Do Tight Deadlines Make You Less Creative?

In fact there’s been a lot of research on this topic.  For the most part, I’ve cited a study by Teresa Amabile of Harvard showing that when people feel more time pressure, they are less creative.  Now I’ve read a new study* by Marcus Baer and Greg Oldham, that extends this finding.  One difference is that they examine a special kind of time pressure: “creative time pressure” which is, specifically, how much time pressure you feel when engaging in the more creative tasks at work–in contrast to deadline pressure for a more ordinary, non-creative task.  A second difference is that they separate employees into two personality groups: one that is high in openness to experience (which suggests they will have a broader repertoire of ideas and concepts) and one that is low; and, they separate employee context into “high support for creativity” and “low support for creativity.”

Consistent with prior studies, they found that as creative time pressure increases, the employees became less creative (as measured by their supervisors).  There was one exception: the group of employees that was HIGH in openness to experience, and also HIGH in support for creativity.  For that group, the relation between time pressure and creativity was not linear; instead, it was an inverted U shape.  That means that they were maximally creative with an intermediate level of time pressure; then, they became less creative with more time pressure but also with less time pressure.

Their recommendations: supervisors should try to identify the intermediate level of time pressure that is the sweet spot for creativity.  And they should make sure to assign people who are high in openness to experience to those conditions.  And finally, all managers should make sure that the environment is supportive of creativity and that employees perceive that to be the case.

*Baer and Oldham, 2006, “The curvilinear relation between experienced creative time pressure and creativity.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(4), 963-970.

13 thoughts on “Do Tight Deadlines Make You Less Creative?

  1. “For the most part, I’ve cited a study by Teresa Amabile of Harvard showing that when people feel more time pressure, they are less creative.”

    Not being a scientist, this sounds logical to me. After all, creativity often requires thought, and sometimes, trial and error. Thought requires time. No time for thought means less time for creativity.

    Depends how much you feel under pressure. Remove the sense of pressure, and natural creativity will manifest itself.

    Pressure, though, can lead to clarity of thought – you are forced to explore the quickest line towards the completion of a task. This in itself could be seen to be a form of ‘bare bones’ creativity – even if the results may not be considered as being overly creative.

    Sorry for butting in – but this is interesting.


    1. This is a blog, you’re supposed to butt in! 😉

      I think the Amabile article got a lot of press, because there are plenty of people out there who say “I do my best work when I’m under pressure.”

      I agree with you, the issues are subtle. After all, Mike Csikszentmihalyi’s state of “flow” or peak experience only occurs when you have an appropriately challenging task. So how to distinguish “challenge” from “pressure”? It’s probably subjective: one person’s challenge is another person’s pressure.

      1. “This is a blog, you’re supposed to butt in!” – and a friendly one at that! 🙂

        From Wikipedia on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:
        “To achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results.”

        This is logical – we all perform better when we believe we are ‘comfortable’. The top people at Google must have read Csikszentmihalyi in that they reputedly have what looks to be a ‘comfortable’ working environment. This keeps pressure at bay and keeps performance high. However one is certain that the kind of people who work at companies such as Google are chosen for their ability to resist pressure, or because they simply do not regard certain pressure situations as being such.

        Some people love pressure, they thrive on it. Whereas others detest it, and avoid it like the plague. Or rather, they avoid situations which they perceive as causing pressure.

        As you say, for some pressure is a challenge, and some people like challenges, whereas others just do not want to have to deal with what they perceive as being a challenge. They want a ‘quiet life’.

        Some organisations do train people to deal with pressure – police and military forces, for example. Whereas others, the medical profession perhaps, do not appear to provide training to help doctors to deal with high pressure environments such as a casualty department (ER). I could be wrong on this.

        It appears, therefore, that our perceptions of pressure can be modified. Even so, some people do crack under the strain. I wonder why. Can such types be identified through psychological profiling?

