“Sometimes you’ll get lucky,” my college English professor told our class. “The sky will open up and the literary muses will bestow their blessings upon you, and a great essay will flow out of you, fully formed. But most of the time, it doesn’t happen that way. It takes time to do the research, think creatively about the problem, make new connections, organize your ideas, and then write several drafts until you have a tight, polished paper. If you wait until the last minute, you’ll very rarely get an A.”
It was toward the end of the semester, and the class of junior- and senior-level English majors had started to lose focus. So, our professor had decided we needed a good talking-to about time management.
Suddenly she turned to me. “Taylor, your papers are always well-organized and polished. Tell the class about your writing process.”
I wanted to crawl under my desk. “Um, well, you know, I guess I …” I stuttered, trying to figure out the best way to spin my answer. I didn’t want to lie, but I was scared to admit the truth—that I started writing most of my research papers the day or even night before they were due. This professor was also my mentor, and I didn’t want to lose her respect by revealing my true nature: chronic procrastinator.
Instead, I kept my answer brief: “I research my topic well in advance so I have time to think about it for several days. By the time I start writing, I know basically what I want to say.”
This was true. I always did my research early, usually because I had the naively optimistic notion that I would—for the first time ever—start writing well in advance of my deadline. But once the research was done, more time-sensitive tasks always seemed to pop up—other assignments, housework, errands, alphabetizing my DVD collection—and somehow I always managed to wait until the last possible minute to actually start writing. Of course, while I was doing dishes, organizing my closet, cleaning out my inbox, and dusting the ceiling fans, I was also thinking creatively about my topic and how I would arrange my ideas.
As it turns out, I hadn’t been slacking as much as I thought. I was working on my ideas days or even weeks before my deadlines, just not while sitting in front of my computer.
My professor was right. Creative thinking does take time and focus, but it also requires patience and the freedom to procrastinate. New research backs this up, proving the more time we have to consider a problem or idea, the more critically we think and the better decisions we make.
Of course, creativity isn’t the only important factor for success at work. So is productivity. Most of us have deadlines to meet, and in today’s fast-paced digital world, speed matters. But study after study has proven that good ideas and good decisions can’t be rushed, because both require thinking creatively.
For example, one group of neuroscientists found that tight deadlines increase our stress levels, which can lead to faster problem-solving but also worse solutions. Dr. Richard Boyatzis, a professor of organizational behavior, psychology and cognitive science, explained his team’s findings to The Wall Street Journal:
The research shows us that the more stressful a deadline is, the less open you are to other ways of approaching the problem. The very moments when in organizations we want people to think outside the box, they can’t even see the box.
Neuroscientists John Kounios and Mark Beeman, co-authors of The Eureka Factor, use brain imaging technology to study how creative thinking happens in the brain. Their research also shows that deadlines limit the brain’s ability to make connections or generate insights. As Kounios explained to The Washington Post:
Having a deadline, which carries with it the implicit threat of a negative consequence if you don’t meet it, can create anxiety and shift your cognitive strategy into a more analytical mode of thought. Deadlines can increase analytical productivity, but if an employer really needs something outside the box, innovative and original, maybe a soft target date would encourage more creativity.
Findings like these seem to suggest leaders should let creative workers set their own pace and turn in work whenever inspiration finally strikes. But that’s not realistic in a business environment, when our employers, colleagues, and customers are waiting on us to deliver.
Creativity and productivity, it seems, are often at odds. How can we close the gap between the two so that we can do our best work in the time we have?
Ditching deadlines isn’t the answer, nor is sacrificing quality for the sake of speed. But how do we find a happy medium?
For leaders in creative fields, the lesson here is to set flexible deadlines whenever possible—to leave some wiggle room in case good ideas take longer than planned. Consider breaking large projects into smaller tasks with their own deadlines. This not only prevents last-minute stress and overwhelm for workers; it also gives you good opportunities to check in and to offer support and feedback.
As Laura Vanderkam points out in her Fast Company article, it also helps to know your team members and set expectations for individuals. She says that while some people are good at meeting deadlines, “Others need more hand-holding and frequent check-ins. They’re not bad people, they’re just different people. Good management means getting to know the people you’re working with, and using deadlines as one tool in your kit for getting good work out of them in a timely fashion.”
While an understanding and flexible boss is certainly an asset for creative workers, individuals must also take responsibility for getting the job done—for thinking as creatively and as quickly as possible. This requires commitment and proper planning so we can give ourselves the time we need, rather than rushing at the last minute and stressing ourselves to the point of writer’s block. It also means learning how to get in the “creative thinking” zone when we need to be productive, not just when the moment strikes.
For scientifically-proven ways to be innovative and efficient, read “7 Productivity Tips to Boost Creativity on a Deadline.”