Time Pressure and Creativity: Why Time is Not on Your Side

Even as time pressures increase in corporate life, the need for creative thinking has never been greater, says Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile.
by Sean Silverthorne

Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile is in the midst of a ten-year study looking at, among other things, how time pressure in a corporate setting affects employee creativity. She recently presented early findings and an updated working paper to colleagues at the HBS Research Symposium, and will publish an overview of the work in the August issue of Harvard Business Review.

In this email interview with HBS Working Knowledge editor Sean Silverthorne, Amabile talks about her research—one of the most complex research efforts ever undertaken at HBS—and the implications for managers who need to keep creative thinking in their organizations even as time pressures increase.

Silverthorne: What was the genesis of the project? What fascinated you about the question of time pressure and creativity?

Amabile: Over the course of my twenty-five-year career in research and teaching, I've been fascinated by the complex effects that time pressure (and other forms of pressure) had on my own creativity and productivity. And, in working with many companies, I've noticed an interesting phenomenon: Most managers—and employees—hold strong beliefs about how time pressure affects creativity. But the beliefs are completely opposite!

We wanted to do what few researchers have ever attempted: trap creativity in the wild...
—Teresa Amabile

Some people are convinced that time pressure stimulates creative thinking, and others are certain it stifles creative thinking. There's very little prior empirical research on time pressure and creativity in organizations, and the results were somewhat contradictory. Over the past few years, there's been more and more talk about time pressure in organizations, and what a prominent feature of the work environment it's become for knowledge workers (the people who are, ideally, supposed to be doing creative work much of the time!). My HBS colleague Leslie Perlow has identified a "time famine" in corporate America today. Given the prominence of time pressure in people's work lives, the contradictory intuitions that people hold about its effects, and the dearth of rigorous empirical research, my research team and I set out to tackle the problem.

My research team and I investigated time pressure and creativity as part of a multi-year research program in which we had a large number of organizational employees—238 individuals on 26 project teams in 7 companies in 3 industries—fill out a brief electronic diary every day during the entire course of a creative project they were doing in their jobs.

Q: The methodology and complexity of the research itself is staggering. Why did you employ the "diary" method of quizzing employees, and how difficult was that process to manage?

A: We wanted to do what few researchers have ever attempted: "trap creativity in the wild" in organizations, by observing it as it was happening within teams who are supposed to be doing creative work. We believed that the best way to get real-time information on these individuals, the teams, and their work, in a relatively unobtrusive way, was to have the participants fill out an electronic "Daily Questionnaire" (DQ) for us.

Every workday, Monday through Friday, the HBS computer emailed the DQ to everyone participating in the study; we asked participants to fill it out and send it back by the end of the day. Each team did this through their entire project (or project phase) that we were studying (anywhere from five weeks up to nine months).

Of course, the process was very difficult to manage, requiring intense attention from my research associates and me. I met personally with each participating team four times during their participation:

  • An initial recruiting meeting, where I explained what participation would involve and what the team would get in return (about 50 percent of the recruited teams agreed to participate).
  • A briefing meeting before their project started, in which I explained the study in more detail, answered questions, and helped them practice completing the DQ.
  • A mid-study check-in meeting to see how they were doing and answer further questions.
  • A final results workshop, in which we presented our preliminary findings to the team and helped them think through how to use the results to improve their work. After studying four or five teams in a given company, we also met with the management team of the organization to share our general findings with them and to hear their interpretation of the results.

I think that participants were so conscientious (returning fully 75 percent of all the DQs we sent out to them) because (1) they felt that they were going to get a truly unique look at their team and themselves; (2) we established a personal connection with them in the early meetings and maintained that through regular phone calls and emails from me and my RAs; and (3) we tried to make it fun by giving them little gifts at the meetings (like "TEAM Study" coffee mugs), and including jokes and trivia questions at the end of the DQ each day.

Q: One of the interesting findings suggested by your work is that while people believe they are more creative under deadline pressure, they are not. At the same time, too little pressure does little to help creativity, either. So how does a manager find that "sweet spot" along the time/creativity continuum?

