Conventional wisdom says that our boldest, most groundbreaking ideas come in crunch time. After all, who didn’t crank out full papers in college the night before they were due?
Turns out that the emotional stress created by time pressure actually prevents us—and our brains—from generating novel ideas. But since we can’t just relax and let the ideas pop into our minds, what are we supposed to do when we’re on deadline? Try some of these science-backed strategies to stay creative under the clock.
Why Stress Kills Your Productivity
Stress hormones inhibit activity in the brain areas involved in goal-seeking and executive function, and that causes the "thought spirals" and paralysis that make us procrastinate and derail our projects.
Basically, when we’re extremely stressed, our bodies uses the "fight or flight" response to escape harm. This diverts all of our body’s resources to raising our blood pressure and heart rate, which shuts down our digestive and other bodily systems, and drains energy from the higher-order thought we need to create new ideas.
Studies conducted on workplace creativity, in particular, support this. They found that stressful work environments and particularly a feeling of working without meaning decrease creative thinking.
Here are seven ways to keep the pressure from killing your creativity:
1. Watch Cute Cat Videos
Seriously. In a study of the effect of mood on creativity, subjects who watched a video of a peppy baby or listened to a Mozart clip performed better on a pattern recognition task than people who had watched Schindler’s List or listened to somber music.
The researchers’ explanation? "If you have a project where you want to think innovatively, or you have a problem to carefully consider, being in a positive mood can help you to do that," says Ruby Nadler, a researcher at the University of West Ontario. Also, the research team posits that people watch YouTube videos at work to unconsciously improve their moods.
Recommendation: Binging on cat videos is the most obvious solution, but not every situation allows for secret Youtube sessions. Use some scientifically backed low-tech pick-me-ups, like spritzing your favorite scent, eating some omega-3s, or decluttering your desk.
2. Wait Until You’re Tired
If you’re not a morning person, you probably wouldn’t try to write a symphony before coffee number three, right? Often, we assume we’re most creative when we’re feeling our most energetic or—at the very least, when we’re not nodding off. But a study published in Psychological Science suggests the opposite: We produce our most insightful ideas at the time of day when we’re the most tired.
College students, split into groups of "morning people" and "night owls," were presented with two different kinds of problem solving brainteasers: An "insight task" that required creative thinking (i.e.,
How could a prisoner escape from a tower with a pair of scissors?) and an analytical problem-solving task, which used a narrower, more logic-based set of skills (i.e.,
Four women receive a specific kind of flower from their partners, under a certain set of conditions. Which received which kind of flower?) Each group completed the tasks twice, once in the morning and once at night.
Those who identified as "morning people" were more successful at creative problem-solving tasks during the night session, while performing better at analytical tasks when they were more alert in the mornings. Likewise, "night owls" performed better on creative tasks in the morning, and analytical tasks at night.
The explanation: When we’re tired, the neurons that inhibit unconventional thoughts are less active, which basically lowers the filter on our minds as they think up new ideas.
Recommendation: Unfortunately, we can’t clock into work right before we fall asleep. But if you need some quick insight, save your brainstorming session for the time of your workday when you feel least "awake." Morning person? Plow through your analytical tasks during the morning and brainstorm right before your 3 P.M. coffee refill. Night owl? Start cranking out ideas during your morning commute.
If you’re an entrepreneur, or you have a flexible schedule, you have more options. Consider reworking your schedule to match your most and least alert times. File your expense reports and run those projections when you’re feeling peppy, but save your social media outreach or blogging for when your energy sags.
3. Find (or Create) Meaning in Your Work
When creativity is under the gun, it usually ends up getting killed.
Teresa Amabile, professor, Harvard Business School
Even the most efficient time managers can’t avoid the occasional all-nighters. Anxiety-producing as those situations are, your attitude can make the difference between surviving and succeeding.
Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile conducted a study of 177 people working in seven chemical, high tech, and consumer products companies, who had been identified by management as working on a time-sensitive project that was the "creative lifeblood of their company." No pressure, though.
To learn how how people perceived the stress of their deadlines and measure their ability to think creatively under such pressure, researchers asked participants to rate several aspects of their work experience—including their sense of time pressure—in over 9,000 diary entries.
Then, workers described something notable about their project, work, or coworkers from that day. Researchers analyzed those open-ended responses for evidence of creativity, which they defined as "mentions of discovery, brainstorming, generating ideas, [or] thinking flexibly." They also included several cognitive processes typically associated with creativity, like learning, insight, awareness, and focused concentration.
Overall, time-based pressure led to decreases in creative decision-making. On days participants ranked their time pressure at the highest, they were 45 percent less likely to think creatively than on any of the lower-pressure days. "When creativity is under the gun, it usually ends up getting killed," said Teresa. But there was a notable exception: When workers felt that their project was important, they actually made more creative decisions, regardless of how much pressure or what kind of deadline they faced.
