When do you have your best ideas: Right at the beginning of creative work, or later on when you are exhausted?
Interesting new research sheds a light on how you might be wrong about your own creative process.
Brian J. Lucas and Loran F. Nordgren wanted to study at what point people expected to be their most creative, and when they actually produced their most creative work.
Throughout a series of eight studies, the researchers measured the expectations of how participants’ creative performance would change over time, compared to what happened in a series of creativity experiments.
Consistently, people expected their creative performance to start out above average, but then decline as time goes on, they get tired and they run out of new ideas. They think that their creativity will fall off a sharp cliff.
However, the experiments showed that in reality, their creative performance appeared to stay stable over time, and in some cases actually increase as time goes on.
This was termed the Creative Cliff Illusion.
The impact of this is that people are likely to give up earlier than they should when faced with challenges requiring truly creative answers. They might feel like they are only going to become less creative if they keep trying, so they give up prematurely and just use whatever ideas they have come up with.
If they had kept going a little longer with the challenge, the ideas they came up with would likely have been better than what they already have.
As the authors point out:
People expect their creativity to decline across an ideation session when it, in fact, tends to improve or persist (we call this misprediction the creative cliff illusion).
These beliefs are consequential because they lead people to undervalue ideation: They exhibit less task persistence and lower creative performance. This research documents a fundamental disconnect between people’s beliefs and the reality of how creativity emerges over time.
This has big implications for how teams and individuals should treat solving complex problems, or creative activities like brainstorming.
The first ideas which your brain will come up with are the easiest ideas, based primarily on memories. Then, the next set of ideas will be similar to those, and still be quite comfortable for the brain to produce.
This is where many people might fall victim to the creative cliff illusion and think that what they already have is the best they can come up with, and quit.
It is only by pushing through further that you and your team are likely to come up with the really valuable, truly creative ideas.
So if you want this to become easier, plan in more time for these ideas to be developed from the beginning. Instead of a single two hour brainstorming session, spread it out over time, and keep pushing yourself and your team to push beyond the first ideas which were listed.
The cliff isn’t real, so don’t worry, you won’t fall off it.