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Does high stress trigger creativity at work?

Commentator Teresa Amabile says high stress doesn't really trigger creativity at work.

Ask people how they feel about deadlines and you'll hear, "I hate them" or "I can't live without them." But quite often, it's both. So, what's the deal? My research team and I discovered the source of that ambivalence. On days with looming deadlines, people can feel both jazzed about their work and highly frustrated by distractions.

In most workplaces, extreme time pressure usually goes hand in hand with interruptions and distractions -- creating a "treadmill effect," where people feel like they're running all day, juggling loads of unexpected tasks, and unable to get to their most important work. And yet, some people still say they actually feel more creative as time pressure rises.

But are they really? We found that on days of the most extreme time pressure, the professionals in our study were 45 percent less likely to come up with a new idea or solve a complex problem. Even worse, there's a kind of "pressure hangover," with lower creativity persisting for two days or more.

I know you're probably sure that you've done great work under extreme deadlines. And you probably have. We did find some creativity under high pressure, but the enabling circumstances are rare in most workplaces: People have to feel that they are on a mission to tackle something crucial -- and they have to be protected from interruptions and extraneous demands.

So if you have to tackle a complex problem in a pressure-cooker situation -- hide somewhere with minimal distractions, like a seldom-used conference room, or the coffee shop around the corner. Focus. Don't let other demands get in the way. And, through it all, keep sight of the importance of the mission at hand. If you're a procrastinator, maybe the most important change you can make is an attitude adjustment. You might be convinced that extreme time pressure is the only way to get brilliant work done because you've never actually tried it any other way. The fact is, when you work under the gun, creativity is usually the first casualty.

About the author

Teresa Amabile is a professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of "The Progress Principle."
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Wilco, I could not have said it better. It's not often that while I'm listening, that I'm caught off guard by a statement that makes me think "Did I hear what I thought I heard?", so I had to rewind the tape at Marketplace and see that I really did hear it...

"If you're a procrastinator, maybe the most important change you can make is an attitude adjustment."

I have to say as a reformed procrastinator, (really it's the ADD) telling someone to "get an attitude adjustment" is about as simplistic as anything I have heard in the Republican race recently. But I guess that's not surprising coming from a Harvard educator. Look at who runs corporations, Wall Street and our government and the economic mess we are in.

Each person is a different and a unique individual with unique gifts and challenges. I've worked with some who just plain don't care, and others for whom it most likely was just a poorly developed habit. Certainly for some, procrastination is a process that triggers adrenalin which stimulates the brain to be more fully active, engaging, and creative. What better way to use your talents and gifts to produce a great work product!

This woman was insulting to nearly half of the people in today's marketplace, and had no factual basis for her simplistic claim. But then simplistic does have as its core the word "simple".

Next time, use the woman from the Financial Times that speaks on BBC radio on workplace issues. At least she is humorous even if you don't agree with her logic. Marketplace, you're picking some really thorny plastic flowers for some of your filler pieces lately. Remember the first rule of Inspector Friday from Dragnet: "Just the facts ma'am...just the facts".

I'm so glad this Harvard PhD has told me what I've been missing all my life. "If you're a procrastinator, maybe the most important change you can make is an attitude adjustment. You might be convinced that extreme time pressure is the only way to get brilliant work done because you've never actually tried it any other way."

My goodness, she's right. As a procrastinator, I've never tried to do my work any other way. Gosh, it never occurred to me to start projects earlier and work evenly over time toward my deadlines. That heart-pounding scramble, the high blood pressure, sacrificing personal time, I thought it was just part of the job. Thank goodness this study has unlocked the secret to success: Just don't procrastinate.

Let's get real. If Ms. Amabile had done her research and examined current psychology, she would have found that procrastination is a far more complicated subject. For many of us, procrastination is the psychological symptom of low-self esteem and high anxiety. I procrastinate because I fear that if I start the project and fail, it will be disastrous or deadly. Of course I don't like scrambling. Of course I don't like my heart pounding in my chest. I've been trying to change it all my life, but there are real, deep fears to get over here.

Don't insult us with simplistic advice. An "attitude adjustment"? If that was true, I would have fixed all my problems in grade school.

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