of “down-to-earth” peoples’ time. Conceptual work can
    solve problems as well; it can change cultural conversations, challenge
    minds just like any other forms. When did we fall out of love with fostering the intellect, why do
    we hate the dreamers?

    This is a BIG problem. An armchair as part of creative process is important as you say, because it introduces calm, and thinking without “doing” (while I’d argue thinking IS doing) it adds perspective. It’s true there are cases where you can really only learn by doing…but bias against critique or thinking are part of a dangerous trend that needs to be reversed. Thinking and critique are not only important, they are the keystone to collective creative growth. Constant productivity is a corporate value, why has the creative world adopted it as their own?

  • Aaron Aiken

    Thanks for the challenge. This is an area of my day that I need to get back!

  • Keenant

    I completely agree that true insight comes from spontaneous insight within the mind when relaxed. Now how do I convince my boss that doing nothing ‘noticeable’ is actually more productive then mindless procedure.

  • Jodie Martin

    I recently appropriated a comfy chair (not quite an armchair – it has no arms) from the common room and put it in my office. Initially it was to be a reading chair but then I decided to take up knitting as a non-smoker’s alternative to pipe smoking; I sit in my chair and knit and think. It helps to have something to do with my hands as I’m thinking and a tactile way of marking time – after a couple of rows (I’ve only just started knitting; I’m not fast yet) I’m either ready or inspired to get back to work. I just need to remember to do it more often!

  • Ku Ri Curry

    Unfortunately for me,

    I’m a fresh grad and having an office of my own is but a far dream. So the only space for “breaks” I really have would be the comfort room.

    Haha, but it does work…
    And maybe even taking a walk during break time and just looking up at the skies.
    It’s free, and it’s there…unlike coffee shops and the likes..~
    but it has possibly the same effect.

  • Hollie Sheard

    I have no room for an armchair in my tiny studio! But when I’m trying to write songs and I’m running out of ideas, just going to the kitchen to make a cup of tea or even for a bathroom break is enough to generate a new idea. Sometimes all we need is a little change of scenery.

  • Eames Office Chair

    Office chairs are available in a huge selection in many specialized stores. There are two reasons behind this. For one thing, different kinds of office chairs will be available for different kinds of budgets. Secondly, there are different styles of chairs to accommodate the different looks that various offices have. 

  • tararat

    Don’t let yourself deprived and uncomfortable in
    the chair in your office, you can always have the option to change it time by
    time to see what the best chair is for chair reviewscomputer chair reviewsoffice chairs reviewsbest computer chairbest office chair

  • Cheap furniture living room

    The 99% provides insights on productivity, organization, and leadership – all designed to help creative people take action and push their ideas forward.

  • Arkadiusz Dymalski

    Good post. The importance of context switching and physical relaxation is always worth emphasizing. But particularly valuable is the “Ignore sludge” advice, because that’s something what often discourages people from using “new” tools, methods and approaches. 

  • Hans Schiefelbein

    Great stuff Mark.  It takes discipline and reflection to make this work, but you lay out the concept very well.

  • castors

    When buying a nice leather arm chair is to make sure that it can be cleaned easily. By this you’ll want to make sure that you use cleaning materials which will not harm the leather itself. 

  • eames lounge chair

    There is so many office chair can you buy but I suggest like eames chair, the
    eames chair must have all the quality above, it is also comfortable for
    you to work efficiently. I tdon think so if its comfortable to have a gym ball as chair in the office.

  • ThomasStrome

    Armchairs are very useful in office chairs. It doesn’t only give you time to think but will also make you more relax specially on tough times.
    This is just perfect for reception desk.

  • Cumulo7

    I’m currently working from home and i use an arm chair as my office chair. Whenever i feel like i’m staring at a blank screen i close my laptop and grab a book. The space i have to work is very small, So combining the both are the only option. But i do find myself sitting back when i shouldn’t be. Hopefully one day i’ll have an office 🙂

  • Tracey

    so simple and so true. our staff went to Good Will, and we all purchased a comfy chair…reuse and relax…the “chair oasis” was a way to self express and became the perfect place to escape the glow of the screen and invite others to sit and shoot the s#!t

  • Wit UnWit

    can so relate to that, sound advice!

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