This classic Calvin and Hobbes moment alludes to two extremes in the creative process – the dance of waiting for inspiration, and the push that a time crunch provides. It’s contradictory. But there’s some wisdom to be uncovered in this. One that we need, especially in today’s pace of work.

Urgency is the norm – no matter the industry. And given that everything we do is published on social platforms globally, everyone wants the best idea, the most unique one, or even something revolutionary. This, in the shortest time possible. The result of such a culture, according to researcher Leslie Perlow, is a ‘time famine’. It creates a feeling of having too much to do, without having the time for it.

But, how conducive is time pressure to achieving creative goals?

Prof. Teresa Amabile, Harvard University, offers insights. Based on her study of ten years, she found that “while people believe they are more creative under deadline pressure, they are actually not.” Time crunch, along with harsh criticism of new ideas, and an unwillingness to change status quo, have proved to be the key obstacles to creativity.

So, why do creative ideas need time and spaciousness? Here’s what we know:

  • They need to marinate. An idea is like a spark. It comes with a rush of energy. And that’s that. It actually is just a glimmer of what’s possible. And we need time to see the whole picture. To turn the good into great. It’s called percolation.

When we sit with an idea, it builds in our subconscious. It travels through our brain’s neural networks, exploring everything we know, and gathering relevant information. Without even knowing, we end up making bizarre yet worthy associations. Einstein called it the ‘combinatorial play’. That’s how James Dyson developed a vacuum cleaner by studying sawmills. Fiona Fairhurst designed a faster swimsuit by understanding shark skin. Even sleeping over an idea for a day or two helps.

  • They require persistence. Consider Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. He spent decades reading scientific literature, traveling on the HMS Beaglev to the Galápagos, carrying out detailed observations, and producing endless notes on them. His breakthrough wouldn’t have occurred if he’d rushed it, or had given up because it was hard. 

A great idea, to turn into reality, needs to be tested and re-tested. Chiseled. In design thinking, it is called prototyping. Like testing a hypothesis. Although a laborious process, it helps address potential pitfalls, take calculated risks, and also gives us a glimpse of the whole picture.

  • They demand energy and focus. If you’ve ever been to a therapy session, you’d know that after it’s done, you feel drained. In just an hour. Because your brain spends that time firing up neurons, processing information, making meaning of experiences, managing emotions, storing it – all with focus. And that takes heavy duty energy. It burns calories. Roughly 90 per hour.

Working on an idea is no different. Coming up with it is the start. Visualizing the idea and bringing it to life engages both hemispheres of our brain. It takes planning, articulation, and testing. As well as letting the mind wander so it can surface the ‘magic’. Add to this the fact that we are always multitasking, which our brain isn’t built for – we can only focus for 90-minutes at a stretch.

Essentially, without the spaciousness, a creative process may feel like swimming upstream. Or like running up on an incline. Neither is fun. Yes, there is merit to the time pressure. And, that is an exception to the norm. Thus, if you want a good idea to become great, let’s end the time famine.

Image credit: https://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes/1992/05/21