The year was 1497 and Leonardo da Vinci was working on a fresco in the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. The fresco was only 460cm by 880cm but da Vinci’s reconstruction of the Last Supper still wasn’t complete after two years of work. A prior at the monastery wrote to the artist to complain about the delay. How could one small part of one wall take so long to paint, he demanded. Da Vinci explained that one reason for the delay was the difficulty he was having finding a suitable model for Judas. The face needed to appear suitably villainous, he told the prior, and if he couldn’t find one and if the prior kept bothering him, he would use the prior’s face to represent the most hated man in Christendom.
The prior backed off and that single painting took about three years to complete. It has since been feted as one of the world’s greatest works of art.
But you don’t need to be a genius the size of Da Vinci to take your time over a creative endeavor. It took Bruce Springsteen six months to write Born to Run. Junot Diaz took a decade to write The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. James Cameron spent fifteen years thinking about and planning Avatar. Each of those works is proof that time and the absence of pressure gives creativity the space it needs to develop.
But then again, NASA astronauts were able to MacGyver a new kind of air filter within hours after an explosion damaged Apollo 13. Milton Glaser designed the “I love New York” logo with a red crayon while sitting in the back of a taxi. The Guess Who wrote American Woman in a single on-stage jam session as lead guitarist Randy Bachman repaired a broken string. The band had to ask an audience member with a cassette recorder to lend them the tape so that they could reproduce the song after the concert.
So which is better: to have time to mull over a creative endeavor, think it through and plan it out at leisure; or to have a tight deadline so that a forced moment of inspiration produces a lasting innovation? When you’re working on a creative project, should you give yourself all the time you need? Or should you give yourself a limited amount of time in which to do the best you can?
The Creativity Diary
To find an answer to those questions, a group of researchers asked 177 employees at seven us companies to keep a diary at work. They collected 9,000 entries in which professional employees described the degree of pressure they were feeling at the time, and the level of their creativeness at those times.
It was no surprise to find that, in general, the workers “often felt overworked, fragmented, and burned out.” The researchers quoted a 1995 survey that found that more than half of all Americans would swap a lower income for more time. They were probably right to do so. A 2019 study of more than 1,000 college students found that two years after graduation, students who prioritized time over money were happier than the graduates who had prioritized money over time. Both groups were working hard. The graduates who had prioritized time were still working 50-60 hour weeks, but they had chosen activities that they enjoyed doing. As a result, they were happier.
In practice, though, the choice between time and money is rarely straightforward. Someone who preferred time over money and still ends up working 60 hours a week might be enjoying their work but they’re still going to be under pressure, pushed up against deadlines, and wishing that there were more hours in the day and more days in the week.
The question though is whether they can be creative under that pressure, even if they enjoy the work. Or does being forced to churn out complex work in little time inhibit creative thinking and reduce innovation?
The researchers also asked the volunteers to rate their own creativity each day. When they correlated those self-reports with the participants’ descriptions of their time pressures they found that the participants believed that they were being more creative when they were up against the clock.
But they were wrong, argued the researchers. When the researchers looked more closely at the diary entries, they found that on days when the participants scored their time pressure at seven out of seven, they were 45 percent less likely to think creatively than on any other days.
“Sadly, their diaries gave the lie to those self-assessments,” noted the researchers. “There was clearly less and less creative thinking in evidence as time pressure increased.”
That decline in creativity as pressure rose also had long term effects. The researchers found that when the participants experienced high pressure in the first week of a project, they showed low levels of creativity throughout the first half of the project, a period that could last as long as four months. The more pressure they felt at the halfway point, the less creative thinking they were able to produce throughout the second half of the project.
Time pressure might push people to get more done in the limited time available. It can also make people feel more creative as they reach solutions faster than they might otherwise have done in order to make the deadline. But it doesn’t always prompt people to produce new ideas. It doesn’t necessarily improve innovation or increase creativity. And it can even reduce that creativity, the researchers found.
So what’s going on here? Why isn’t an approaching deadline pushing people to get creative? Why weren’t the engineers and other professionals the researchers surveyed not acting like Apollo 13 engineers and MacGyvering smart solutions to problems in order to beat the clock?
