Creativity Under Pressure: How to Write Your Way Through Storms

You’ve been trudging along, writing at an erratic pace, when an email arrives. Noting the sender, you close your Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook windows and hone in. Thanks for your recent query. We’d love to feature your work. Fantastic, you think. Then you spot the deadline. Yipes. Adrenaline kicks in. Your heart beats faster. And within minutes you’re fully submersed in the work you wished you’d been prioritizing for months.

Relatable? If so, you might want to take the following seriously.

In response to my deadline post, many of you admitted to working well, even thriving, under pressure. Others of you expressed difficulty in making self-set deadlines—which often lack pressure— stick. Well guess what. A growing body of evidence shows that the notion that pressure boosts work performance and creativity is a myth.  (Yowsers, right?)

Research published in the Harvard Business Review in 2002, for example, showed that the more pressure workers experience, the greater their creativity suffered. On days involving the highest amount of pressure, creativity dropped a whopping 45 percent. Participants also experienced a “pressure hangover,” meaning their creativity dropped not only on the high-pressure day, but for several days after.

And it gets crazier. People involved in the studies deemed their creativity the sharpest under pressure, i.e., when it tanked. Based on multiple studies’ conclusions, we’re likely to believe our creativity rages under pressure, when in fact it’s stress and adrenaline. We may get the job done, which is commendable, but at what cost?

What this could mean for writers:

  • If we believe we work best under pressure, we may be fooling ourselves. Are there exceptions? Probably. But I think it’s worth considering.
  • Waiting for pressure to set in before writing could pose challenges and limitations. And not only in regards to creativity. With the exception of taking reasonable breaks, not writing isn’t known to improve writing.
  • Relaxation is important for creativity, particularly when we’re up against tight deadlines.
  • When given the option, choosing longer deadlines might save our creativitys’ hineys.
  • Learning ways to reduce what HBR calls the biggest creativity-dousing factor—extreme time pressure—is invaluable.

“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.” —Harvard Business Review

8 Ways to Sharpen Creativity Under Pressure

1. Understand why timeframes are necessary. This helps keep creativity better in check, according Harvard researchers. If we know that a publisher will only accept a manuscript by a particular day, for example, we’re more likely to embrace the importance of the work and forge ahead effectively compared to having an arbitrary deadline.

2. If a tight deadline isn’t necessary, consider an extension. As a health writer, I’m used to working under deadlines. And I love them. But when my agent and I agreed on a one-month deadline for a major revision of my novel, I knew within days how lofty it was. Once the deadline grew close, I asked for a 5-day extension. Simply having that freed up my creative juices and helped me write what I think may be some of my strongest material. Asking for more time when needed isn’t a sign of weakness, but professionalism.

3. Recognize the difference between extended deadlines and procrastination. If you tend to procrastinate, avoiding pressure could be a double-edged sword. Some amount of pressure, or at least motivation, seems key to moving forward. If you’ve been waiting for pressure, when you believe you thrive, ask yourself if you’re truly waiting or simply postponing the work out of fear of failure or other deeper issues. Self-honesty plays a big role here.

4. Take care of your physical and emotional self. We’ve probably all had times when our personal needs fell to the wayside out of creative work obsession  enthusiasm. Whether we’re hyper-focused due to personal passion or deadline-induced stress, taking measures to sleep well, eat well, exercise and relax matters. We may think we’re awesome professionals for prioritizing our craft over self-care, but all we’re really doing is damage. Self-care boosts creativity. Just don’t make it a full-time job. 😉

5. Maintain a comfy routine. I’m not a big fan of schedules. That said, I love my loose writing routine—write in the morning, take breaks to eat and exercise then write all afternoon. Erratic shifts in routines amidst pressure can disrupt creative flow and stimulate or worsen anxiety. If you can, postpone gatherings, household repairs and aliens overtaking your workspace.

6. When you’re plotting or pansting a first draft, cut yourself some slack. Sharp creativity is particularly important when our stories are first being crafted. Some writers love pressure induced by word count goals and whipping out drafts. And there are some benefits to rapid writing. But opting for more flexible goals, such as writing every day, can be helpful from a creative standpoint—assuming you don’t have a hefty deadline upcoming. Moving forward and producing our best work trumps plentiful words and writing quickly, in my opinion.

7. Let ideas incubate. Some of our best work takes form after our minds have had a chance to mull new ideas over. This is why allowing ideas to incubate, even for short time periods, can help ensure effective work once we sit down to write. Research published in Organization Science in 2004 suggests bouts of mindless work as a useful way to enhance creativity. So why not let your ideas incubate and tidy your house or car at the same time? If you’re under the deadline gun, take short breaks. For added perks, let ideas incubate during exercise—a mega brain function-booster.