A: Actually, I don't think it's a continuum, but rather a set of conditions that seem to determine whether time pressure will have positive or negative effects on creativity.

I don't think there's much danger of too little time pressure in most organizations I've studied
—Teresa Amabile

As the HBR article points out, the results suggest that, overall, very high levels of time pressure should be avoided if you want to foster creativity on a consistent basis. However, if a time crunch is absolutely unavoidable, managers can try to preserve creativity by protecting people from fragmentation of their work and distractions; they should also give people a sense of being "on a mission," doing something difficult but important. I don't think, though, that most people can function effectively in that mode for long periods of time without getting burned out.

At the other end of the spectrum, very low time pressure might lull people into inaction; under those conditions, top-management encouragement to be creative—to do something radically new—might stimulate creativity. But, frankly, I don't think there's much danger of too little time pressure in most organizations I've studied.

Q: What are the implications of your research so far for business leaders who want to enhance creativity in their organizations?

A: My answer to the previous question suggests managerial implications concerning time pressure. More broadly, our research suggests that managers should try to avoid or reduce the "obstacles to creativity" (time pressure and organizational impediments like political problems, harsh criticism of new ideas, and emphasis on the status quo) and enhance the "stimulants to creativity" (freedom, positive challenge in the work); sufficient resources (work-group supports, putting together diversely skilled teams that communicate well, are mutually committed to the work, and constructively discuss ideas); supervisory encouragement (team leaders who communicate effectively with the group, value individual contributions, protect the group within the organization, set clear goals while allowing freedom in meeting the goals, and serve as good work models); and organizational encouragement (like conversations about ideas across the organization, and a top management focus on rewarding and recognizing good creative work).

Q: Personally, what has been your most surprising finding or findings?

A: Perhaps the most surprising finding from the time pressure study is that time pressure really does seem to have an important impact on creativity, even though our intuitions are contradictory and previous research is inconclusive. I'm also very surprised that, while our participants were giving evidence of less creative thinking on time-pressured days, they reported feeling more creative on those days. This helps me gain a bit of insight into those contradictory intuitions!

Q: Although you are attempting to understand the "black box" of creativity in an organizational setting, have you talked to or researched creative folks in the arts or other endeavors?

A: Several years ago, while a professor of psychology at Brandeis University, I studied professional artists who occasionally did commissioned work. They seemed to be the perfect population for me to study the effect of contracted-for reward on creativity; they received contracts specifying their monetary "reward" up front for some of their work, but did other work completely self-initiated, with uncertainty about whether they'd ever sell the work. I found that, overall, their commissioned artworks were rated by expert judges as significantly less creative than their non-commissioned—self-initiated—work. The judges didn't know which works were commissioned, and they weren't familiar with any of the artists' work previously. This wasn't true for all of the artists, but it was true for most.

Also while at Brandeis, I did a laboratory experiment with creative writers—people who spent a significant part of their time each week writing fiction, poetry, or drama. I wanted to see if their creativity would be temporarily affected by having them focus on extrinsic motivations for being a writer, such as getting rich and famous, versus intrinsic motivations such as enjoying the process of writing. After getting them to think about one or the other set of motives (or no motives for writing, in a control condition), I had them each write a brief poem that was later judged by experts who were also blind to the experimental conditions. I found that the creativity of the poems was significantly lower in the extrinsic motivation condition than in the other conditions. This supported one of the main findings of my entire research program on creativity: The Intrinsic Motivation Principle of Creativity. People will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself, and not by external pressures or inducements.

Q: Are you under time pressure yourself to wrap this project up? When will the work be complete?

A: The time pressure study is one of several projects coming out of a longitudinal research program that my team and I have been working on since 1996. These projects are all aimed at discovering how specific events and patterns of events within organizations can influence the work environment, motivation, perceptions, creativity, and other aspects of performance. In the process, we are discovering a great deal about what really happens at work—and what managers can do to make it better. We hope to wrap up most of the analyses and the writing up of results in the next three to four years.

It's hard to imagine being able to carry out a ten-year organizational research program of such magnitude—12,000 DQs from so many employees in so many companies—at any academic institution besides HBS!