You’ve been trudging along, writing at an erratic pace, when an email arrives. Noting the sender, you close your Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook windows and hone in. Thanks for your recent query. We’d love to feature your work. Fantastic, you think. Then you spot the deadline. Yipes. Adrenaline kicks in. Your heart beats faster. And within minutes you’re fully submersed in the work you wished you’d been prioritizing for months.
Relatable? If so, you might want to take the following seriously.
In response to my deadline post, many of you admitted to working well, even thriving, under pressure. Others of you expressed difficulty in making self-set deadlines—which often lack pressure— stick. Well guess what. A growing body of evidence shows that the notion that pressure boosts work performance and creativity is a myth. (Yowsers, right?)
Research published in the Harvard Business Review in 2002, for example, showed that the more pressure workers experience, the greater their creativity suffered. On days involving the highest amount of pressure, creativity dropped a whopping 45 percent. Participants also experienced a “pressure hangover,” meaning their creativity dropped not only on the high-pressure day, but for several days after.
And it gets crazier. People involved in the studies deemed their creativity the sharpest under pressure, i.e., when it tanked. Based on multiple studies’ conclusions, we’re likely to believe our creativity rages under pressure, when in fact it’s stress and adrenaline. We may get the job done, which is commendable, but at what cost?
What this could mean for writers:
- If we believe we work best under pressure, we may be fooling ourselves. Are there exceptions? Probably. But I think it’s worth considering.
- Waiting for pressure to set in before writing could pose challenges and limitations. And not only in regards to creativity. With the exception of taking reasonable breaks, not writing isn’t known to improve writing.
- Relaxation is important for creativity, particularly when we’re up against tight deadlines.
- When given the option, choosing longer deadlines might save our creativitys’ hineys.
- Learning ways to reduce what HBR calls the biggest creativity-dousing factor—extreme time pressure—is invaluable.
“The best situation for creativity is not to be under the gun. But if you can’t manage that, at least learn to dodge the bullets.” —Harvard Business Review
8 Ways to Sharpen Creativity Under Pressure
1. Understand why timeframes are necessary. This helps keep creativity better in check, according Harvard researchers. If we know that a publisher will only accept a manuscript by a particular day, for example, we’re more likely to embrace the importance of the work and forge ahead effectively compared to having an arbitrary deadline.
2. If a tight deadline isn’t necessary, consider an extension. As a health writer, I’m used to working under deadlines. And I love them. But when my agent and I agreed on a one-month deadline for a major revision of my novel, I knew within days how lofty it was. Once the deadline grew close, I asked for a 5-day extension. Simply having that freed up my creative juices and helped me write what I think may be some of my strongest material. Asking for more time when needed isn’t a sign of weakness, but professionalism.
3. Recognize the difference between extended deadlines and procrastination. If you tend to procrastinate, avoiding pressure could be a double-edged sword. Some amount of pressure, or at least motivation, seems key to moving forward. If you’ve been waiting for pressure, when you believe you thrive, ask yourself if you’re truly waiting or simply postponing the work out of fear of failure or other deeper issues. Self-honesty plays a big role here.
4. Take care of your physical and emotional self. We’ve probably all had times when our personal needs fell to the wayside out of creative work
obsession enthusiasm. Whether we’re hyper-focused due to personal passion or deadline-induced stress, taking measures to sleep well, eat well, exercise and relax matters. We may think we’re awesome professionals for prioritizing our craft over self-care, but all we’re really doing is damage. Self-care boosts creativity. Just don’t make it a full-time job.
5. Maintain a comfy routine. I’m not a big fan of schedules. That said, I love my loose writing routine—write in the morning, take breaks to eat and exercise then write all afternoon. Erratic shifts in routines amidst pressure can disrupt creative flow and stimulate or worsen anxiety. If you can, postpone gatherings, household repairs and aliens overtaking your workspace.
6. When you’re plotting or pansting a first draft, cut yourself some slack. Sharp creativity is particularly important when our stories are first being crafted. Some writers love pressure induced by word count goals and whipping out drafts. And there are some benefits to rapid writing. But opting for more flexible goals, such as writing every day, can be helpful from a creative standpoint—assuming you don’t have a hefty deadline upcoming. Moving forward and producing our best work trumps plentiful words and writing quickly, in my opinion.
7. Let ideas incubate. Some of our best work takes form after our minds have had a chance to mull new ideas over. This is why allowing ideas to incubate, even for short time periods, can help ensure effective work once we sit down to write. Research published in Organization Science in 2004 suggests bouts of mindless work as a useful way to enhance creativity. So why not let your ideas incubate and tidy your house or car at the same time? If you’re under the deadline gun, take short breaks. For added perks, let ideas incubate during exercise—a mega brain function-booster.
8. Seek support. Research also shows that one-on-one collaborations and discussions, and avoiding needless/obligatory group meetings, encourages emotional ease, creativity and work quality. Don’t be afraid to ask your agent, publisher, editor or best writing pal for support. Chances are, they’re eager to give it.
For more information, check out these fabulous related links:
Big Think: Relaxation and Sleep: The Science of Sleeping on It
Harvard Business Review: Creativity Under the Gun
Freelance Switch: 14 Essential Tips for Meeting A Deadline
Were you surprised by the Harvard findings? Do you feel you work best under pressure? How do you nurture and stimulate your creativity? **No pressure, but if you haven’t submitted your “I’m a writer!” photo and would like to, you have until the end of the day Wednesday.