Diamonds are formed under pressure

There are numerous examples of companies who allowed staff to take time to work on their own innovations and creative ideas. Companies such as AT&T’s Bell Labs (leading to the transistor and the laser), 3M allowing people to have 15% of their time to work on projects of personal interest (leading to Post-It notes) and Google.

At the same time, there is no shortage of stories of people, teams and companies succeeding under tremendous time pressure to come up with game-changing ideas to solve a problem, produce a piece of art or breakthrough new product.

Stories like how during the 1970 Apollo 13 NASA moon mission, engineers and scientists at ground control only had hours to produce, test and instruct the astronauts on how to produce an air filter using nothing but the materials the astronauts had around them.

Or how modern video game developers often need to work right up until the last minute to finish a game before it is released to critical acclaim.

There are also countless examples of people who say they work best under pressure, using the deadlines as a motivation to get their best work done.

So is time pressure actually good for creativity?

According to research, the answer is: no.

In most cases, if your people are constantly working under time pressure and the stress that comes along with it, it can harm their ability to be creative and execute on those innovative ideas effectively.

One of the most comprehensive studies on the subject was from 2005 by Jennifer Mueller, Teresa Amabile and colleagues, collecting thousands of daily journal entries from 222 employees at 7 companies.

From analysing the content of the journal entries, they could determine what sort of activities were performed on the day, and whether people made note of mindsets, feelings or actions which indicated they had been creative.

And the results were clear: time pressure results in people being less creatively productive.

In this 2002 Harvard Business Review article previewing some of the findings, the authors noted:

When creativity is under the gun, it usually ends up getting killed. Although time pressure may drive people to work more and get more done, and may even make them feel more creative, it actually causes them, in general, to think less creatively.

According to the study, the average worker felt moderate time pressure every day. This can slowly but surely lead to them feeling overworked, fragmented, and burned out.

In the short term, other studies have also shown that low levels of stress can help people come up with ideas. However, above moderate levels of stress, creativity quickly falls. Science has shown that people are more creative when they are happier and have better sleep, not when they are stressed.

Other research from 2006 has also shown that in teams and environments with a high support for creativity and innovation the relationship between time pressure and creativity is an inverse U-shaped curve. Small amounts of time pressure may be able to help focus and improve creativity, but moderate to large time pressure is bad for creativity. In environments with a low support for creativity, there was only a strongly negative correlation, where any amount of time pressure was worse for creativity.

Another study from 2017 showed that time pressure may help team members focus, but also makes it harder for team members to collaborate and share knowledge with one another.

When it comes to decision-making, a different 2022 study in Nature found that time pressure makes people less likely to engage in exploratory activities, as well as repeating what they have done previously more often.

And to make matters worse, in today’s work environment we are constantly surrounded by interruptions and distractions. Each time we are interrupted (whether by someone else or our own desire to switch tasks), it can take up to 23 minutes to get back on track and focus on the work. This results in people having less and less time to complete their productive work each day, and even if they do end up completing it, they feel more time pressure and the quality of the work suffers as a result.

Based on their reseach, Amabile et al set out the following Time-Pressure / Creativity Matrix showing what impact high or low time pressure might have on someone’s ability to think creatively:

Time Pressure / Creativity Matrix - Amabile et al, 2002

Time Pressure / Creativity Matrix – Amabile et al, 2002

Here, we see from their research that it is not impossible for people to be creative while they are under high time pressure. However, this requires people to feel like they are on a mission, where they feel like they are doing important work, and have the ability to do undisturbed work to actually make progress towards the goals.

When people are under high time pressure but do not have these benefits, they might feel like they are on a treadmill, due to the work they are doing being low-value, fragmented and constantly changing.

At the same time, just because someone is not suffering from time pressure, it does not mean that they will automatically be creative. If someone feels like they are on autopilot, not doing stimulating work and being in meetings with groups rather than individuals, then they are also less likely to come up with creative solutions.

So if you want your team or yourself to be able to do your most high-value, creative work, do what you can in order to reduce the amount of time pressure you feel.

Simple steps you can take include:

  • Blocking out time in your calendar to focus on and make progress on challenging tasks. Treat this time as sacred.
  • Try to schedule this time as early in the day as possible
  • Track what your specific and SMART goals and tasks are, and celebrate making progress on these by ticking them off and marking them as complete as they are done
  • Limit distractions. Tell people not to disturb you during this focus time, and shut off notifications from your phone, email and chat systems to limit the impacts of task switching
  • Do a meeting audit with your team. Check which meetings in everyone’s calendar may be redundant and can be replaced by asynchronous updates like an email or a recorded video message, or which recurring meetings can even be cancelled or shortened
  • Learn to say no to activities which are not aligned with your most important or challenging activities, and find team members who can help you by delegating work to them

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.