The Power of Time Limits in Creativity

4 min read

I began writing songs in the late 80s and my process then was anything but brief. First of all, I had little to no idea of how my own creative process worked so I spent a decent amount of time simply waiting around for inspiration to find me. When it did – at ridiculously irregular intervals, I might add – I would then wrestle with my song over a period of weeks and months (sometimes even years) never fully feeling like I was finished. Thirty years later, a typical writing session for me is around three hours from blank page to recorded demo. A lot has changed in my understanding of the craft of songwriting – and creativity in general – over the years. Along with this hard-won understanding, I’ve also learned how effective time constraints can be for the creative process. Below are a few of the reasons why.

Sometimes you simply don’t have more time

As much as we would all like to have unlimited time, the reality is that there are occasions when we need to create and create quickly in order to take advantage of an existing opportunity. In those instances, knowing how to access inspiration and move forward can be critical. In my world, I’m often put together to write songs with touring artists who may only be in town for an afternoon before a show. If I’m hoping to co-write a new song for the artist to record on their next album, it’s up to me to shepherd the collaborative process so that we have a finished song in the time allotted. My ability to write on a tight deadline has provided me with some of my most successful – and artistically satisfying – songs.

Moving quickly helps focus your concentration

Another benefit of knowing we don’t have unlimited time to create is that it forces us to eliminate distractions and concentrate on the matter at hand. We’re all pulled in many directions throughout our days and it’s, unfortunately, much too easy to drift away from a creative task if we know we’ll have the luxury of returning to it later. As noted flow expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has observed, the combination of high-challenge, high-skill requirements and the clear objectives in time-sensitive creative work, can lead to entering a flow state where distractions and even a sense of time fade away leaving only the process at hand. Speaking from experience, I can say that achieving flow in this way is not only highly satisfying but also deeply motivating.

Working with a limited amount of time gets you out of your own way

Take it from me, a recovering micro-manager in the extreme, finding ways not to obsess over insignificant details is critical to the creative process. There is a reason that I keep my creativity work with business teams to between sixty and ninety minutes. If I’m asking seasoned executives to leave their comfort zones to do something as seemingly “impossible” as writing a song, I don’t want to leave them too much time to think about it. Instead, by moving quickly and only focusing on big picture creativity, my business teams are able to write songs without getting bogged down in any of the less important details. In our limited time together, all of my teams – without exception – achieve a “minimum viable product” (i.e., a song) which serves as a reminder that we all have the capacity to be creative if we can stay out of our own way. Working quickly helps us to do that.

Time is a limited resource

I’ve never been an advocate of moving quickly for speed’s sake. However, it doesn’t hurt to remember that time is one of our most limited and precious resources. Learning to access your creativity within tight time parameters is an excellent way to take advantage of the time we have available.


Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

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