When the oxygen tanks exploded on Apollo 13 it left the crew, engineers, and mission coordinators with a legion of problems to solve in a very short space of time.
With CO2 quickly on the rise, the 96 hour journey back to earth for crew members Lovell, Swigert, and Haise had become potentially fatal.
The crew would die on their way back to earth unless a solution could be found to resize spare filters to fit the Lunar Module. NASA’s top minds worked throughout the night to come up with a solution. Just as the CO2 got to critical levels the devised an ingenious answer to the problem.
Their final workaround required a sock, the front page of their checklist manual, and a roll of duct tape, but the filter worked and the crew made it safely back to earth.
You may never have to be that creative under that amount of pressure, but almost everyone will need to maintain a calm and clear head at some point in their lives and deliver creative ideas in difficult circumstances. But how do you stay creative when you are up against it?
Here are few ideas for how to stay productive and creative in difficult circumstances.
Deadlines may seem the bane of all creative endeavor, but without a schedule and an endpoint to aim for, it can be difficult to focus your abilities on the task in hand. If not for a strict deadline then the chances that you will procrastinate and put the work off and off and off grow exponentially.
However, a single, large looming deadline is unlikely to be the best way to get work done.
Using mini-deadlines as part of a bigger project allow you to compartmentalize your work and see progress as you finish each task.
These smaller deadlines take the stress off having to complete overwhelming amounts of work, and instead let you focus on the tasks at hand.
But do deadlines even help?
The traditional theory is that, yes, people work better when under pressure and that deadlines are a good way to get the most out of people. However scientific research is turning against this idea.
Now it’s more commonly thought that although you might get work done quickly under pressure, creativity does not flow when people feel pressurized.
Teresa Amabile, a Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School studied 177 people working for some the top companies in the United States. She asked them to keep diary entries for their work days and note when they thought that they were under different types of pressure and how creative they were.
What Amabile and her team found was that putting people under pressure rarely lead to more creative decisions from the workers. Rather, the time-orientated pressure was more likely to lead to distractions during the day, such as planning changes, meetings, and extraneous activities.
Most of us have probably experienced this type of problem – towards the end of a multi-person, large-scale project, suddenly there are lots of meetings to make sure everyone is kept in the loop, lots of changes of plans as issues arise, and extra activities that mean you cannot sit down and think.
The group identified what is really needed for people to remain creative under pressure – the pressure has to be meaningful.
The participants reported feeling more creative, even under pressure if they felt they were “on a mission”.
If they felt that what they were doing was important then no matter what deadline or extreme pressure they were under, they were still capable of coming up with unique, creative solutions to any problems encountered.
Now you can see why the Apollo13 engineers managed to come up with just a great design so quickly – they were on a mission.
Another important finding from the Amabile study was that it is far more important to manage distractions rather than manage time. Though you may always have one eye on the clock when you are up against a deadline, it is distractions that kill productivity and creativity.
When people are able to focus on one thing and one thing alone then they are more likely to be creative.
It is when distractions start to play their part, either self-inflicted distractions, or unavoidable ones that we start to feel the day slip away from us and the pressure pile up even more. The participants in the Amabile study reported ‘fragmented workdays’ as a significant problem in maintaining creativity under pressure.
Know what your distractions are and head them off at the pass. If you find yourself watching hours of YouTube, then consider a blocking program, or one that will cut you off from the Internet all together.
If you find yourself always playing the same game on your phone, or checking Facebook, then simply delete the app.
Initially it will seem strange, but after a while you will be annoyed that you didn’t do it earlier.
People can also be a distraction. In your workplace you might find that your friends and colleagues come by for a chat or to ask a question. When you are up against a deadline then this obviously impacts your ability to work. If you work at home, it might be children or partners that distract you. If so, consider following the advice of airlines around the world and adopting a ‘sterile cockpit rule’.
Flying an airliner obvious requires a lot of concentration, especially at critical phases of the flight such as take-offs and landings. In these instances airline pilots have a sterile cockpit rule where no one is allowed in or out of the cockpit and extraneous talk, either in the cockpit or on the radio is kept to a minimum. This allows the pilots to have maximum control over their environment at the time they need maximum concentration.
Set up a sterile cockpit rule for yourself by making sure everyone knows that if you have your office door shut you are not to be disturbed, or if you are wearing your headphones it is a signal that you are deep in work-mode.
