Creativity as sand

March 16, 2022

Sarah Tavel writes that the activities we spend our time on everyday can be boiled down to three categories: rock, sand, and water.

  • Rock activities span large chunks of continuous time (watching TV, playing video games)
  • Sand activities slip between those large chunks (briefly checking Reddit or Twitter)
  • Water activities passively cross over both rock and sand activities (listening to music)

While comparing the three, Tavel notes that rock activities are “the hardest to fit into a schedule and therefore the hardest to earn”, and suggests that when it comes to retaining consumer attention, sand or water activities are the way forward.1

“It’s much easier to find moments for sand during a day — 30 seconds of TikTok is easier to find than 30 minutes of Fortnite.”

I have been thinking about this framework in the context of creative work.

My thought process goes something like this: Making stuff is a rock activity. It’s hard to fit rock activities into our schedules. It’s even harder to do so without external incentives. As a result, people are deterred from making stuff.

So I started wondering: how do you turn “making stuff” into a sand or water activity? What are sand or water activities that relate to the creative process? 2

The most obvious sand activity is consuming content (articles, tweets, forums, podcasts, videos). This is essentially required for anyone who wants to create. You glean what other people are doing, gather data to imitate from, and find unexpected bits of inspiration. However, consuming content is very passive and dangerously easy to mistake for doing actual work.

Talking with people is a sand activity that’s important to the creative process. It’s too easy to get lost in your thoughts and quickly lose faith in a project. Talking with friends will keep you grounded. Great conversation partners can often enhance your ideas by offering angles you couldn’t think of yourself.

Jotting down quick notes is another good one. There’s no better way to realize the haziness of your inner thoughts until you try writing them down. But more importantly, doing so plants the seeds of inspiration for later work. Those thoughts usually turn up in some way or another.

The last activity I can think of is organizing meetups where you and a couple friends go make stuff together. (Or work on separate projects, but in each others’ presence.) And that’s a rock activity — but one that people are hopefully more motivated to fit into a schedule because friends are involved.

Ultimately, you can only game the creative process so much. If you want to create, you have to make time to sit down and do that.

But there’s a lot more to creating than the physical act. A hugely underrated part of creating is cultivating the right environment for it: surrounding yourself with open-minded and nuanced people to talk to. Finding your inspirations and emulating their craft. Accepting the often murky and confusing conditions of the creative process.

Maybe we can’t tackle creativity head-on. But it feels like we discover sand and water activities that brush the edges of it. And that feels like an important step forward in what feels like very underexplored territory.

1. To clarify, this article is written for consumer startups. But there are broader implications of these statements, which is why I bring them up.

2. Technically, creativity is inherently a water activity. We constantly gain new perspectives and experiences that inform our beliefs, thoughts, and ideas. But since that’s an automatic function of the brain, I’m not counting it.