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How Does Time (or lack thereof) Affect Creativity?

"To achieve great things, you need a plan and not quite enough time." Leonard Bernstein

The quote above by the brilliant musician/conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein has always taken me a little off guard, as if I had forgotten that time is actually ticking away, and is an important factor in achieving, well, great things. Not that I doubt him; he was a genius after all, someone who left an astonishing legacy. But what could he possibly have meant by such a statement?

And don’t we have plenty of time to complete whatever the creative thing is we’re working on? 

Actually, we don't. The vast amount of creative work that doesn’t get done far outweighs the stuff that does, and I’ve come to believe that one reason for this is a lack of urgency. The truth is, we always think that there’s plenty of time, when in fact, it slips by in its timey way, and the thing we were always going to finish, with best intentions, dangles in front of us. It’s infuriating and frustrating.

As humans, we’re the only beings on the planet that are privileged to be aware time even exists, and yet sometimes it seems to get in our way instead of inspiring us.

On the other hand, maybe that’s exactly why humans are able to achieve great things, because of our awareness that time is out there, slipping away. We’re the only animals that count our birthdays, for instance, the only ones that respond to time emotionally (we either have too much, like when we’re waiting to go on the first vacation we’ve had in years, or too little, as when we’re stuck in traffic missing an important meeting). Sure, bears know that when winter comes they’re supposed to get ready to hibernate, but they don’t feel one way or the other about it. Humans have a very emotional relationship with time, mostly because we never feel there’s enough of it (as Bernstein acknowledges, but also embraces).

I suppose we must admit that deadlines are actually friends of ours, albeit friends we would prefer to not invite over unless it's on our very specific terms. They tend to stare us down, pointing out all of our shortcomings, and have no sympathy for our weak kneed excuses.

Let's face it, most of us are not great at keeping to deadlines on our own, we need someone or something breathing down our necks to get anything accomplished. We either allow ourselves to get taken in by the millions of potential distractions in our lives, or we give in to that grizzly old trickster, Resistance (aka actively going on a mission to find anything else in the world to do besides creating something. Seriously, get back to work!). 

The kind of creativity Bernstein was talking about, I believe, is when people feel like they’re on an adventure, an expedition that will take them somewhere magical, or at the very least will help them achieve something memorable. They can’t achieve great things on a treadmill, especially if there’s no one to cheer them on. In some circumstances, humans create better under time pressure.

For instance, it’s been shown in work environments that deadlines and creativity do not necessarily do well together. This may be due to a number of reasons: the fact that workers are told what to create, and it may not be in their area of interest/passion, that they’re working with co-workers who they don’t respect or agree with, etc. I don’t think we can get any kind of answer about creativity from those situations, there are too many variables. 

But if we’re talking about a single creator, or a team of well-aligned creators (as Bernstein would have been on a project like, say, West Side Story), time shortage creates excitement, and a curiosity about whether the thing in question will make it to the finish line, and what it will look like when it arrives.

I believe what Bernstein was talking about is our brain’s ability to latch onto a problem or goal, and work it through until that problem is solved, the goal is achieved. Most of us have a brain that LOVES a good problem to solve (as long as it’s not life threatening), and is constantly scanning for more to ponder. You’ve probably experienced this: you have something you need to figure out, and you have no idea what the answer is. You wrestle with the problem, and then one day, you wake up (often while working on a completely unrelated activity) and know with no uncertainty what you need to do.

And since our brain loves a challenge, a somewhat foreshortened timeline gives it extra juicy stuff to chew on.

Notice that the quote is “not quite enough time”. It seems that too much time telegraphs BORING to our brain, and too little makes us remember that we had a previous commitment. But not quite enough time spells out EXCITING, and makes it clear a challenge is at hand. Time has thrown down the gauntlet, and is haughtily waiting for our response, daring us to beat the deadline. 

Next time you know you need or want to get something creative completed, try estimating how long you think you can reasonably get it done, and then cut that in half. Notice what happens to the way you approach the project, and how you feel about it. Try not to let yourself off the hook, even if you know you have more time than you allowed yourself. See what happens to the output, and how you think about the piece as you’re creating. Experiment with time, notice the result, add to tool kit, smile, and keep going.

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