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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

The Deadline Myth

The Deadline Myth is Dead Wrong

I can’t tell you how many MBA candidates and undergrads have told me that they do their “best work” when they write at the last minute, the day or night before a piece of writing is due. The ability of humans to indulge in blatant self-deception never ceases to amaze me. 

Writers do NOT write better when a deadline is looming. Deadlines do NOT make people more creative. Deadlines make people more resistant. The origin of the myth probably lies in the adrenaline rush people get when a looming deadline propels them out of complete paralysis and makes it possible to write at all. But the writing that is produced is no one’s best work.

The truth is that deadlines trigger the limbic system’s fear response, and when the limbic system is turned on, the creative cortex is switched off.

It is possible to write something without having your cortex fully engaged, but what you produce will not be creative. It will be derivative, the product of automatic processing and old ideas, not the sophisticated analysis and fresh synthesis that only the cortex can perform.

Adrenaline may get you out of the deer in the headlights paralysis, but...

Not only are you incapable of doing your best, creative work when you’re operating from your limbic system, you are at much greater risk of being sidetracked. An adrenaline rush gets you out of feeling like a deer in the headlights, but it takes you to a place of resistance, not creativity.

With all that adrenaline and cortisol driving it, the limbic system deploys the instinctual fight-of-flight response. The kinds of resistance that show up when you’re fleeing your writing are restlessness, the inability to keep your butt in the chair, postponing writing (“I’ll write as soon as I …”), following distractions like email, Twitter, internet searches, TV, video games, and bright and shiny objects. Fighting includes being hyper-critical of yourself and others, denigrating the writing or sabotaging yourself.    

Neither is conducive to creative thinking and good writing. Yet the Deadline Myth is alive, well and widespread.

In a study of nearly 12,000 daily journal entries from 238 people working on creative projects in seven companies, Harvard Professor Teresa Amabile and her team found that “people often thought they were most creative when they were working under severe deadline pressure. But the 12,000 aggregate days that we studied showed just the opposite: People were the least creative when they were fighting the clock. In fact, we found a kind of time-pressure hangover — when people were working under great pressure, their creativity went down not only on that day but the next two days as well.”

Amabile’s research also discovered a positive correlation between creativity and happiness, joy and love – people who are happy are more likely to be creative – and a negative correlation between creativity and fear, anxiety and anger – people who are angry or fearful are less likely to be creative.

It’s comforting to have the research support what I’ve always intuitively known.

The truth is: Love and joy will free creativity and empower your writing.

The truth is: Adrenaline, stress, anxiety NEVER enhance creativity.

And if you recall from the previous post on the Time Myth, the truth is: You will have time to create if you focus on what is most important to you in small amounts of time regularly repeated.

Let these truths set you free. Go follow what you love. Make time for creative joy. Give your whole self to your writing and give your writing to the world.

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One Comment on “The Deadline Myth”

  1. Fay July 31, 2010 at 10:42 am #

    I really found this blog post interesting and new information for me. I don’t think I ever really believed the “deadline = best work” statement and now it is nice to know there is science behind the statement that proves it wrong.


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