8. Seek support. Research also shows that one-on-one collaborations and discussions, and avoiding needless/obligatory group meetings, encourages emotional ease, creativity and work quality. Don’t be afraid to ask your agent, publisher, editor or best writing pal for support. Chances are, they’re eager to give it.

For more information, check out these fabulous related links:
Big Think: Relaxation and Sleep: The Science of Sleeping on It
Harvard Business Review: Creativity Under the Gun
Freelance Switch: 14 Essential Tips for Meeting A Deadline

Were you surprised by the Harvard findings? Do you feel you work best under pressure? How do you nurture and stimulate your creativity? **No pressure, but if you haven’t submitted your “I’m a writer!” photo and would like to, you have until the end of the day Wednesday. 😉

Leave a comment

54 Comments

  1. Fantastic post. I am one of those people who always said I work better under a tight timeline but in truth, I think I just get the job done. How well compared to had I had the time to really be creative is definitely up for debate. I am a procrastinator at heart but I do believe this stunts my creativity. Some of my best work has come when I’ve had time to brainstorm and really create. I’ve noticed with other work created under a tight timeline, upon review, I have tons of ideas of how I could have said or done it better…
    I’m definitely going to take this post under further advisement and try to break the procrastination habit in the name of superior creativity. Besides which, the pressure hangover totally sucks!
    Fab post honey!

    Reply
    • Thanks for the support, Natalie! I admire your self-honesty and openness hugely. Taking those good, honest looks at our lives and habits, and whether they help or hinder our goals, is so crucial to moving forward, IMO.

      Good luck with breaking those habits. We all know you have many more awesome ones worth keeping. 😉

      Reply
  2. That is surprising. I’m a procrastinator and always find I work better when I’m against the wall. But the idea that’s all in my head really does make sense. I think taking on too much is something we all do and a recipe for failure. I recently asked for an extension on an editing deadline, and it’s really helped. My problem is all the other side jobs that come with publishing. I’m working on doing a better job of organizing my time.

    Great post!

    Reply
    • Great points, Stacy. Taking too much on and spending too much time on other aspects of publishing, besides writing, can really slow us down. Good luck with that time management! An ever-evolving WIP for writers. 😉

      Reply
  3. I enjoyed your post. I think for me, as a writer the hardest thing is time managment. I set a date and time and then along the way I get off track. Luckily for me I know this about myself and add in time for me to “forget.” But writing is all about disipline which is why I like WordPress so much. It encourages a daily routine allowing me to “allow ideas to incubate,” “maintain a comfy rutine” as well as “seek support” from my friendly WordPressians. Sorry for the lengthy comment, but thank you for sharing this! 😀

    Reply
    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment and support, Jae! Knowing how we tick personally can really help us move forward in our writing careers.

      I tend to take deadlines so seriously, I push myself like crazy and get done early. (I have that “on time is late gene.” ;)) This is great in some ways, but knowing that my rushing and relying on pressure could dampen my creativity gives me pause. Best wishes!

      Reply
  4. I think deadlines just help me stay on task. It’s easy for my mind to wander. I do think that exercise has been a big help throughout the writing day. Huge help. That, and taking care of my health. Good diet, god rest. If I don’t sleep right, or get up too early (happens sometimes) then I will almost certainly not be writing that day. I have to have a clear, rested mind. I would also note that it helps me to not read other stuff like news articles, that take me away from my focus and can even be upsetting or frustrating (bad news)

    If I work on my notes during my down-times, then my writing times are just a matter of following my notes. And of course, deviating from them entirely. =)

    Reply
    • Sleep and eating well really do a huge role, Samuel. And I love your habit of taking notes during downtime. Thanks for weighing in!

      Reply
  5. *good rest =P

    Reply
  6. I do work well under pressure, but finding more satisfaction and less stress by getting my projects done ahead of time and therefore having less anxiety! Sometimes it hard to do that as the deadlines seems so far away and not pressing, like my blog tour. However I was sure glad I spent two months before writing an article here and there for it so they didnt all have to be written at once. Of course, sometimes a fantastic opportunity does present itself that you cant say no to that has a short deadline and you need to drop all else. I think I’ll save my “back against the wall” habit for those (small percent) and plow ahead slow and steady with the rest (big percent)! Great post, August

    Reply
    • I hear you, Donna. I love deadlines and pressure, and have learned the benefits of working in advance to ease last-minute stress. Even with short deadlines, taking a break—a couple of hours or overnight—makes a big difference.

