This one is sort of a corollary or subset of Lie #4. Except strangely, it works the other way around.

CREATIVITY LIE #5: The Deadline Lie
I’m way more creative under the pressure of a deadline.

No, you’re not. My apologies, really, to mess up this one for you. Especially because it’s the source of one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, in which Calvin professes this lie so perfectly. I just hope Bill Watterson won’t sue me for including this here.

I used to be completely convinced too, and it’s such a great procrastination excuse. Same as I was convinced I was way more creative under the influence of – well anyway, that was a great excuse too.

Did I say this clearly enough yet? You are not more creative at the last minute. It may seem like you are, but that’s a cognitive distortion brought on by no sleep, too much caffeine, hyperfocus, or some other direct effect of your all-nighter.

My objection here is not the reflex objection of Rastas who prefer to call deadlines “lifelines” because they don’t like the idea that being late makes the project dead, in a similar manner to the way they “overstand” things. My objection is straightforward. While there is nothing wrong with a deadline in itself, working furiously TO deadline simply does not enhance creativity; in fact it crushes it.

Deadlines are essential to productivity, obviously. But productivity is not creativity. You can crank out work without it being innovative. The merger of the two – creative productivity – is always the result of putting in time.

And look, I’m not talking about the kind of “deadlines” like the one where Edison said his team had to crank out “a minor invention every ten days and a big thing every six months or so.” This was a schedule, not a deadline. It was a promise, a target, not a hard out. To make this clear he even managed to add “or so,” two simple words that belie the idea of an unswerving finish line.

The clearest benefit a deadline gives us is the abilty to focus. Prioritizing the task at hand is much easier when there’s barely enough time to get it done. It becomes chemically eaiser to shut out trivial rival activities like chatting on Facebook, doing crossword puzzles, or tidying up the sock drawer.

And that’s the whole problem. At the simplest level we can say there are three distinct steps to the creative process: input, processing, and output. We take information in, we think about it and innovate, and we express the result. Or as I’ve called it in the below diagram: Perception, Conception, and Representation.

And again to oversimplify, there are again three distinct steps to the “Conception” part of creativity. In the first – “Analyze” above – we ponder the problem deeply. In the third – “Select” above – we judge and decide. These are the parts that FEEL like thinking. It’s these two parts that intense focus can actually help. The second part, though, “Ideation”, is the point where we generate a deep insight, the leap of logic or flash of insight that gives us a truly creative result.

All evidence suggests that this insight is best made by interrupting focus, not by focussing. Some proven techniques for causing this insight are watching comedy videos, getting a little bit drunk, or meditating. Please note I said a LITTLE bit drunk ok?

This is the part where Einstein played the violin, Feynman jotted notes at strip clubs, and countless creative notables (Asimov, Beethoven, Freud, Faulkner, Kafka, Descartes, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Darwin, Dickens, and yep, Einstein again) went for long daily walks.

In all cases, what these altered states have in common is a distraction from focus. This is when flashes of insight happens – the closest thing to what we might call the core of creativity, which occur not when the mind is focussed but when it’s closest to sleep. Again, this is why many artists, perhaps most famously Dali, intentionally put themselves into hypnagogic states when beginning work sessions, or why many others prefer to work as soon as they wake up, before the hard-smashing real world barges in with its need to be focussed on.

Jonathan Schooler at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has found that people who daydream more score higher on tests of creativity. And his research is only one among several studies that show that daydreaming is a critical part of our thinking process. In fact, we may spend up to half our waking lives in daydreams that are primarily focused toward solving real-world problems that have nothing to do with what we are busy with at the moment. A daydreaming state is the critical key to innovative thinking, and deadline time is not daydreaming time. As Einstein himself said, “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”

Another problem with deadlines of course is that our first idea is not always our best. A great example is the famous design for the “I LOVE NEW YORK” tourist slogan by Milton Glaser. His first submission (not of course his first design internally), a cursive full-expression of the phrase, was loved by everyone and immediately approved. But Glaser didn’t quite love this I Love version, not 100%. He continued to think about it for weeks after the job was supposedly done. Then one day he was in a taxi stuck in midtown traffic when he saw the version we all know today, and sketched it quickly on a scrap. 

This logo is now one of the most iconic in history.  And it was way after the deadline.

And then there’s the epic saga of 3M’s invention of Post It notes, which meandered for years from a seemingly useless weak glue to become those tiny scraps that now fill corporate towers and distant landfills. Had the team been tasked with solving the weak glue problem on a firm deadline, we might all still be writing notes in the margins with pencils, and I would have had to pick a different image to top this post.

There are, on the other hand, well-known examples of creative work done on deadline that claim to be driven by just that deadline. Stefan Sagmeister likes to try to complete one of his album designs for musicians within the space of a single LP, CD, or whatever we call it now. And there was the One Project a Day Challenge by Belgian graphic designer Valeri Potchekailov in which she literally completed a full project every day for a year. So maybe it’s just graphic designers who thrive on deadlines. (That’s a joke – as anyone who’s desperately needed their logo finished quickly surely knows).

The reality of course is that deadlines do help us get the job done, and in professional and team environments, they are essential. But deadlines are far more useful for all the other parts of the creativity process, than the actual moment of innovation that make history.

It seems the best way to deal with a deadline for a creative task is to break it up into smaller deadlines that allow us to focus as we research, ponder, draft, and offer forth our output, but still gives us enough time in between to allow for those deeply desired and proudly achieved unconscious leaps of genius.

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