        As you say, it’s highly subjective – but there must be a way to gauge our ability to resist pressure. And to identify what we perceive as being a pressure-generating situation.



  2. Very interesting. But I would be wary of coming to any conclusion from these kind of reports. End of the day – we can never ever predict when we will get a creative idea – it could be just a few hours of reading about an interesting topic – or it could take a lot of time reflecting, brain storming and even not thinking about this topic. So very difficult to put a pattern to this. I think the only thing we can safely conclude is that creativity will not work under extreme time pressures. Again it could but it would be more of luck than a repeatable process. Since I do believe that creativity by its nature needs time and it is very hard to put a gun on somebody’s head and ask him to be creative. Well – most of the times 🙂



  3. Thank you again! A few comments:

    Pressure might actually enhance performance in tasks that do not require creativity; the studies I cited only examine pressure’s effect on creativity. But I don’t know about studies of pressure and task performance more generally.

    A “comfortable” environment is not necessarily going to lead to flow. Sitting on the couch with a beer and watching TV is comfortable, but you’ll never get in flow doing that. There has to be a level of challenge that is matched to your skill and ability.

  4. You’re welcome, Keith.

    “A “comfortable” environment is not necessarily going to lead to flow. Sitting on the couch with a beer and watching TV is comfortable, but you’ll never get in flow doing that. There has to be a level of challenge that is matched to your skill and ability.”

    This is a good point a “comfortable” environment which is too comfortable is not likely to promote creativity. But one which creates to illusion of comfort may do, in that the sensation of pressure may be reduced. Having the ability to take a break every so often may help too. However I suspect that the benefit of a ‘comfort’ zone will vary from individual to individual.

    As for studies of pressure and task performance, I googled this, and there do seem to be some studies which have been done, and the sensation of ‘pressure’ seems to bear some relation to ‘blood pressure’ – logical, I suppose. High blood pressure may indicate a high degree of stimulation which may lead to creativity in some, but may cause reduced creativity in others.

    “..supervisors should try to identify the intermediate level of time pressure that is the sweet spot for creativity.” – this may not be so easy, and will vary from work environment to work environment, from job to job, and from boss to boss!



  5. I think people that believe that pressure makes them perform better (either bland tasks or creative ones) are responding more to a feeling of familiarity than an honest self-assessment. Believing one does his/her best work under pressure is most likely because one does MOST of his/her work under pressure… it’s more like a justification than a reality.

    When I teach business improv workshops, we talk about conflict and how some individuals are comfortable with conflict while others are not. Just because one has experienced lots of conflict in their life to the point where they are comfortable with it, does not mean that an environment filled with conflict will not be destructive. It just means that you’re okay with that destruction.

    I think it’s the same here with pressure.

  6. My personal experience, particularly from film shoots, is that tight deadlines can force such a degree of focus that you can improvise a solution to seemingly insurmountable problem almost as if by magic. And as a team. I would not be surprised if such a team were high in both openness to experience and support for creativity. (Keith – have you done any studies on film shoots? I think you would find them an interesting subject; highly constrained, subject to high perceived risk, many large personalities, very technical, etc, etc)

    But forget work, my best experiences of being ‘in flow’ are when windsurfing – the wave takes shape so there is your deadline and in a nanosecond you have to compute your path out and if you have an extra nanosecond you get a chance to express yourself. Total intution, it can be so empowering.

    Unfortunately such moments are almost non-existent at work! Especially in big corporations.

  7. I don’t know of any studies of film shoots. Dean Keith Simonton has published several articles recently on creativity in the movie industry, over historical time; Steven Pritzker, who studied with Mark Runco, was a former sitcom writer who published a few articles about collaborative sitcom writing (one is in my 1997 edited book CREATIVITY IN PERFORMANCE).

    In Csikszentmihalyi’s writings on flow, sports figure prominently. In GROUP GENIUS, I talk about the group flow of basketball; Csikszentmihalyi was inspired by mountain climbing.

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