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May 01, 2016 Sunday 07:09:26 PM IST

Creativity and time

Creative Living

Albert Einstein once suggested: “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.” How is time related to creativity? Is it directly proportional to the available time or is it just inversely proportional to it? Or does it maintain some other unique correlation? It is an involved question. True, time has to be expended to complete creative tasks too. However, to improve the net creative residue, the same time often needs to be wasted! Creative minds are called upon to master the art of efficiently wasting time in order to improve the quality of their works! Look at Mr. Barack Obama, the president of USA, one of the most influential countries on the globe today. He takes time to play basketball, spends leisure time with his family on holidays in Miami. He appears to be “Mr. Cool” in front of the world media. Does he waste his time, doing all these? Or does it also enhance the quality of his works? In fact, that the President of America grows gray hair could spell doom for the rest of the world. It may signal an imminent political disaster, if gray hair could be taken as a sign of extreme work pressure, stress and “time famine”. Those who assume high offices in society need necessarily take time to relax and to reflect over the implications of their decisions. (This applies to Rahul Gandhi too). They need to find space and time to regularly replenish their creative skills.


Time pressure and Creativity


Prof. Teresa Amabile, the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, has researched for decades on the correlation between time pressure and creativity. According to her, while time pressure may make people feel more creative, it usually prevents them from actually being creative. It creates an apparently self-contradictory situation: people who are hard pressed for time evaluate themselves as creative, which they objectively not are. Subjective perceptions and objective reality remains miles apart! When creativity is under the gun, it usually gets killed, suggests Prof. Amabile. It is only an illusion that work pressure improves creativity! In fact, it is extremely difficult to keep creativity under time pressure. However, there are some methods for preserving creativity during dire pressure of time. According to Prof. Amabile, people could consider that they are on an important mission to negotiate with the time pressures. The mode of being on a mission fills the day with focus. Time pressure gets baptized to “meaningful urgency”. People feel positively challenged. They strive to identify the problem and explore creative solutions. A sense of mission imparts needed concentration and engagement in work, making room for creative blisters. The time pressure can also impart the feeling of being on a tread mill! People run faster on a treadmill only to get further behind! They are pulled in multiple directions. They feel distracted, unfocused, confused, and trapped in never-ending chain of different activities. They do not feel that they do something important. This makes them feel more-pressed for time than when they were on a mission. This invariably chokes their creativity. According to Prof. Amabile this also often leads to so called “time-pressure hangover”, which keeps you uncreative for many consecutive days. However, there is always time to create for those who are ready to create time for the same! This does not automatically imply that days with low time pressure are ideal for creativity. When people are free, they could revert to two different modes: an expedition mode or an auto-pilot mode. In the expedition mode, people focus more on exploring ideas than on simply identifying problems. They explore at individual level for ideas rather than in groups and often come out with creative insights. In the auto-pilot mode, on the other hand, people do their jobs without engagement. There is no external encouragement to think differently, and people languish in numerous unnecessary and routine meetings. This kills not just time, but also creativity skills!


Time management and creativity Professor Anne-Laure Sellier and Prof. Tamar Avnet have made yet another distinction between people on account of their time management styles. According to them, “clock-time” people and “event-time” people approach time differently. Clocktimers, as the term suggests, schedule their days by hours and minutes. They give tasks, errands, and even pastimes an allotted hour and a time limit, and they stick to the schedule. Event-timers, on the other hand, schedule serially: They work on a task until it’s finished or they reach a natural stopping point, and then they move on to something else. For example, let us assume that an event-time person asks a clock-time person: “Do you want lunch?” The clock-time person will ask back: “What time is it?”, to which the event-time person will retort: “It has nothing to do with what time it is; do you want to have lunch?” The clock-timers are ruled by the march of the hours, they feel less control over their lives than event timers, whose schedules are in their own hands. This sense of autonomy and freedom makes the event-timers more creative. There are research studies which suggest that creativity is significantly related to time management skills of a person, which includes daily planning, and confidence on long-range planning. It also depends on time attitudes, such as perceived control of time, tenacity and preference for disorganization.


Creativity is positively related to daily planning behaviour, confidence on long-range planning, perceived control of time and tenacity. However, it is found to be negatively related to preference for disorganization. This implies that planning daily activities, prioritizing them, and having a confidence in long-range planning are more relevant to the production of novel and useful ideas. In other words, time management behaviours may be necessary for the effective exploitation of creative ideas.


Paul Graham distinguishes between the “maker’s schedule” and the “manager’s schedule”. The maker here is a creative mind. The maker’s schedule is defined by long, open stretches of uninterrupted work. For example, for a creative mind a single stretch of work may extend to the entire afternoon. By scheduling time like that the creative minds could shift into a state of “flow”, which is necessary for high-quality creativity. They schedule their times in meaningful bytes. On the other hand, a manager schedules his/her time bit by bit. Managers are preoccupied by accomplishing the given task as efficiently as possible. There is nothing creative to it.


“Big ideas take time”


Creativity takes its own time. Breakthrough ideas are rarely hatched over night. Bell Labs operates under its corporate philosophy: “Big ideas take time”. Researchers there have produced world changing innovations including the transistor and the laser beam. They have also won several Nobel prizes. The gestation of powerful ideas is akin to a “combinatorial play”, as Einstein prefers to call it. Creative thinking generally results from the formation of a large number of associations in the mind, followed by the selection of associations that may be particularly interesting and useful, suggests the psychologists. It is like throwing a bunch of balls into the cognitive space, juggling them around until they collide in interesting ways. It happens at its own chosen time!


Ideal time for creativity


Which time of the day is ideal for creative activities? For some it is the early morning and for some others it is late night. There are still others who consider all times as equally special. Some even get stellar ideas when they are under a shower! There is no single concept regarding the most ideal time of the day for creative outpour. The Indian tradition speaks of Brahma muhurta or “God’s Hour”, almost one and a half hours before sunrise at around 4 a. m. Brahma muhurta is recommended as an auspicious time for prayer, worship and meditation. It is believed that the cosmos is charged with energy during the God’s hour, in which those who are awake partake. That creativity peaks in the morning time is justifiable. In the early morning the creative connections in our brains are most active, making it creative. However, there were both morning larks and night owls among the creative minds of the world.


Charles Dickens, for example, was a morning lark. He started his writing in the early morning and finished it by 2:00pm each day. Robert Frost, on the other hand, was a night owl. He used to start writing at about 2:00pm and would often be writing late into the night. He used to wake up only around noon. Mareike Wietha and Rose Zacks report a counter-intuitive observation in this regard. They found that the creative ideas often emerge at our least optimal times: Morning larks generate path-breaking ideas in the evening and the night owls have their breakthroughs in the morning, respectively, when they apparently aren’t at their best. The theory goes that as our minds tire at our suboptimal times then our focus broadens. As we become bit sleepy and vague, minds options abound and the mind makes connections between apparently unconnected ideas. Hence, for logical or analytical thinking the optimum times are ideal.


However, for lateral thinking, suboptimum times are ideal! What we invariably see in the creative minds is that they had a consistent writing routine and appropriate time schedules. They have actually made their personal optimum time for themselves. They acted as the owners and masters of their time. This perhaps is the clue to resolve the uneasy correlation between creativity and time: Be masters of your times, not be its slave!

Dr. Varghese Panthalookaran

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