Interestingly, the Amabile study found that talking with colleagues when under pressure led the employees to think less creatively.
They found that when the participants were “on a mission”, they preferred to be locked away thinking on their own rather than talking in groups. They imposed their own sterile cockpit rule to make sure they had more focus and less distraction.
This suggests one of the worst ways to get people thinking creatively when under pressure is the ‘brainstorming’ session.
These group-orientated, loosely-focused meetings ended up being nothing more than a time suck for the employers and did not generate good, creative thinking.
However, individual collaboration did. Sitting down with a colleague and focusing on a single problem led to much more creativity. If you find yourself struggling for good ideas, then consider finding an individual that really understands the problem at hand and team up. As you bounce ideas off each other you are likely to (both) become far more creative.
Though not covered in the study, it is a good idea to talk to your boss, or client, about the project as well.
It can be tempting when approaching a deadline to just put your head down and try to present them with a fait accompli when the time is up, but by getting feedback as the pressure mounts you will be releasing some of the burden from your shoulders.
Firstly, you will know throughout that you are on the right track. If you choose to just work to the deadline and then present, you will always have that voice in your head telling you that you are on the wrong track and adding to the pressure.
Secondly, this, in effect, transfers your one big deadline to those mini-deadlines that are easier to manage, both time-wise and mentally. Your boss or client will know what state the project is in throughout so you will have lifted some of the pressure of the final presentation.
Finally, it’s OK to moan. You need to let off steam once in a while and a gripe and grumble about your boss or your client to your nearest and dearest is a good idea if it helps you to decompress. This emotional venting lets you overcome frustrations that are standing in your way, and help you clear your mind so you can think more easily and creatively.
When working under pressure you can end up feeling guilty about any break you take, even lunch breaks or a quick trip to the toilet. But breaks are extremely important to recharge your mental, emotional, and physical batteries and allow you to stay creative.
To continue working at your maximum, you have to get up from your desk every hour or so and take a small break. Get in the habit of taking a quick coffee break, a 5 minute walk to stretch, or to take lunch. Moving away from the glare of the screen is as important for your brain as it is for your eyes.
Sometimes you will need to take a break for longer in order to fully recharge. For example, consider building a walk into your daily routine.
A morning walk, before work has begun allows you to stick at your desk full of ideas and ready to go.
An afternoon walk, when you are flagging, can help reinvigorate you and add fuel to the inspiration fire.
Walking, or other exercise will also help you in the long term. It has been shown that exercise both increases creativity and puts you in a more positive mood, ready to confront any challenges.
Also the healthier you are, the less tired, both mentally and physically, you will be when you are struggling against a tight deadline, leaving you more capable of putting in the long hours that might be required.
For the people that feel they are “on a mission”, then inspiration should come easily. Through the work itself ideas will be generated and continual focus on the problem at hand will lead to the solution.
As Edison said: “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”
But sometimes, for all the talk of focus to get you through the pressure of an impending deadline, you need to de-focus to retain some clarity and get your mind thinking creatively again.
Inspiration is obviously important for creativity and it can be difficult to stay inspired when you are under pressure. One of the most important things to do if you are struggling for inspiration is to get up and take that break.
Go for a walk, watch a TV show, listen to some music – anything that allows your brain to not think for a while. This allows the unconscious part of your brain to start working and to start to come up with more creative ideas.
As a deadline looms it is common for people to focus on micro-tasks and start to obsess over the minutiae of their code, writing, or design. We try to make something perfect when really we should be making it good.
Importantly, error is essential to creativity. As Piet Hein, the Danish scientist, wrote:
“The road to wisdom? –Well, it’s plain and simple to express: err and err and err again but less and less and less.”
The perfect is the enemy of good. You are going to make mistakes. You are going to procrastinate. Your work is not going to be perfect.
Learn from your mistakes for next time you are under pressure. There will be little hacks that are specific to you. Do you need a firm deadline? Do you need a walk each day? Do you need a tidy desk? Is it better for you to talk a problem through with a colleague, or shut yourself away in your sterile cockpit? You cannot know this until you have tried and found what does, and what does not, work.
As you start to work out what’s good and what isn’t in your working practices, you will become better at coping with the pressure and your work in such circumstances will automatically become better.
You will be training yourself each time to be more creative.
And, who knows, one day you might be called up on to build a life-saving device out of an old sock and a piece of cardboard and your mid-afternoon walk might help you come up with the exact solution.