Tell me if you’ve heard this before.
There are two kinds of people. Those who love deadlines . . .
Take my one friend J. She’ll tell you that if you give her a deadline, she can write anything. Novels, book reviews, essays, whatever. If she’s got a little pressure, something like a small knife dangling over her head, she’ll work better.
Or D, who signs up for NANOWRIMO every year because that’s the only time she’ll make herself sit down and write.
And then there are people like . . . well, people like me who cringe at the mention of a deadline or a quota. 1000 words a day? A novel in a month? One hour five times a week? (Wait, that might be about exercising enough to get your heart rate up.)
Fortunately, if you’re like me, we’ve now got science on our side.
According to an article in The Washington Post ("Do these eight things and you will be more creative and insightful, neuroscientists say," July 6, 2015) neuroscientist John Kounios, and Mark Beeman, colleagues at Drexel University, have found that working on a deadline may inhibit creativity.
They say that one of the most important things you need for insight and creativity is a positive mood. And, for some of us, deadlines can be a mood killer.
Here’s an excerpt from the interview about insight and creativity:
Q: How can readers set the stage for insights, for creativity, to arise?
Kounios: Insight is like a cat. You can’t order it to appear. You can coax it. But you can’t command it. Creativity and insight flows from a particular brain state. And if you can put yourself in this brain state, you will be more likely to have these creative insights.
And we do know from scientific study that altering aspects of your environment can help you.
1. Positive mood: There is a lot of research going back 20, 30 years showing that being in a positive mood improves creativity. When you’re in a somewhat negative mood, a little anxious, that actually improves analytical thought.
Creativity flows from a state of feeling safe or secure. When you feel safe or secure, you can take risks. And creativity is intellectually risky. When you come up with new ideas, they can be wrong. When you try to implement new ideas, you can meet resistance.
But when you feel subtle, unconscious threat, you feel you can’t make mistakes. You have to stay focused on the topic, so you don’t stray far from what the problem is, or what you need to do.
We also found that having a deadline, which carries with it the implicit threat of a negative consequence if you don’t meet it, can create anxiety and shift your cognitive strategy into a more analytical mode of thought. Deadlines can increase analytical productivity, but if an employer really needs something outside the box, innovative and original, maybe a soft target date would encourage more creativity.
In another study, we found that, for people who solved problems analytically, they had more activity in their visual cortex – they were outwardly focused. But before people solved problems with a flash of insight, they had less activity in their visual cortex – they were focusing their attention inwardly.
And before a flash of insight, there was more activity in the anterior cingulate, right in the middle of the head. What the anterior cingulate does is monitor the rest of the brain for conflicts. It also detects different strategies for solving problems. You can’t use two strategies at the same time. Some are strongly activated, because they’re the most obvious. And some are weak, or more distant – inklings, hunches, that tend to be more creative, even strange or off the wall.
When you’re in a positive mood, you’re more sensitive to picking up these weakly activated, unconscious ideas and, when it’s detected, your attention can switch to it, and it can pop into the head as an insight. If you’re in a bad mood, and the anterior cingulate is not activated, it just goes with what’s strongest, which is usually the most straightforward.
A good mood literally expands the scope of your thought.