The Surprising Relationship Between Stress and Creativity

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Braden Becker
Braden Becker


Thomas Edison grossed 1,093 patents over the course of his career. He was also reportedly fired from his first two jobs for not being productive. Huh?


Popular opinion might say that’s because creativity needs both stimulation and room to breathe. These workplaces were likely either uninteresting or too stressful, preventing Edison from flapping his inventive wings toward the problems he wanted to solve.

But this might not be the case. As it turns out, stress and creativity aren't always mutually exclusive.Download our complete productivity guide here for more tips on improving your  productivity at work.

The stressed, many-hats-wearing employee could actually be the most innovative one in the office.

Here are three different kinds of stress, their connection to creativity, and how your career could be on the verge of the most inventive work you've ever done with just the right type and amount of stress.

1. The 'Task-Switching' Stress

In a recent behavioral study conducted by Columbia Business School, researchers had participants engage in creative brainstorming for multiple projects while using one of three work styles. Some could change projects whenever they wished, others split their focus in half, and a third group continuously shifted to a different project at a set interval.

And the most original team was …

Group three! So-called "task-switching," although much faster-paced, shakes up the thought process before it hits a wall -- and it often does. Mine did in this very blog post.

"When attempting problems that require creativity, we often reach a dead end without realizing it," the study’s authors explain in Harvard Business Review. "Regularly switching back and forth between two tasks at a set interval can reset your thinking, enabling you to approach each task from fresh angles."

Frequently changing gears forces you to change your view of each task as you revisit it. This style of working fosters more creativity and avoids the "rigid thinking" that occurs when you focus for too long on the same project. You know what this feels like: the mental block from writing, designing, analyzing, or thinking about one thing so hard, you exhaust the subject.

Changing the subject refreshes your view of each undertaking, curing this classic problem. In other words, Thomas Edison’s creativity likely has a direct correlation to the size of his patent list ...

Where You'd Find It

Graphic design and video production -- especially in agency settings -- are volume-dependent work. An awesome YouTube channel needs a consistent stream of content. But you're only as awesome as your bandwidth allows, right?

Wrong. Task-switching says a diverse workload can make you more efficient and effective. Think about it: The more creative assignments you have on your plate, the broader your mental canvas, and the more opportunities you'll have for inspiration as you shift back and forth between each design or video you’re working on.

2. The 'Meaningful' Stress

Recently, two Chinese psychologists published a study about job stressors and their effect on the creativity of more than 280 employees in various businesses. What they found is that not all stress hampered good ideas. The stressors that were seen as constructive and challenging to an employee’s goals and development had a direct link to idea generation.

On the other hand, the stress that was seen as as a hindrance to those goals did the opposite.

What made the difference? The first stressor holds meaning to an employee, and it’s another way stress can make us more creative.

Teresa Amabile, professor at Harvard Business School, explains this idea in her book "The Progress Principle." She suggests there are four stress conditions where you’d feel the heat:

  1. "On a treadmill": Your work is high-pressure but low in meaning.
  2. "On autopilot": Your work is low-pressure and low in meaning.
  3. "On an expedition": Your work is low-pressure but high in meaning.
  4. "On a mission": Your work is high-pressure and high in meaning.

Here's a matrix of this concept by marketing consultant Kim Tasso:

Four conditions that connect stress and creativity, according to Kim Tasso.

Image via Red Star Kim

Both "on a treadmill" and "on autopilot" are highly repetitive work environments and therefore less engaging -- requiring little creativity. However, "on an expedition" and "on a mission" are more goal-oriented and more meaningful to you as a result. That meaning is precisely what kindles creativity, according to Amabile.

When people reach goals they consider meaningful, Amabile writes in her book, they "feel good, grow their positive self-efficacy," and "get even more revved up to tackle the next job."

The relationship between stress and creativity here depends on how you perceive the stress you're under at any given time. Is it connected to a goal you find meaningful? Does it push you to accomplish this goal? If so, that little dose of stress may be helping you think outside the box and grow your career.

Where You'd Find It

Marketers are no strangers to work that has a specific endgame. SEO strategy, social media management, and conversion optimization are some of the most rewarding projects to take on because they’re usually attached to a meaningful, quantitative goal.

Having goal metrics chained to your ankle may not be the most comfortable, but they're a positive form of stress that can actually inspire some of the most creative problem-solving approaches over the course of your career.

3. The 'Deadline' Stress

Perhaps the most common work stressor of all, time constraints are the plague of everyone who's paid to do anything. But as the above two scenarios prove, certain amounts of pressure are important to keeping a creative task moving forward.

For this third stressor, let's look at a case study by Amabile detailed in "The Progress Principle," wherein she surveyed creative teams from seven companies across three industries. She found that although tight deadlines did hinder creativity, so did mild deadlines. Spoiler alert: The third situation -- moderate deadlines -- produced the best ideas.

The first situation carried a tight deadline where people were performing high-pressure, low-meaning "treadmill" work. These employees' efforts simply weren’t making an impact, and therefore they didn’t see enough meaning in the work to think creatively. They faced crises, ad-hoc tasks, and the proverbial fire drills that kept them busy but no closer to finishing their core project.

Mild deadlines were the detriment of creative thinking as well, particularly if they allowed people to fade into large project teams, trail off to assist others, or stew for too long over the same assignment (remember "task-switching"?).

This brings us to Amabile’s main finding: Workers who were under a low to moderate deadline -- the middle option between “tight” and “mild” -- showed the most creativity across each organization, followed by those under tight deadlines. The stress of a due date may not be exciting, but a time-sensitive environment can give your work the focus it deserves and help you fend off the distractions that can derail an inspired train of thought.

"If people and companies feel that they have a real deadline, they understand it, they buy into it," Amabile wrote in a Forbes article. "They understand the importance of what they're doing, and the importance of doing it fast -- and if they're protected ... so they can focus, they're much more likely to be creative."

Where You'd Find It

Few marketers know the plight of a deadline quite like content creators, but you already know what I'm going to say here: Bloggers need deadlines. One crazy tight deadline may result in lower quality, but the weekly or monthly quotas you have to meet are what keep you honest and your content focused on the needs of its audience.

Don't let an article that welcomes stress, well, stress you out. The relationship between stress and creativity is a complex one, and any one of these stressors in excess can ruin creativity. Too much pressure, too many tasks at once, and assignments with too short of a turnaround can all cripple the final product. Keep in mind that breaks as you need them are just as healthy as the constraints of the project itself. 

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Topics: Creativity

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