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Finding Your Creative Boiling Point: How Pressure Can Inspire Innovative Thinking

Thanks to the Internet and all of its digitally-equipped friends (we’re looking at you, iPad), expectations surrounding content creation and response time are no longer a game of cat and mouse. There is no languid turnaround time allotted for research and release, and creators know that you can only use the “lost in the ether” excuse once or twice before the boss or vendor calls shenanigans on your spotty proficiency. Accelerated creation is key in this constantly evolving digital age, but there’s danger afoot: push for quantity over quality and you might get steamrolled by better-researched and more informative content.

But still, we need that content yesterday; so what’s an agile business to do?

The Science of Stress: Pressure as a Motivator

“Fight or flight” — you’ve almost certainly heard of this evolutionary tactic, something that came in super handy when our neanderthal ancestors were confronted by saber-toothed bears and such. Basically, when humans experience stress, the body responds physically by shutting down certain ‘non-essential’ biological functions, like digestion or reproduction processes. And while it’s unlikely you’ll see a raptor creeping around your cubicle anytime soon, modern stressors like the need to meet deadlines or complete projects produce the same physical response in us as imminent danger, albeit on a much smaller scale; we become biologically compelled to ‘fight’ for our self-preserving end-goal (like not getting fired). Pressure acts as a pretty brilliant motivator, encouraging us to seek solutions to problems that we might overlook if we felt like we had time to overlook them.

Take, for example, the astronauts from Apollo 13’s 1970 flight to the moon. As detailed by Nancy Atkinson (and Hollywood, naturally), Apollo’s crew faced a potentially fatal disaster when an explosion severely damaged the ship’s air filtration system, causing CO2 to rapidly seep into the main cabin. It would’ve killed them all if the extraordinary pressure to jury-rig a new filter hadn’t caused them to quickly embrace their creativity and consider nonsensical options, one of which eventually worked and saved their lives.

Thankfully, most of us aren’t facing suffocation if we fail to produce creative ideas and content, but when what’s on the line is your brand or business, it sure can feel like it. The question, though, is not really whether or not pressure can boost creativity and motivation, but how we can harness it as a tactic to ensure that it does.

Personalities, Procrastination and Problem-Solving

The truth, and challenge, is that the act of being creative is utterly specific to the person doing the creating. So will be their reaction to pressure, which for some, is panic. Remember, it’s fight or flight; it’s imperative to scale the amount and types of pressure against knowns — like job titles, typical work habits, and general levels of creative output — against unknowns, like whether or not someone’s personality is conducive to time restrictions, or if they’re a linear thinker versus a brainstormer. That’s where the questions come in.

Ask yourself: do you know what kind of worker you are? Do you fit into a preconceived role within your business, with quantifiable expectations? How much of your job is centered around repetitive tasks, and how much around thinking critically? How do you organize your ideas – in a straight path, or in clusters? Do you procrastinate or plan? And, perhaps most importantly, do other people know any of this about you?

The answers should be fairly straightforward, and allow you to loosely classify your “work personality.” According to Stephen R. Robbins, there are six types of workers: realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising and conventional. It’s a pretty safe bet that your realistic and conventional types aren’t going to handle pressure constructively; these guys like concrete plans, by-the-book execution and probably aren’t fantastic with ambiguity. If you think you fall under one of these umbrellas, embrace that your creativity requires time and space to grow. You might hate disruption, but give it a shot by adjusting your thinking habits or asking for input along the way, rather than just gathering end-of-project feedback. Switching up your habits now and then often leads to innovation.

For the rest, stressors could be the key to unleashing out-of-the-box thinking and epiphanies, much like group brainstorming. Some workers naturally pressure themselves into action because they are constantly seeking immediate solutions. Remember, too, that pressure doesn’t have to come in the form of shortened timelines. As with the Apollo mission, stress that spawns ingenuity can be born out of a lack of preconceived tools and conventional solutions. In other words, what could you have that you don’t? What could you ask that you aren’t? Focus on the voids. This could lead you off the beaten path and towards a unique resolution.

As with any business tactic, it’s imperative that you remain adaptable when trying to pressure yourself into creativity — a goal that sometimes seems futile. It’s not unlikely that the first few attempts could lead only to frustration and an extreme desire to flee to the nearest empty conference room. It requires an honest assessment of who you are as a creator and a willingness to attack your own weaknesses for the greater good. Think of the occupations that are most often associated with creativity, like music, art, and writing. The purveyors of these crafts rarely bank on raw talent alone, but rather, are in a constant state of personal renovation where weaknesses are drawn on for inspiration.

Allow yourself to succumb to your own genius — you just might discover a yet unknown path to success.

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