Time and creativity – friend or foe?

burbn timeWhen working with Odyssey of the Mind teams practicing for their spontaneous problem competitions, I discovered an interesting aspect of creativity.  Students had to come up with a large of number of  creative ideas to solve a problem on the spot. However, not all students in a large group could participate in this competition, so we set up a way of scoring ideas as a fair way to choose the competitors. Each student was given the same problem scenario. Within a set time, they listed as many possible solutions as they could. I thought that coming up with original ideas would require more time. Therefore, students were judged on two scores: the number of ideas and the originality of ideas. It turn out there was a positive correlation between number of ideas and originality of ideas, so there was no need for two scores. Those students that still clung to the tried and true practical ideas came up with noticeably fewer solutions. But without both originality and usefulness creativity is …. useless.  And this is where the time pressure wields the greatest effect.

According to Teresa Amabile, creativity researcher and professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, there is a continued debate on how the pressures of deadlines affect creativity. “Some people are convinced that time pressure stimulates creative thinking, and others are certain it stifles creative thinking.”[1] Amabile has recently completed a long term study  in the corporate world and has noted some of her own surprising findings on creativity.

Data in this long term study was collected through a self reported daily electronic diary and used to collect information on employees across 3 industries. The point was to observe creative work in real time as teams collaborated on creative projects lasting anywhere from 5 weeks to 9 months. The collected data suggest that “overall, very high levels of time pressure should be avoided if you want to foster creativity on a consistent basis.” People can continue to work creatively during a time crunch, but not for extended periods. This of course, is not a particularly new finding. However, there appeared to be a contradiction in perception among the participants when it came to determining whether or not time pressure increased creative thinking. Amabile stated that “participants were giving evidence of less creative thinking on time-pressured days, [but] they reported feeling more creative on those days.”[1]

So there seems to be a disconnect between feeling creative and showing evidence of creativity when in a time crunch. Perhaps this is because creativity  occurs as a thought process first, ideas are stimulated by increased pressures, but once the idea has been conceived the refinement and elaboration needed to make into a useful solution require time. When the pressure is on, adrenaline flows. Creative ideas seem to pop up left and right. But turning those ideas into something useful, working through all the dead ends to find the end of the maze takes extended periods of time. So when it comes to producing creative work, time appears to be both a friend and a foe.

[1] Silverthorne, Sean (2002) Time Pressure and Creativity: Why Time is Not on Your Side, Working Knowledge, Harvard Business School (Accessed 24 Feb 2014)
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