Time is money, so time is precious. You can waste time or lose it, and lost time can never be recovered because you can’t turn back the clock... These are all universal wisdoms and expressions we hardly ever contemplate anymore. But what is the relationship between time and creativity? Is time pressure and, as a consequence, stress one of the biggest idea killers as often is suggested or do you need a good dose of stress to come to awesome ideas? As with many things: the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Based on Braden Becker's article ‘The Surprising Relationship Between Stress and Creativity’, I want to give you a look into three kinds of (time) pressure. It is important to look at each of those in detail to thoroughly understand the relationship between time and creativity.
1. The Switch
Suppose they ask you to solve three problems within an hour. How would you go about it? Or in other words: how are you going to split your time between the three? Here are three possibilities:
Most people choose option C. Of course – you think – because you know best when you get stuck on one problem and want to move on to the next? We find autonomy and flexibility are very important when it comes to creative problem solving. Wrong, as it turns out… A 2017 study about Organizational Behavior and Human Decision processes tells us that we are not always aware we got stuck on a particular problem. So we usually don’t know when it is time to move on to the next problem. By switching at regular intervals from one problem to the next, your thinking will be reset so that every problem is looked at from a different angle all the time. Therefore, option B is the right answer.
By switching regularly, you subconsciously force yourself to approach the problem from another starting phase and hence a different angle. This way of working boosts creativity and prevents ‘rigid thinking’ that occurs when you focus on the same problem too long. A phenomenon we all have encountered at one point or another.
2. The Constructive Challenge
In the 2015 study ‘Job Stressors, Organizational Innovation Climate, and Employees’ Innovative Behavior’, two Chinese researchers studied different forms of stress and their influence on our creativity. They came to the conclusion that not all forms of stress impaired the generation of valuable ideas. For instance, stressors that are interpreted as constructive and challenging for the final assignment that has to be completed have a positive effect on creativity. The reverse is true for stressors that are perceived as impeding or precluding execution of the assignment.
It is a theory that actually had been suggested a few years before by Teresa Amabile, professor at Harvard Business School and one of the most renowned experts worldwide in the study of creative behavior. In her book ‘The Progress Principle’ she places four forms of stress in a matrix that is defined by two axes: work or time pressure and importance/meaning. She defines the stress forms as follows:
‘The treadmill’ as well as ‘the automatic pilot’ are very repetitive and therefore less attractive which means there is little creativity needed. ‘The expedition’ and ‘the mission’ on the contrary are important and meaningful, and this is exactly what sparks creativity, according to Amabile. When you reach a goal that you perceive as meaningful, you start to feel good, and your self-confidence soars. That motivates you to start on a new task.
The relationship between time pressure and creativity is totally dependent on how you perceive that pressure at any given moment. If that pressure is meaningful and important to reach the ultimate objective of the assignment, then it will stimulate your creativity. If the pressure is perceived as hardly meaningful, then it will sooner block your creativity.
3. The Deadline
I like to lend my ear to Teresa Amabile one more time for this third and most well-known form of stress and time pressure: the deadline. In the book ‘The Progress Principle’ already mentioned, she studies seven creative teams from three different sectors and tries to ascertain how much deadlines impede or rather enhance creativity.
During the first setting, employees had a tight deadline and were carrying out ‘treadmill’-work of little importance under high pressure. Their efforts bore little significance, hence they perceived too little meaning in their work to start thinking creatively. They primarily had to deal with ad-hoc tasks and the proverbial ‘extinguishing fires’ that in itself kept them busy, but didn’t bring them closer to finishing their core business.
Very broad deadlines also had a negative influence on creative thinking, even more so when employees disappeared in big project teams, spent their time on helping others, or hatched the same assignment for too long.
Employees who had to deal with moderate deadlines – that kept the middle between the two mentioned above – or even with tight deadlines, but in that case with a meaningful task that benefited their core business, performed better when it came to creativity. The stress of a deadline is maybe not always fun but it forces you to focus on your assignment, and it prevents you from getting distracted. People are willing to accept a deadline and work towards a creative solution as long as they keep thinking that this deadline is meaningful too and helps to accomplish the core business tasks.