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Deadlines and the Pacing of Creative Projects

Discover the types of time allocation that work best for you.

Mick Garratt via Wikimedia Commons.
Mountain bikers descending a ridge in the steep hills of the English Lake District.
Source: Mick Garratt via Wikimedia Commons.

What is the pace of your creative projects? When starting a new project, do you dive in right from the start, intensively working on it? Is there a steep climb in your efforts followed by a lull, during which you direct your efforts elsewhere? Then is it back uphill again as the next project milestone approaches? Or do you take a slow-but-steady approach, regularly working on the project until it's done and the deadline arrives?

What might be some of the benefits of an intense start, followed by a lull, when working on a creative project?

Styles of creative pacing

Recently, three researchers in the Netherlands teamed up to ask these questions about pacing, focusing on one type of creative project: architectural design. The researchers interviewed 25 architects, with architectural work experience ranging from less than five years to more than 30 years. As a jumping-off point for the interview, the architects were shown four different possible line drawings. Each drawing could graphically depict their pacing during the architectural project:

  • steady and even, with a moderate but constant level of activity and effort from the beginning of the project until the deadline; like this:
  • a deadline style, with little initial activity but a steep and intense increase in activity near the deadline; like this: /
  • an early style (the opposite of the deadline style), with steep and intense activity at the outset of the project, but tapering to little activity near the deadline; like this: \
  • a U-shaped style that combines portions of both the early and the deadline styles, involving steep and intense activity at the outset of the project, followed by a creative lull, with renewed intense activity near the deadline; like this: U

The majority of the architects (18 of the 25 interviewed) said they had been using the U-shaped pacing style. Of the remaining seven, three characterized themselves as having a deadline style, and one as having a constant style. Three of the architects said they did not want to choose — because their style of pacing was not adequately shown by any one of the drawings but fluctuated more across time, involved a combination of styles, or changed depending on the particular project they were working on.

Why might most of the architects have found themselves using the U-shaped style? Of the 18 architects who used this style, 15 specifically spoke of the creative process in explaining their style. As one of the architects recounted:

"It works rather well . . . to free some continuous time [at the start], so you can thoroughly work your way into it, and thus become aware of the complexities and pitfalls. Well, then you let the material sink in for a while. Thus, the dip in activity is used for letting the material sink in, really."

Another architect, who similarly followed a U-shaped pacing style, observed:

". . . in this period of time, where I do nothing, that is really the period that I become aware of the problem, and where inspiration comes to me.’’

Probed further, however, especially regarding their intermediate milestones during the course of an ongoing project, one of the architects drew a pattern of not one, but several successive U-shapes. This created an overlapping series of multiple recurring cycles of the U-shaped pattern, like a continually unfolding range of mountain peaks and valleys, within the overall course of the project across time.

Open goals and our creative pacing

Why might the U-shaped pacing pattern be so often used in these (and perhaps many other) creative endeavors? A key factor at work here may be the role of open goals. As we note in Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change (page 9):

"Open goals, or pending goals, are aims or intentions that we have but that are not yet met or that are incompletely realized. They are aims that we are still working toward, either in the foreground or in the background of our awareness. Such open goals tend to remain more highly neurally activated and so help to guide our perception, what we notice, and where our attention is drawn. Our ongoing goals or projects can lead us to notice the possible connections and relevance of even quite distant information. . . . Open goals allow us to notice selectively and purposively."

By diving into a project — and then letting it recede into the background of our awareness while we turn our attention to work on other projects — we can start out by absorbing a bundle of necessary details and facts about the constraints of the project and the possible directions it might go, without committing to final choices. Having absorbed this information, and then turning elsewhere, we give our minds time and space. Our minds can metaphorically "walk in and around the project," including its many challenges and opportunities, perhaps coming to reconfigure the problem in a new light.

Turning elsewhere also allows time for us to make happy chance discoveries. As we're busily going about on our work for another project, we may just happen to encounter an image or phrase or idea that prompts us to see an alternative and better approach to our creative problem. Or we may suddenly find how to overcome a specific nagging snag that we couldn't earlier see how to avoid.

Insights may arise not just in a flash, but because we have given our minds the lull and the stimulating leeway from which insights are sparked.

Three questions to think about

  • If you think you thrive on the energy and pressure of a looming deadline — might you thrive even more using a U-shaped pacing style?
  • What's your optimal speed of cycling from peak to valley and back up to peak again?
  • What are your open goals? Do you have the right number of open goals for you and your creative process, or are they standing in each other's way?