[Note: Earlier this week Kathy Sierra (Creating Passionate Users) paid me a compliment in her post on the Five Things I Don't Know About You meme. So, I'll dedicate my post today to her because it deals with a topic that she has also written about (Creativity on Speed) back in December, 2005. Here's my take on the joy of deadlines.]
Strict limits can be a powerful stimulant to the creative process. If you've ever been asked to solve a challenging problem with a small budget or a tight deadline, you've probably found that you were much more resourceful than if you had been granted a ton of money and time. As architect Frank Lloyd Wright repeatedly told his students,
artist's best friend."
That's because they force us to think beyond conventional solutions and find answers we might not otherwise have discovered.
For example, skyscrapers weren't developed by people with cheap, unlimited land, but rather by innovators who wrestled with the problem, "How do we create abundant office space on small pieces of expensive real estate.
Another example: Islamic artists were (and are) generally forbidden by the Koran to depict images of the human body and recognizable life forms in their work. As a result, they channeled their passion for form into representing patterns that can be found in the natural world.
Their ingenuity is especially evident in the Alcazar and Alhambra palaces in Spain, where fourteenth century Moorish designers crafted intricate symmetries in their wall and floor mosaics. (Interestingly, seven centuries later, physicists have determined that there are thirty-two different ways in which atoms and molecules in a crystal can be symmetrically arranged in a pattern and these are all represented in the Moorish mosaics!)
Similarly, a poet may be more inspired by the challenge of writing a sonnet, which must follow a standard pattern of rhyme and meter, than by writing free verse. Indeed, some people enjoy adding constraints to their problems as a way of spurring their thinking. Composer Stephen Sondheim says:
"If you ask me to write a song about the ocean, I'm stumped. But if you tell me to write a ballad about a woman in a red dress falling off her stool at three in the morning, I'm inspired."
Over the years, I've asked many, many people when they get their ideas. The answers I've received run pretty much along these lines:
- "When I'm just playing around."
- "When I'm faced with a problem."
- "When I'm doing something else."
- "When I'm not taking myself too seriously."
- "When things break down and I have to fix them."
However, the one comment I've heard more than any other is:
Thus, having limited time is a constraint that seems to goad lots of people's creativity. I've found this has been true for me both professionally and personally.
When I assign specific open-ended problems to groups in my seminars, I've found that those groups that have less time to generate ideas (e.g., 15 minutes vs. 25 minutes on the same problem) often have better and more creative solutions than the groups with more time. That's because they seem to get right to the point, have less self-censorship, and are less concerned with proper protocol.
This is also the way I prefer to work personally. If I have a project, I like to give myself tight mini-deadlines. This does several things: first, it forces me to get rid of my excuses and dive right in to do some work. Second, it forces me to trust my own creative instincts. Third, since I'm actually doing stuff, I feel comfortable making little experiments along the way. And fourth, it allows me to get "big chunks done" and then to feel comfortable temporarily stepping away from the problem and be in a position where additional inspiration might arise while I'm "thinking aside." (Everyone has their own creative style; this is what works for me.)
Some questions to think about: What's your objective? Can you state it in a simple sentence? What are the three key things you'll need to do to reach it? Where is your sense of urgency? What tight deadlines can you give yourself?