Useful urgency: How you can use last-minute panic to get more creative

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Calvin and Hobbes creativity

By Emil Villumsen

Co-founder of Craft and MSc in Service Design

Creativity

Who says it better than Calvin and Hobbes. I’ll flesh out why I find this painfully correct and how you can use it to your benefit. 

Who am I

Just a quick intro to give the following tips some context. I’m MSc in Service design and co-founder of the artwork platform Craft. I’m horrible at working 9–5 and on the premise of anyone but myself and my own rhythm. Even so, I work 50+ hours a week and am very proactive. 

Enough about me, let’s get started! *Drumroll*

Few epiphanies, many working hours

In this post I’ll share tips on how you can force creativity by using urgency to your advantage. I’m doing this on a daily basis to reach the plethora of goals I have to meet in starting my own business. 

So why does it have to be forced?

It’s well documented that certain situations spark more ideas than others — you’re more likely to come up with the perfect tagline while in the shower or right before you’re falling asleep. This is because you’re in a relaxed state with a dopamine high and a distracted mind.

Simple as that! Put everyone in the open office in bath tubs and wait for it…Or in a less extreme version: take a break once in a while and let the ideas flow:

  • Go to the beach
  • Take a shower
  • Take a nap
  • Put away all screens, grab a notebook and write even though you don’t have a plan for it
  • Sit in the park
  • Get a massage

Even though this is great for both mind, body and ROI you’ll also have to learn to be creative on demand. The world is full of deadlines, clients and bosses, so let’s dig into how you can force it.

Limits help

One of the unique aspects of Twitter’s character limit is that it inspires brevity and challenges you to be creative. While it can easily cause frustration, the character limit forces you to adapt and change your regular way of thinking. It sparks creativity. In the opposite end of the spectrum, this is also why a blank text document can feel daunting — without a framework, a hook, it’s hard to get the creativity-engine going in time for the deadline. Say you had 3 headlines in the document already, it’d be much easier to get going. Fill in the blanks!

It’s evidently much more complex than this, but generally you will find that creating a framework for the work you’re about to do will help you ignite some creative ideas.

Progress is your work life BFF

Frameworks create a sense of progression. And progress means small successes, which can be insanely motivational by creating a positive spiral and belief in your own ability to overcome what may at first seem unsurmountable. If you defragment a task and use the urgency in these sub-deadlines to your advantage, the power of small successes trumps the negative aspects. You have to learn how to use progression to feel successful, which in return motivates you to be more creative and work harder. 

Let’s call it useful urgency.

So, you agree…then let’s create some useful boundaries

Here are some applicable ideas to get you started:

  • Write a couple of things to do per day. Start the day by grabbing a post-it note and write the 3–5 things you have to do today. I keep a to-do list online with dozens of tasks, but even so, I create a daily post-it which forces me to figure out how to get around to all before nightfall. Strike through each bullet when it’s completed. 
  • Tell people around you what your goal is. Panic! A deadline and you have to come up with something genius. Hey dip**** how will it help making me even more nervous by letting my friends know what the deadline is? It might not. But give it a go; for me it motivates me to not lose face: “No way in hell I’m gonna miss those goals”. At the very least, you’ll have someone checking in on you.
  • Work in parallel with a friend. If you want to take it to the next level, set the same goals as a colleague or friend and keep each other updated on the progress. Your last minute panic is now shared with someone, which is motivational even though it’s not always explicit — just knowing you’re not alone in this endeavour can help.
  • Create a monthly plan. In Craft, we’re trying out monthly plans. Like the daily post-its, it’s a series of tasks hanging around the office for everyone to glance upon. An in-progress task is red and it gets an attractive green colour when it’s completed. Having visual goals creates a urgency.
  • Make bullet points. The power of brevity is not limited to Twitter. Create your writeup in bullet points to get a steady flow of small successes by quickly “completing” writing a bullet point.
  • Make headlines or topics to fill. This works as well with headlines. I often grab a blank piece of paper and put in a couple of headlines, even though I don’t have any ideas yet for the paragraphs. I might end out with different headlines, but having a stepping stone works like a catalyst. 
  • Write everything down and revisit every idea when you want creative input. Last minute panic is useful. But it doesn’t mean you can’t have an arsenal of existing ideas ready. Be proactive and take 15 minute sessions where you unload 30+ ideas that you might find useful later in the creative process. Get it into Evernote and create an indexed creativity hub that’s searchable in every dire moment.

Let’s take 3 more and we’ll go onto what you shouldn’t do.

  • Brainstorm with a timer. Most of the above ideas are applicable for people who already have an idea and panic about how overwhelming they seem. Sometimes though, you’ll have to come up with ideas from scratch. You probably got off-put by reading the word ‘brainstorm’, as it has a reputation like an outworn boot. Most people don’t get that brainstorming isn’t something you’re done practicing — it can be much more effective than what you’ve previously experienced. Set a timer, decide that you have to come up with a 100+ ideas, consolidate the ideas by grouping them up, pick your favourite three and take another session based on those.
  • Mini sessions. Set a timer on 1 minute and come up with as many ideas as possible.
  • Use metaphorical thinking. Come up with a random phenomenon, strip it down to its basic mechanics and force yourself to apply it to your own case. Let’s say you run a subscription box for dog toys and you pick the phenomenon “circus”: On top of my head, a circus is a fixed team travelling to a new location based on seasons, showcasing something with various characteristics and charging a one time fee for it. Applying this on the subscription box business, ideas could be: 
  1. One-time-off events
  2. Creating a front-stage team who are the faces of the business
  3. Branding the box with a set of stereotypical characters
  4. Marketing one new location at a time
  5. And so forth…

By forcing yourself to apply these characteristics you have to come up with something very different from a regular brainstorm without waiting for it to pop up by itself.

Pitfalls

The great villain here is stress. Creating last minute panic is a double-edged sword; It can spark your best ideas or turn you catatonic. 

creativity catatonic

Mmmhgrrrp…bzz

If you find that any of the above ideas are counter-productive to you, stop. You’ll then first have to figure out how to train your mind to focus on the task at hand and not the overwhelming complexity of the full project, all tasks on your post-it or the bullet points glaring at you on the screen. The road to this kind of serenity is most likely practice, trial and error.

A tip is to create your own sphere where you tell yourself that failing to complete the tasks is unacceptable, but should this happen, even though you did your best, you’re 100% forgiving of yourself. Play good cop bad cop to your own advantage.

Creativity can in fact work equally well as a ‘faucet’ — it’s just different modes. Lying on the beach, just before you fall a sleep and standing in the shower are all catalysts for creative flows. You just can’t always rely on them. So get your game on and play around with useful urgency.