      Reply
  7. I used to write first drafts of entire novels in three-five weeks, the only deadline being the one I placed on myself. “Fast” does not translate to “good,” as evidenced by my re-reading the books I wrote decades ago and seeing how bad they are. Unless you’re a bestselling novelist and are on a deadline from your publisher with your multi-million dollar advance at stake, I suggest slowing down and giving your novel whatever time it requires to be researched, written, re-written, edited, re-edited, etc.

    Reply
    • “Fast” does not translate to “good.” >> Well said! Our best work should take as long as it needs to—assuming we don’t have those stringent deadlines.

      Reply
  8. Fantastic post. In my head I thought I performed better under pressure, but in my heart, I know that allowing some space for reflection really enhances my work. Thank you for this reminder.

    Reply
  9. I always thought other people might produce better work under pressure, but I’ve always known I don’t! My work’s quality and creativity definitely suffers if I’m tired, so that’s a situation I try to avoid through planning and taking baby steps to get a big task done. Of course without some kind of deadline, I procrastinate endlessly, so the trick is to have a timeframe- but a reasonable one. Great to see some research shows I’m not alone!

    Reply
  10. This is a fantastic post August. I seem to get a lot done when I’m busy, if that makes sense, but I’m not sure pressure works for me. I get super anxious (who me?) and I don’t think it makes for better work. 🙂

    Reply
    • That does make sense, Coleen. I think many of us are energized by activity, and drained from anxiety. 😉 So glad you dug the post!

      Reply
  11. I’m glad to see studies backing up what I’ve always suspected. Pressure can push us to complete a task, but how good a job did we do and at what price? I feel the same way about multitasking.” We all think we’re good at it. But in reality? Not so much. Very little gets done well.

    Now, if I can get myself to create realistic goals and timeframes for my WIPs, I will be much better off, won’t I? That attempt is a work in progress in its own right. 🙂

    Reply
    • You’re so right about multitasking. I saw a report on TV today about walking and texting at the same time. Even the most experienced text-ers are significantly more like to make mistakes, not see cars, etc.

      Timeframes and goals can be wiggly, and ever-changing, I suspect. Best of luck with yours. 🙂

      Reply
  12. I guess you wonderful tips can apply to other creative fields as well. Leading IT projects are always challenging with changing requirements & fixed deadlines creativity takes the drivers seat not only for development work but also to navigate out of the murky situation.

    Reply
    • I think you’re right, Yatin. Many jobs, if not most, involve some level of creativity. Sounds like your line of work is chock full of it! The more we can do to sharpen it, the better.

      Reply
  13. Loved this post, August! As someone pushed long and hard for a long time, I know what all that pressure can mean. It’s just not worth it–ever.

    Beyond that, I’m with you regarding routine versus schedule. The difference may seem subtle but for me the gap is a mile wide. For me, routine reflects how life occurs whereas schedule is how one would like life to occur. It has made all the difference for me.

    Great post, August.

    Karen

    Reply
  14. EllieAnn

     /  July 30, 2012

    Always helpful, as usual m’dear. I try not to wait for inspiration, though I don’t work well under pressure the next time I’m under it I’ll seek help here. =)
    p.s. you have a rockin’ blog. Articles done RIGHT!

    Reply
  15. Raani York

     /  July 30, 2012

    Another great and interesting AND helpful post August.

    I do work well under pressure – at the office.

    I do NOT write well under pressure. I need to be relaxed and happy and then my creativity flows and my pen writes. If I try to force myself my pen just refuses to do its job.

    One can say: get yourself a new pen – and I would say: “No way. I got it as a present. LOL”

    Reply
  16. Another great post August!

    Like others have said, I can juggle a certain number of balls but there is a tipping point.

    And yes, it’s true. Disruptions to my schedule are rough. Having my son at summer camp forv4 weeks allowed me to complete the first draft of my novel.

    But.

    I wrote for 12 hours a day and often stayed up until 2 am.

    That is neither healthy nor sustainable!

    I am not a procrastinator, but rather than try to force my writing I’m taking August off to chill with him. The book revisions can start up again in the fall when his schedule is better set.

    Reply
  17. mgedwards

     /  July 30, 2012

    Very timely, and so true, August! The storms hit my house last week, and I haven’t written nary a word. Many thanks, my friend (and Harvard), for these excellent insights just in time for the new school year — and all the flurry of activity it brings — to begin. Here’s one I would add: “Just say no.” Figure out what’s not enough of a priority and say “no,” even if it means not being able to support someone or something we value. A lot of time gets taken up by outside activities, and it’s important to know when to say no so that it doesn’t cut into writing time.

