For many people who work on project-based jobs, their lives are measured one deadline at a time.
Work deadlines may push employees to be more productive, but that main driving force that pushes you to finish (most likely the fear of what would happen if you didn’t) can have an adverse effect on creative types.
Neuroscientist John Kounios, a professor of psychology at Drexel University, revealed in a Washington Post Q&A interview that deadlines, along with the fear and anxiety to finish that comes with them, may actually sacrifice creative insights for productivity, according to his research on how the brain works under pressure.
Kounios, along with colleague Mark Beeman, combined their research strategies of looking at the brain’s electrical activity and blood flow as test subjects completed anagrams to learn more about the neural basis for creativity. Kounios explained the science behind “aha” moments:
“When you’re in a positive mood, you’re more sensitive to picking up these weakly activated, unconscious ideas and, when it’s detected, your attention can switch to it, and it can pop into the head as an insight. If you’re in a bad mood, and the anterior cingulate is not activated, it just goes with what’s strongest, which is usually the most straightforward.”
When it comes to the pressure, fear and threat of a deadline looming over your head, Kounios explains how deadlines affect creativity:
“We also found that having a deadline, which carries with it the implicit threat of a negative consequence if you don’t meet it, can create anxiety and shift your cognitive strategy into a more analytical mode of thought. Deadlines can increase analytical productivity, but if an employer really needs something outside the box, innovative and original, maybe a soft target date would encourage more creativity.”
Fortunately for the stress-cases with work deadlines among us, Kounios has eight tips for keeping calm and letting the creative juices flow.
- Stay positive — a good mood, meaning state of feeling safe and secure, improves creativity.
- Work in large areas — big workspaces help your mind’s perceptual and visual attention expand. Don’t stay cooped up in a windowless office.
- Avoid sharp objects — it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the feeling of getting stabbed makes you unconsciously feel threatened which narrows your attention span.
- Surround yourself with colors of nature — blue and green, like the sky and trees, are relaxing and helps to increase attention and creativity. Avoid the color red, which is commonly related to emergency.
- Take breaks — research has shown that taking occasional breaks during work helps the learning process. It’s also a great way to give tough problems a break and let other better ideas come up.
- Sleep or take a nap — getting some rest helps to “thoroughly purge the bad idea” you tend to get stuck on, according to Kounios.
- Try doing nothing. “There’s this process cognitive psychologists call ‘incubation’ – the brain churning over associations. And these associations can pop into awareness as insight,” especially when your conscious mind is doing nothing at all, Kounios says.
- Take a shower — the warm water, white noise, and refreshing feeling of a shower is one of the best ways to relax and let your mind wander and come up with great ideas.
So the next time you are stressing about meeting a deadline for work and good ideas seem to be scarce, remember the most important thing — stay relaxed and stay positive.