Recommendation: When you’re staring down the clock, look beyond the immediate consequences of your situation. Identify—or make up—a more personally fulfilling, intrinsic purpose behind your project. Emphasis here is on intrinsic, meaning you’re not just trying to please your boss or woo a client, but improve your own skills and flex your creative muscles. Sure, the threat of missing a deadline, the promise of a promotion, or a potential raise might keep you focused in the short term. But research shows that we can’t sustain that approach during a long-term career.
Why? When you don’t receive your expected payoff, you’ll resent having wasted your effort for nothing. During your next busy period, you’ll remember sacrificing your sanity without reward and feel just a little less motivated to repeat your mistake.
And you wouldn’t be alone. If you, like 70 percent of employees, feel disengaged at work, you may have to use mental gymnastics to find internal meaning in your work. Start with some of these best practices:
Visualize Those Who Benefit From Your Work
Your work serves a purpose beyond fulfilling your creative needs or pleasing your boss. Maybe your new advertising campaigns will introduce people to a product that can help them lose weight or regain control of their finances. Perhaps your presentation’s efficient communication and compelling graphics will seal a major deal for your business. Even if your deliverable doesn’t leave your office, your efforts could still ease the burden on one of your coworkers or streamline some inefficient process, which still provides a meaningful service. And at the least, your paycheck benefits your family. You get the point.
Instead of dwelling on the details, focus on that final product and how it will impact other people.
Working in a group? Leadership expert Pete Economy recommends that you "gather stories of how their work helps others, even in small ways, and encourage [your coworkers] to share their own stories. Reframe the work your team is doing so they can understand how and why they fit into that work."
Make it a Personal Challenge
Remember the last time you took a risk, opened yourself up to failure...and proved that you’re more capable than you think? Challenging yourself can also boost both your self-esteem and your creativity, as openness to experience is the trait most associated with creativity.
The key here is moderation. Set unrealistic goals and you’ll paralyze or completely demotivate yourself. Instead, write out SMART goals that stretch you without straining you.
4. Manage Distractions, not Time
Need a killer idea before your 2 P.M. conference call? Our first instinct is to brainstorm with coworkers, families, and friends. Two heads are better than one, right? But Amabile’s study of creativity under time constraints also found that distractions from others were more likely to inhibit an employee’s creativity and productivity than the passing of time alone.
There could be several reasons for that. Negative feedback from your coworkers could kill your confidence, causing you to second-guess yourself when another idea strikes you. A group consensus could be equally counterproductive. Especially if your group doesn’t have a diverse range of backgrounds, skillsets, and personalities, your brainstorm sesh will promote groupthink and make you more likely to limit yourself to your workplace’s status quo. Two heads are better than one, but only if they’re thinking two different things.
Recommendation: Try to unblock your mind on your own. Lock yourself in your office, put an away message on your email, and dive into your task for as long a period as possible. Distraction-free deep work is the only way to actually get things done, author Cal Newport writes in his book Deep Work. "To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction," says Cal. And sometimes, the most distracting thing can be others.
You can still broaden your perspective and encounter new ideas on your own by reading articles online or watching the cute cat videos mentioned above.
Another tip: For 20 minutes, force yourself to write down every thought that crosses your mind until you stumble upon that one nugget you need. It’s a common practice among writers. When they’re feeling stuck on a story, some magazine writers will force themselves to write 20 or 30 headlines for their article. When writers at Upworthy wrote 100 headlines in four days, they found that:
"Doing this exercise can actually tighten up your writing. Because a title needs to encapsulate for your reader everything you’re about to explain to them (or at least offer a significant and allusive kernel), you’re forced to think critically about what you’ve written, find holes in your argument, and ask the all important question: ‘What the hell is this thing actually about?’"
It’s a tedious exercise, but it forces them to hone in on their main points and stumble on what they’ve been trying to say for hours.
And by all means, take a break if you need to reset. But do it on your own terms, set a strict time boundary around your rest, and don’t be sucked into conversations in the break room.
5. Disrupt Your Routine
During stressful times, leadership experts recommend relying on a daily routine to reduce the mental strain of making everyday decisions, like planning your route to work, choosing dinner, or worrying about when to pay the bills. While rigid schedules allow us to accomplish a higher number of tasks, that rule doesn’t hold for the creative ones that require unconventional and flexible thought. Unlike our meetings and emails, we can’t just schedule "find groundbreaking idea" in between meetings on our Google Calendars. Instead, ideas strike spontaneously we least expect them—and they tend to slip away when we seek them most aggressively.
And when we perform the same exact tasks in the same order, follow the same commute, and otherwise constrain our thinking to the same thoughts we’ve already had, we use the same neurons over and over again. This keeps us from thinking outside of the box. Our neurons operate according to a "use or lose it" principle. By experiencing new sights and sounds and talking to new people, we engage new neurons and strengthen undeveloped connections between those cells, which primes our brains to make novel connections between ideas.
Recommendation: Unless you work remotely, your ability to seriously spice up your schedule is limited. So experiment with small tweaks to your day. Swap out a new podcast every week during your morning drive, try a different route to work, or even order lunch from different places every day.
