Posts Tagged ‘productivity’

Relax and create

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

It came to my mind that the nature of my job required me to be alternately productive and creative but realised that is often practically impossible to be both simultaneously. This reminded me of an article I read a few years ago in a scientific publication on how our stress level affected our creativity and productivity differently.

Creativity vs productivity

Creativity vs productivity

In a nutshell, it argued that we were reaching our creative peak only at a moderate level of stress. This is because we need enough stress to focus on a particular topic or problem, but too much stress eliminates creative solutions by narrowing our focus. In a complete state of relaxation, our mind wanders so we do not create, we procrastinate. And when the stress levels rise past a given point, we are not allowing our brains to take into account the subtleties that permit creative thinking and analyse the problem under different angles, so our creativity declines.

But on the other hand, when the stress level increases, our focus increases and we are therefore able to produce output-driven solutions more efficiently. If I recall correctly, the process at work was somewhat similar to what happens when we’re in a state of fear: our brains responds as efficiently as possible by taking the minimum amount of information possible to yield solutions quickly. If the stress levels rise even further, the brain enters a state of panic where we’re unable to produce anything of much use either productively or creatively.

Another non-negligible aspect was that our brains could only make effective use of a given level of stress for a period of time that was inversely proportional to that stress level. So even if we were able to be very productive thanks to an increased stress level, we would certainly not be able to sustain that level of productivity for very long: someone who is chronically stressed is not productive or creative.

Despite the fact that ‘creativity’ and ‘productivity’ without context can be very vague terms this certainly rings true with what I do.

In my experience, there is nothing like a looming deadline in order to churn out some code furiously and feel like the conductor of an orchestra performing Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. There is a sense of heightened focus and high efficiency. But I have rarely been at my most creative in these times, and I can easily look back and think I could have done things differently. This would also typically be a time where I would accumulate technical debt… and I would feel drained after a few hours of intense coding.

Also I can’t help but notice that some of the most inventive software solutions were designed while I had a bit more time on my hand so that I could approach the problem from various angles and explore a few ideas.

Our jobs as software engineers, architects, developers and programmers require us to come up with creative solutions when we design and actually produce something efficiently when we implement. So if there is some truth is this, it means that we need to perform a balancing act between stress and relaxation. Alternating between the two, allows us to be more effective at each given task. Allowing ourselves to relax is essential not only for producing creative solutions but also be more efficient at getting things done when deadlines are coming and some objectives need to be met.

Note that unfortunately, I have lost all references to the original article, it may have had something to do with cortisol and been the results of observing a few rats in a lab… but stress was to be understood as a measurable physiological characteristic.