Creativity and Time Pressure

Are you more creative when working under time pressure?

According to creativity expert Teresa Amabile1 and her colleagues, the answer for most people is no. Although we might like to think that we do our best creative work when time is tight (perhaps giving us an excuse for procrastination), their research found that “the more time pressure people feel on a given day, the less likely they will be to think creatively.”


One reason might be that when we work under tight deadlines and schedules, we hinder our ability to play and to make connections between ideas. That’s not to say, however, that the absence of time pressure necessarily leads to creativity. If we have all the time in the world but are neither passionate about our task nor allowing ourselves to play with ideas, we can feel as though we are on “autopilot,” going through the motions.

Their suggestions, while meant for the business setting, are also applicable for individuals:

“[T]he key to protecting creative activity—including your own—is to offset the effects of extreme time pressure. The obvious way to do that is to reduce the time pressure. But in cases where it is unavoidable, its negative effects can be softened somewhat by getting your people and yourself in the mind-set of being on a mission—sharing a sense that the work is vital and the urgency legitimate. It also means ruthlessly guarding protected blocks of the workweek, shielding staff from the distractions and interruptions that are the normal condition of organizational life. The best situation for creativity is not to be under the gun. But if you can’t manage that, at least learn to dodge the bullets.” [emphases added]

Amabile also suggests that one way to reduce time pressure is by setting realistic goals and not trying to do too much.

What is your experience with being creative when the clock is ticking?

Amabile, Teresa, Constance N. Hadley, and Steven J. Kramer. “Creativity Under the Gun.” Special Issue on The Innovative Enterprise: Turning Ideas into Profits Harvard Business Review 80, no. 8 (August 2002): 52–61.

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4 thoughts on “Creativity and Time Pressure

  1. I find I am able to create at a very high level when I am under pressure. I think I have done the creative work subconsciously and then just pull it all together at the last minute.

    • Laura, you make a good point about doing the creative work subconsciously. There’s a lot to be said for starting to think about a project long before it’s due, even if we don’t act on it until much later.

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