Time for Creativity: Are Deadlines Dead?


The key is finding the sweet spot between tackling work as soon as possible, and having the flexibility to allow ideas to incubate.


There’s a common and long-held assumption that setting firm deadlines drives workers or teams to achieve their goals. But is this really the case? The very word deadline can create stress for any worker.

For some professions such as project management or production directors, there is no way around deadlines. But what about fields such as marketing, engineering, and top management, where people are tasked with idea and strategy generation?

The Wall Street Journal interviewed Professor Richard Boyatzis, who confirmed through research that “the more stressful a deadline is, the less open you are to other ways of approaching a problem.” A recent Fast Company article also explores the impact of time pressure on creative thinking, and according to research by Harvard Business School professor, Teresa Amabile, workers were most creative when they felt motivated primarily by intrinsic factors like interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself, and not by external pressures or inducements. Additionally, workers were found to be less creative on time-pressured days. We can see how this may prove true in today’s fast-moving society where “unrealistic goals and measurements become a whip rather than a means to encourage peak performance,” says Forbes writer, Ty Kiisel.

Although Kiisel acknowledges the sometimes extreme time pressure of today’s work environment, he is a proponent of deadlines and believes they need to be taken seriously. Expectedly, it was also found in Amabile’s research that too little pressure did not produce ideal results either. After all, sometimes deadlines drive workers to focus on that one goal and set aside everything else. Take for instance a brand manager overseeing five accounts with one account severely behind. Drawing a hardline for that one account is necessary.

So what is the best way to encourage creative thinking and motivate knowledge workers?  Perhaps each situation calls for a different time management approach. But the answer probably is not driving hard deadlines or, on the other end, tolerating procrastination. The key is finding the “sweet spot”, as Amabile puts it, where workers tackle their work as soon as they can, yet have the flexibility to put it aside and allow ideas to “incubate” while they work on other things.