Remote workers can rotate between coffee shops, change up their workspaces, or just attend a book club or social activity during their lunch breaks.
...Especially Your A.M. Rush
Every morning, you might as well spike some stress hormones into your Starbucks. Your morning commute creates the kind of stress that can paralyze our brains all day—so if you can only change one aspect of your day, make that it.
Scrambling the door, swearing at traffic, and sprinting into office all increase our stress hormones, including cortisol. Cortisol harms myelin, the fatty tissue lining our brain cells that sends signals between neurons. This literally slows down the creative process in our brains. The only thing we do right? Drinking coffee, which increases our levels of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that rewards us for seeking rewards (like we might get from striking upon that eureka idea).
But although the day-to-day stress of commuting undermines our creative thought, unusual nightmare situations (think transit strikes and delays) have the opposite effect. When you’re stranded, you’ve still got to get to work somehow, right? During a London transit strike, Londoners experimented and actually found more efficient routes to work, proving that necessity really is the mother of inventive thought.
Recommendation: If you can’t take a different route to work or beat the morning rush, try repeating mantras, meditating, or distracting yourself with a podcast to relieve stress during your morning drive. Whatever you choose, be sure to refill your Starbucks on the way.
And OK, you’d probably never choose to be stranded at a train station the day your project is due. But if you find yourself in that situation? Embrace the stress, as it could stretch your mind in unexpectedly positive ways.
6. Daydream About Your Next Vacation
During a marathon cram session, your mind keeps wandering to a ski chalet in Switzerland, a beachside oasis in Hawaii, any exotic escape from your desk.
Turns out our fantasies are more functional than we think. In a study of the relationship between spatial distance and creativity, participants named as many modes of transportation as they could. People who were told that the study was developed in Greece (from farther away) generated more numerous and unconventional modes of transportation than those who were told that the study was developed in Indiana (from a closer distance).
The researchers explained that when the participants perceived the creative problems as farther away from them, they found them easier to solve.
Recommendation: When you’re stressed, psychologically distance yourself from the task by planning out your next bucket list trip. Don’t just picture a few palm trees and a posh ocean view, though. Walk yourself a through a full day and add as many sensory details as you can. Going back to that beach example, envision the reflection of the sunrise on the water and the pastel shades in the sky, the calming rush of the ocean tide, the sea breeze.
Not only will this exercise give you healthy distance from the work at hand, but thinking of those sensory details will activate new sets of connections in your brain.
7. Embrace (or Accept) Failure
Concentrate more on process than outcome. The outcome will happen either way, so pay attention to what is happening right in front of you.
In the face of excessive stress, we avoid risk. After all, why add more uncertainty and the possibility of failure to an already heavy load?
Sure, we’ve all heard artists, authors, and musicians reflect on receiving years of rejections before getting their big break. But when we’re beating ourselves up for every mistake, and avoiding new opportunities as a result, it’s important that we apply their persistence to our own work, even (or especially) during the difficult times.
"It’s not life or death," says Chris Regan, a five-time Emmy winning comedy writer for The Daily Show and Family Guy. "Go into the process knowing that you will rewrite. Keep in mind that there is another show tomorrow, it makes it easier. Concentrate more on process than outcome. The outcome will happen either way, so pay attention to what is happening right in front of you."
Of course, that’s easier said than done. But worrying about your unfinished project wastes energy that your brain can use to...actually finish it.
Next time you’re planning a pitch and nervously anticipating failure, accept that, OK, you might actually fail. Then write out a list of the absolute worst-case scenarios that’ll unfold if you fall short of expectations. Will you lose your job? Will you lose your house? Your health?
Probably not. While nobody enjoys receiving criticism, our setbacks (almost) never bankrupt us, destroy our relationships, or have the irreparable effects that we think they will. Your manager might not remember it six months from now. Since we’re so intricately involved in every detail of our work from conception to conclusion, we usually take the outcome more seriously than anyone else. If your fear of failure is paralyzing your every step, remember this and make the risky choice. Bonus: Once you stop-or just quiet-the internal chorus of self-criticism, you’ll be more open to new sources of inspiration in the news or your environment.
Stress creates a Catch-22 for creatives. Time pressure causes stress, which prevents us from thinking innovatively, which sets us further behind and adds even more time pressure.
Next time you have a case of the afternoon slumps, try one of these tips. Watch a cat video, change your routine, or think about those who benefit from your work. You can stop the cycle before it starts.
Need more motivation? Here are some extra tips to keep you productive today:
Learn 3 Science-Backed Ways to Boost Your Motivation (and yup, they work even when you don't feel like working).
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Try a more visual brainstorming to get your creative juices flowing. Here's how to make a mind map and visualize your ideas creatively.
Header photo by gnuckx via Flickr; Stress photo by Tim Gouw via Pexels; Walk photo by Emma Simpson via Unsplash; Train photo by José Duarte via Unsplash.