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The metaphorical lightbulb that illuminates when a person has a break through creative idea, rarely happens under pressure. Take Isaak Newton, one of the most influential scientists of all time, as an example. As a crucial figure in the scientific revolution, Newton had made many discoveries in various fields such as physics, alchemy, astronomy, mathematics and natural philosophy. Amongst the many contributions to these fields, the defining of universal gravity was very influential to the development of the world we live in today. There is a legend about how Newton first came up with the idea of gravity. As a young man, Isaak Newton was sitting in his mother’s garden under an apple tree. One apple falls on his head, it brought about a brilliant insight, namely the theory of gravity. According to this, he discovered the gravitational force, as this incident brought him to question the forces of nature. He came to the realisation that something must be acting on these falling apples or they would not separate from the others (Thompson & Havern, n.d.). However, if this falling apple was really the inspiration of his theory is still questionable. He spent considerable amount of years researching previous findings and studying mathematics to prove his theory (Steve Connor, 2011). Eventually, Newton could prove that gravity would decrease as the inverse square of the distance. The creativity needed to conjure up the idea of gravity and to prove its existence did not happen over-night, or under the pressure of a looming deadline. Other examples of extraordinary ideas and the extreme amount of creative work it takes to develop them are the works of William Shakespeare, Leonardo DaVinci and Charles Darwin. It is improbable that all these revolutionary works would have come about if they had rushed their work. Not only in science but in organisations and academia too, there is extreme pressure to come up with new ideas as people in this sector are mostly dependant on the next pay check. It has been suggested that time-pressure curbs creative thinking by reducing the amount of exploratory thinking and consequently, employees start banking on routine algorithms to solve these problems. Ergo, innovative ideas are hard to come by (Andrews & Smith, 1996).
This paper explains creativity’s various different relations to time-pressure. It attempts to describe the numerous ways by which creativity is affected by this pressure and explores various different factors that may impact creativity such as environment, personality and perceived importance. Conclusively, with the information gathered, methods to enhance creativity under different circumstances, will be discussed.
Relationship Between Time-Pressure and Creativity
Whether it is for a few days or over a span of a few weeks, time-pressure reduces creativity. Although research that has been conducted over the last few decades has searched for an answer as to how creativity is generated, there is still no concrete answer as to how this comes about and how time-pressure effects the creative mind. However, some valid theories have been established and studies on this topic have substantiated them.
Creativity is defined as the skill to innovate and use unusual, imaginative, novel and original ideas (Creativity, n.d.). In the realm of psychology, creativity is seen as the product of thousands of associations in one’s mind and the ensuing selection of interesting and useful associations. The more unusual the linkage of two or more rare notions is, the likelier it is that product is a novelty (Amabile, Hadley, & Kramer, 2002). This view of creativity and its process has been explained by Albert Einstein with the term ‘combinatorial play’ (Popova, 2012). It has been questioned by researchers as to what components are needed to engage in ‘combinatorial play’. It has been implied that two factors are necessary. Firstly, one needs enough time to create multiple associations and, secondly, that sufficient time is required to be able to explore numerous combinations of associations that could be useful. An additional study conducted by Amabile, Hadley & Kramer (2002), suggested that people who spend more time on exploring options, produce more creative works. In addition to this, it has also been demonstrated that giving participants time to think through a task rather than throwing them into the deep end, leads to more creative ideas. The mentioned studies and theories gives us some insight into the association between time and the creative mind. However, there is more research that suggest other factors that moderate the effects of creativity and time-pressure.
A study conducted by Baer & Oldham (2006) examined the possibility of a relation between perceived time-pressure and creativity. More specifically, they investigated whether this relation was influenced by support received and the personality dimension openness to experience. It was hypothesised that high and low time-pressure negatively influence the amount of a person’s creativity. Therefore, perceived intermediate time-pressure should be the sweet point for the creative thinking. A case study of the Progress Principle also demonstrated that under moderate deadlines, employees produced the most creative outcomes (Amabile & Kramer, 2012).The lowest point in U-shape of the graph marks the optimal level of cognitive stimulation (Baer & Oldham, 2006). In contrast to this, activation theory suggests that the relation between creativity and time-pressure is not an inverted U-shape, but a linear one. For reason of elucidation, the higher the creative time-pressure is, the more activation is experienced (Gardner, 1990).
Therefore, it was hypothesised that there were moderating affects that helped form this U-shape. Openness to experience is one factor in the Five Factor Model. Individuals who score high on this dimension are curious, imaginative, inventive and original (Matthews, Deary, & Whiteman, 2003). Feist (1998) demonstrated that this dimension did play a certain role in regards to creativity. However, it was found to be non-significant and does not moderate the experienced time-pressure and creativity relation. Nonetheless, support for creativity in an occupational setting did have a moderating effect. To this end, under perceived intermediate pressure and receiving high support people were more creative (Baer & Oldham, 2006). It has also been found that stress changes the human brain structure.
The Time-Pressure/Creativity Matrix
It has frequently been discussed as to how these two components, time-pressure and creativity, are intertwined. A common belief, especially amongst students, is that the most creative ideas emerge under intense pressure, for example, to meet deadlines, a threatening or inevitable event, or from the nagging of the people in one’s environment. The words of contemporary artist Enrique Martínez Celaya offer a way of viewing creativity, namely as a survival skill (Celaya Enrique Martínez, & Biro, 2020):
“Creativity often comes from survival skills, from having to solve problems in inventive ways because you did not have more obvious means at your disposal. Many people tend to associate creativity with freedom and moving laterally across a field of possibilities; in fact, creativity is frequently a response to limits and it usually demands a vertical, deeper incursion into the material.”