    Reply
  18. Working under pressure has never been my thing. I don’t procrastinate in the slightest, but the pressure tends to mess with my thought process.

    Reply
  19. lynettemburrows

     /  July 31, 2012

    Excellent post, August. I had been one who thought that pressure and multi-tasking made me better at my job and my writing. I’ve spent the last few years struggling with finding a balance that works for me. As you said in an earlier comment, a WIP fro writers from the get-go.

    Reply
  20. Hi,
    This is excellent advice! I picked up a book some years ago from Stephen Covey. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and this book changed my life. I became a fan of Covey’s and especially his theory about putting first things first and not letting things go into being urgent.
    Sometimes I slip or something crops up that I should have done, but forgot to do, but the majority of the time, I am on target and that is a good feeling.
    Thanks, August. Great article.
    Ciao,
    Patricia

    Reply
  21. I’m someone who’s known for a while that I don’t work as well when I’m under pressure, whether that’s from a deadline, from someone looking over my shoulder, or from having to work in an environment/style that’s not right for me. I do my best creative work and my highest quality writing when I have a cushion.

    Reply
  22. I am probably the exception to the rule. I think that I work well under pressure as long as it is not sprung on me and no one is standing over my shoulder. (I can’t type when someone is watching. LOL!) I do it all the time with blogging. I post on certain days and start with a rough draft. I have to get away from it in order to see all the sucky parts. Then I can rewrite. I have had a harder time with my book since there is no deadline.

    Reply
    • Sounds like a primo system, Susie. The proof’s in your blog pudding. 😉 By the way, if someone watches you type, write something super embarrassing or profane. Works every time—ha!

      Reply
  23. I used to think I worked best under pressure until I started making myself write every day, no exceptions. I found that my creativity was way higher when I kept it humming along. When I wrote under pressure, the stress of having to dive back into a world or create something out of nothing seemed like fun, but now I’m older and wiser. It wasn’t fun, it was taxing on my mental and creative energies. Thanks for the reminder!

    Reply
  24. I have always believed I work better under pressure but today I think a little pressure is good but too much is…welll….too much. thx for the great post, August

    Reply
  25. I’m not too surprised by these findings. Since I write for a magazine, I’m used to having to work close to deadline, especially if an interview gets pushed close to the article deadline. However, when it comes to my fiction, I have most of the control over the information-gathering process and the writing schedule (for now), so I try to maintain reasonable deadlines. It depends on what stage of the process you’re at, though. First drafts demand more flexibility, whereas, when I’m in the later revision stages, I can usually manage a tighter deadline. I think, regardless of where we’re at in the process, we need to allow ourselves time to have fun–because that’s what really gets the muses smiling. 🙂

    Reply
  26. I wish i had the opportunity to test my abilities while under pressure! The book is moving slooowly, but that’s to be expected, I guess. I’ll get there and then I can see what I’m really made of!

    Reply
    • Giving yourself some deadlines for new projects, or marketing-wise for your current, could help. Most pressure seems to come from the inside…in my experience anyway. Good luck!

      Reply
  27. August,
    Thanks for sharing this article and Harvard study on writing under pressure…I felt so presssssssured to respond to this article…j/k keep up the great blogging…I need my AM fix…(pun intended)

    Reply
  28. I can get nearly anything ‘done’ when a deadline is looming (because I procrastinate too long), but I hate it. It wasn’t that way in the past. I think I thrived on the pressure. Not anymore. I am more efficient when I know something needs to be finished in a REASONABLE time frame though. As for writing fast…I took a fast drafting course and, while I learned a great deal I can apply to my writing, I’ll probably never be able to just ‘plow through’ to the end, and then fix everything on the rewrites.

    Good advice, August. Especially regarding sleep. It’s 100% impossible for me to be creative if I’m not rested. 🙂

    Reply
  29. Running from Hell with El

     /  August 7, 2012

    Great point about how that superhuman feeling you get while working under pressure is just adrenaline . . . so true. As an attorney, I was always under a deadline, and a lot of that WAS necessary. But I always felt like I was making mistakes when I rushed. And as a writer, there simply is no way I write your best, at least my best final draft, while under the gun. Sure, I can crank out some words, but it takes time to hone them.

    Reply
  30. Kourtney Heintz

     /  August 11, 2012

    I work best under reasonable deadlines. Excessive pressure decreases my product value. If you cut my time, you have to expect lesser quality of work or a smaller scope of coverage in my work. I work well with a goal and a timeline. But I also pace myself so I work throughout my timeline, not waiting until the last minute to start things.

    Reply
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