Deadlines are an unavoidable part of any kind of work. But the pressures of meeting deadlines can be even more intense when you are in the business of being creative. How do you make sure that the ever elusive muse is there when you need it most?
We talked to three people who have to be creative on a deadline: a comedy writer, a podcast producer, and a social-media executive. Here, they share their tricks of the trade about how to create under pressure.
What could be more stressful than having to be funny under deadline? Chris Regan is a five-time Emmy award-winning comedy writer whose credits include Fox’s Family Guy, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and The Jeselnik Offensive.
Chris Regan doesn’t dwell on how brilliant his work is today. “It’s not life or death. Go into the process knowing that you will rewrite. Keep in mind that there is another show tomorrow, it makes it easier. Concentrate more on process than outcome. The outcome will happen either way, so pay attention to what is happening right in front of you.”
“Cut yourself some slack–occasionally. Just because you’re having a bad day, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. Accepting that not everything you do is going to be a home run makes your job easier. That in no way means you can half-ass it. But occasionally it just doesn’t come. I believe an acceptance of that keeps your head clear, so it can come.”
Apparently winning a few Emmys didn’t quell Regan’s experience with failure. “Take responsibility for your failures, but don’t dwell on them,” he says. “Accept that you can fail, but will succeed the next time. A good way not to have a bad day is to not obsess about the last bad day you had, and keep going forward. It’s all about learning how to shake off your failure.”
“If they are paying you to create . . . chances are you can do something great. If your employer has some faith in you, have some faith in yourself. That should make the 5 o’clock deadline easier.”
Roman Mars is the host and creator of 99% Invisible, a podcast about design and architecture. With over 40 million downloads, the 99% Invisible podcast is one of the most popular podcasts in the world. Fast Company named him one of 100 Most Creative People in 2013.
According to Roman Mars, nothing is different about creativity than any other line of work; you just work until you get it done. “Just sit yourself down and make yourself do it. That’s the difference between being a professional and an amateur. Deadlines focus your attention and make sure you get stuff done rather than worrying about inspiration. The key is to sit and suffer through it. It comes to you when it has that pressure. I became a much better in the years after I had kids, because I didn’t have the luxury of time.”
To get the creative juices flowing Mars enjoys walking. “But that is a luxury that goes away when I’m on deadline. I enjoy thinking of things when I am walking. For the most part, the good ideas come from when you are working on them.
“If you have a deadline it means you probably have another deadline behind it. You should do your best, but everything doesn’t have to be precious and perfect, you can get it next time. I like having a weekly show for that reason. Knowing that each episode doesn’t have to be the definitive episode of 99pi is the key to me getting it out in the world. The struggle is in doing the best you can every week, not sweating over every single thing and expending all your energy until you collapse.”
Chloe Sladden was the vice president of North American media at Twitter from February 2012 to August 2014. She and her team were responsible for Twitter’s content across news, music, TV, sports, and government and for building engagement in the new-media landscape.
As a manager, Sladden focused on the intricacies of how to create a thriving creative environment. “You need to know how your team operates, understand your team’s strengths and processes and what situations will elicit the best creativity in each person in the group. You have to start with trust.”
There is an art to fostering a creative group environment and killing the notion that it matters who came up with the latest idea. “When you are in a room with a lot of ideas flying about . . . it doesn’t matter who came up with the idea or who evolved it during the ping-pong process of development . . . just that it came out of the collaborative energy you created together.”
Sladden believes that creativity flourishes when you understand what makes you tick. “You need to know how your own creativity works,” she says. “I’m an extrovert, so when I externalize my thoughts and get feedback, my creative process moves much faster. When I need to work through an idea, or come up with an idea, I pull together a brainstorming session, with no more than four people, who I know will provide the kind of ideation, pushback and perspective that help develop the seed of an idea.
We asked Regan, Mars, and Sladden for their advice on dealing with other challenges to the creative process. Here’s what they said:
When Working With Teams
Ideally, if you’re having a bad day, some of the people on your team will be having a good day. Of course, you can only have so many BAD days before you’re canned.
A great exercise in collaborative creativity is to examine what other people have created.
When Things Aren’t Working
If you are with a bad team . . . get out as quickly as possible.
As a producer, when I see someone going down a rabbithole, the most important thing is to get them working with an editor. An outside perspective always helps. It’s hard to ask for help when you’re feeling miserable about your work, and it’s the best part of being the boss: I get to tell people to do it.
The real key when you’re stuck is getting an outside perspective. Downtime brings inspiration as does showers and walks.
I like looking at how another problem was solved . . . and talk through why it worked and what made it work. The process of just taking a taking a step back and exercising that part of your brain is a great warm-up exercise . . . What parts are interesting? Why are they meaningful? Even if they don’t apply to what to what you are doing, looking at a problem that someone else has solved gets you using the same muscle you need to solve your own challenge. It’s all in one flow of the brain.
Leah Lamb is a writer and storyteller based in the Bay Area. She consults and gives workshops about how to foster creativity into the workplace.