Are the most creative people also the most organised?
All of my life I’ve heard (and said) the phrase that “pressure makes diamonds”. Whether it was in my corporate life, in my software startup or in my current agency I’ve always welcomed pressure as an opportunity to really prove myself and what I’m capable of when it’s all on the line. Even right now as I write this article I should be working on client work, however, it was the research for the client work that lead me here and I’m a firm believer in following inspiration when it shows up even if it puts me further under pressure.
Maybe this comes from a deep need to please others or to prove to others that I’m good enough and I belong. Maybe I’ve just watched Michael Jordan take over a game so many times that I think I can do that in my own work. Maybe, I just like proving everyone wrong. People say no all the time without thinking for a second about what they could accomplish if they just challenged themselves a little (or a lot). I probably do that too often and lately I’ve noticed that it has been challenging the quality of work I produce against the standard I hold for my own creativity.
When I think of creativity I see two possible examples. I think of a room where I’m on my own and can whiteboard ideas and keep building on them, or, I think of a room where I’m surrounded by other great people and together we come up with creative solutions and ideas which cannibalise themselves as newer and better ideas emerge from the creative back and forth chatter in the room, but in neither of these scenarios are we pressed for time. The second example is what I referred to in my opening statement of creativity under pressure. Can I/we come up with a creative idea or solution to a problem under the pressure of time, without compromising the quality, or worse, failing?
In 2002 Harvard Business Review wrote an article called “Creativity Under The Gun” and as you can probably guess, the article was all about creativity and whether people are able to be at their creative best when under pressure. The short answer was no. While they concluded that some people will, in fact, rise to the challenge and come up with creative solutions when put under extreme pressure, the vast majority of us need time to feel at our creative best.
So when is the best time to be creative? If you believe what Psychology Today says it depends on what kind of person you are, but more jobs get accomplished between 9am and 11am than any other time. Psychology Today also suggests that many highly creative and highly productive people are also highly erratic and don’t fit into any obvious patterns, but perhaps the most interesting information is that most people can’t sustain maximum creative production for longer than 90 minutes at which point creative fatigue sets in.
Recently I watched a fantastic documentary about Australia’s early days of advertising called “How Australia Got Its Mojo” courtesy of Russel Howcroft and the ABC. One the funniest, and perhaps most telling, comments came from advertising genius Allan Johnston (the Jo in MoJo) when he says “we always started early. We’d be in at 7 and put in five solid hours of creative, then go to lunch at 12:30. We’d get back around 3:30 in the afternoon sometimes with an idea but most of the time it was rubbish. We did that for years and years and I do think that gave us an edge”.
So while it’s clear that creativity seems to be best in small bursts, it is also becoming clear that despite creative types having a reputation for being fairly loose characters they have, and need, fairly structured days with minimal interruptions in order to do their absolute best work. This is quite different from the analytical type of person who is typically very capable of being interrupted and then picking up right where they left off. Creatives are a bit more precious.
When you put all this information together from Harvard Business Review, Psychology Today and Allan Johnston there are some clear takeaways:
- It’s important to follow what your body naturally tells you about whether you’re an early riser or a night owl and use that information to the benefit of your creative work.
- Most creatives do their best work in focused short bursts up to 90 minutes at a time.
- Most creatives do their best work when they have planned and allocated time to do it.
- Most creatives tend to do their worst work when they have to stray from their creative process in order to meet a strict deadline.
So while it’s certainly true that pressure creates diamonds, that’s only half the story, we also need extreme heat to compliment the extreme pressure in order to make a perfect diamond and the ability to create a perfect solution or idea under the pressure of time is indeed just as rare. It is far more likely that the best ideas or solutions are produced when they are a product of careful planning and taking the necessary time to be our most creative.
As for me, I’ve been a night owl most of my life preferring to stay up late and work until the wee small hours of the morning and then rising around 10am. I’m forever trying to start my days earlier to fit in with others and maybe that’s good for me, or maybe I need to stick to my usual rhythm. All I know is that from now on my creative work will be done when I say so and not someone else, because that’s how everyone will get the best result and that’s all that really matters.
What is your creative process? What does it take for you to do your best work?