Creativity Under the Gun

Few people would dispute that deadlines makes things get done faster, but do they make us more creative? Certainly we do have our moments of brilliance under pressure: during the Apollo 13 disaster in 1970, NASA ground crews had mere hours to engineer a makeshift carbon dioxide scrubber to replace the one aboard the damaged spacecraft. Their high stakes, "under the gun" creativity saved the three astronauts, but is it the way we usually work?

That's exactly the question that a group of Harvard researchers asked when they set out to study the creative processes of 177 employees on 22 project teams back in 2001. In doing so, they collected 9,000 diary entries that link workplace environment, time pressure, and creative output. The research project, summarized in a very accessible HBR article here and a longer working paper here, provides fascinating insight into when being "under the gun" makes us more creative, and when it doesn't.

A couple big takeaways. First, time pressure does NOT improve creativity. In fact, people were 45% less likely to think creatively on the days that they rated as the most hectic. Second, and somewhat amazingly, the impact of high pressure days persisted, depressing creative output for two full days afterward. We thus seem to be subject to "creative hangovers" brought on by exhaustion and cognitive paralysis.

Finally, the authors did find some cases where time pressure dramatically improved creative output - the "Apollo 13 moments." By delving into the qualitative diary entries, they were able to identify a common set of conditions across all of these instances. In particular, workers:

  1. Were protected from distractions and were able to focus on one activity,
  2. Believed that their work was important and challenging, and
  3. Were tasked with both identifying problems and exploring solutions.

Together, these conditions convey a sense of "meaningful urgency" rather than Calvin's "last minute panic". The study thus suggests that while we'd do well to avoid high pressure deadlines whenever possible, there are still ways to be creative even if we find ourselves under the gun. Check out the HBR article here and the longer working paper here.