Consider the events on the Apollo 13’s voyage to the moon, as an illustration of Martinez’s view on creativity. An explosion on the spacecraft caused significant damage to the air filtration system, resulting in a carbon dioxide build up, which had the potential to kill everyone on board in less than 24 hours. Together, with the control centre down on Earth, they developed a make-shift filtration system (Dunbar, 2017). This life-saving creativity of crew and engineers was a product of time-pressure and a life-threatening event. Even though the filtration system did its part, it was definitely not perfect and had they had more time, it can be assumed that a more elegant solution would have been found.
Moreover, it has been proposed that time-pressure usually kills creative thinking. Like in the example of Apollo 13, fighting against the clock one might be more productive, but the outcome is less creative than if this pressure were non-existent. One perhaps feels more creative, given the circumstances of a looming deadline, but a study conducted by Amabile, Hadley & Kramer (2002) demonstrated that the more time-pressure experienced, the less likely it is that creative thinking takes place. Unfortunately, most are oblivious to this phenomenon and believe the opposite. The ‘Time-pressure / Creativity Matrix’ attempts to explain under what circumstances creativity is impeded, how it can be enhanced and how people experience it. The matrix below focuses on these two components in an occupational setting.
As described in the matrix, there are four possibilities under two factors: the likelihood of creative thinking (low or high) and time-pressure (low or high). The least likely of creative thinking happens when the pressure is extreme and people feel like they are constantly in a hamster wheel – going round and round in circles. This is most likely when they do not sense any type of urgency to complete the task or when this urgency disappears. It resulted in the inability to focus and feelings of uncertainty. Moreover, when being in this rut, people feel more distracted. Furthermore, the amount of creative thinking is limited when pressure is very low. Due to the lack of time-pressure, employees are on ‘autopilot’ mode. They receive little support and engage in more meetings with a group which are not only a distraction but also do not contribute to the project constructively. Under low time pressure creative thinking could be high if the people experience it as if they were ‘on an expedition’. Time is used to explore and create ideas. Lastly, if high time-pressure is unavoidable, the creative thinking of employees will be higher when feeling like they are on a mission. They are more likely to seek less distraction, probably caused by the extreme pressure they are under. Employees at that time tend to work alone rather in a group. In this situation, it is easier to set priorities (Amabile, Hadley & Kramer, 2002).
People experience stress in very different ways. The most common being feelings of burn out and being overworked (Newsweek, 2010). As bad as immense stress is for mental health, it also lowers creativity (Byron, Khazanchi, & Nazarian, 2010). It has also been observed that time pressure increased from Monday to Thursday, and decreasing rapidly on a Friday. This could be due to supervisors having lower expectations on these days. On the other hand, it could be attributed to the fact that Monday and Friday are days bordering on the weekend and, therefore, employees might be finding themselves in a type of ‘weekend mindset’. In this way they, are less affected by the pressure (Amabile, Hadley, & Kramer, 2002). Yet, another important factor that stands in the way of creativity in the workplace is the so-called ‘pressure hangover’. When an employee has a unproductive day under high pressure, it is commonly believed that this will vanish the day after. This unfortunately is not the case. The more time-pressure experienced on a day lead to less creative thinking for the next days, hence the term ‘pressure hangover’ (Breen, 2004).
Taking all the above mentioned research and theories into account, it is safe to say that creativity needs time. High amounts of time-pressure, therefore, is not helping the process along. Unfortunately, this cannot be avoided in some cases and sometimes deadlines are necessary. To enhance creativity despite this pressure is possible. As the Time-pressure / Creativity Matrix demonstrates – people are more creative under pressure when people feel like they are ‘on a mission’. When people interpret the time pressure as a meaningful urgency, they are more able to focus. This may be due to them avoiding distractions that they normally would if given more time. To encourage this feeling of being ‘on a mission’, it may be prudent for manager to give their subordinates an explanation as to why this time constraint is a necessity. There are key features of the optimal environment that enhances creativity when working against the clock. The persons environment should be clear of interruptions.
Additionally, if more than one person is needed for the project, collaboration should be limited to one or two others. Creative-thinking takes place more often in one’s usual work area compared to working off-site (Amabile, Hadley, & Kramer, 2002). Furthermore, receiving support and encouragement from peers and supervisors can promote creativity (Baer & Oldham, 2006). The discontinuation of obligatory group meeting may also help in this aspect, considering meetings like these can, in some cases, fuel frustration and squander time. On another note, supervisors should refrain from making spontaneous changes to the original plan, e.g. by unexpectedly moving up the deadline.
Pressure inhibits the creative mind. Furthermore. time-pressure does not only limit the amount of creative thoughts, but can also induce stress, which in turn can lead to health problems. Under time-pressure one might feel more productive, yet the solution is less creative. Creativity is near impossible if a reasonable amount of time is not invested in the complex cognitive processing. Not only is time vital for creating various associations but also finding new and original combinations of these newly forged associations. Despite these findings that creativity takes time, no time-pressure at all does not guarantee creativity. It can happen that non-existent time-pressure leads to more procrastination and a scarcity of meaningful contributions to a task.
Especially in an occupational setting the topic of how creativity is influenced by time-pressure is of interest. However, research has mainly focused on the relationship between creative-thinking and stress. In some cases, stress can be caused by time-pressure, but also by copious other factors. Therefore, to understand the full impact that time-pressure has, more research is needed. However, it is safe to say that extreme time-pressure should be avoided to protect creativity. It is not always possible to evade this pressure, but there are numerous ways of diverting the negative effects of time-pressure. Maintaining the same and distraction-free environment and giving a sense of urgency regarding the completion of the task are key factors to enhancing creativity under extreme pressure. Nevertheless, it becomes clear that diamonds are not forged under high time-pressure. A balance needs to be established and, in turn, creative minds will flourish.
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