When Time Pressure Kills Creativity
At issue here is the nature of creativity and the conditions in which that creativity can develop. Psychologists divide creativity between convergent thinking and divergent thinking. The first is a search for a single correct answer to a problem. The second is the formation of unusual associations to produce a selection of solutions of varying usefulness. Convergent thinking creates a brick as the best solution for a material to build a house. Divergent thinking lets someone see that they can also use a brick to crack a nut, support a bookshelf, and hold down pages in a windy office.
An act of convergent thinking ends when the solution has been found. When the Apollo 13 engineers were looking for a way to create a new air filter, they were engaging in convergent thinking. They laid out all of the materials they knew the astronauts could access, and looked for a way to use them to produce a new kind of air filter. Once they had a filter that worked, they were able to stop looking. It might not have been the only filter they could have produced. It might not even have been the best filter they could have produced. But as long as it scrubbed out enough carbon dioxide to keep the astronauts alive and could be put together before the astronauts suffocated, it was good enough. The creative thinking could stop then.
The time restriction imposed by the need to filter the air as soon as possible limited the engineers’ creativity. Had they had more time, they might have been able to produce a more creative solution. The time limit prevented them from reaching that solution. It stopped them from being even more creative.
Divergent thinking has a similar problem. For this kind of creativity there is no end. In tests of divergent thinking, researchers are forced to place an artificial limit on volunteers. They ask them to come up with as many uses of a brick or a knife as they can within a short space of time, usually about two minutes. They then rank the ideas according to both quantity and quality.
Similarly the participants in the diary study were finding solutions in the limited time that they had available, which made them feel creative. But if they had had more time available, it’s possible that they would have come up with better solutions.
Something else was happening here too though. The researchers found that the study participants were mostly working under pressure but the conditions of that pressure differed. Some were under pressure to find a creative solution to a particular problem while also dealing with all of the other tasks they had to complete at the same time. They couldn’t follow any train of thought for too long before some other task or request would interrupt their flow and force them to change direction.
Others, like the Apollo 13 engineers, were able to put aside every other task they were doing and focus only on the problem at hand. Because they felt that they were on a mission, under pressure and doing something important enough to allow them to drop everything else, they were able to focus and be creative.
That led the researchers to produce a “Time-Pressure/Creativity Matrix.”
According to the matrix, the likelihood of creative thinking is high under two conditions. When time pressure is low, workers have time to explore associations, collaborate, with others and form surprising associations. They feel that “they are on an expedition.”
When time pressure is high but workers are protected from interruptions, they are able to focus and push their way to a solution. They feel that “they are on a mission.”
The likelihood of creative thinking is low when there’s no time pressure and workers feel that they’re on autopilot. Management doesn’t reward them for their creativity, and meetings tend to take place in large groups rather than between individuals who can share ideas and build associations. They don’t look for new ideas. Creativity is also low when time pressure is high but workers aren’t free of distractions. They feel that they’re on a treadmill and the work they’re doing isn’t important.
“Our study suggests that time pressure affects creativity in different ways depending on whether the environment allows people to focus on their work, conveys a sense of meaningful urgency about the tasks at hand, or stimulates or undermines creative thinking in other ways,” the researchers conclude.
How to Build a Creative Atmosphere at Work
The researchers have a simple piece of advice for business owners looking to encourage creativity: “Avoid extreme time pressure whenever possible, particularly if you are looking for high levels of learning, exploration, idea generation, and experimentation with new concepts.”
That would be ideal but business doesn’t work that way. There are inevitably times when people have to work under pressure and in some of those times, they’ll also be expected to produce creative work. Telling businesses to avoid extreme time pressure is like telling them not to make mistakes or telling coders not to write bugs. It’s not something anyone ever sets out to do but it’s also inevitable.
Fortunately, the researchers’ own matrix suggests that the amount of time available for creative work is less important than what happens in that time.
When the pressure is off, encourage staff to meet and swap ideas. Reward them for coming up with creative new ideas. Ask them for new concepts in the same way that both Google and 3M have set aside time for creative exploration.
When pressure is on and time is tight, make the most of the time available by removing every other task from the people charged with looking for the creative solution. Explain why the task they’re working on is so important, and prove its importance by delegating everything else to other people. Businesses can’t create more time but they can pack more creativity into the time they have.
Da Vinci eventually used a local criminal as the model for his Judas in The Last Supper but it’s unlikely that the absence of a suitable face was what held him back. He was also working on other projects for the Duke of Milan, including the design of floats and pageants, now forgotten. If he’d delegated those projects to others and focused entirely on the painting, the work would have been just as creative but it might have finished on time too.