How can we stay creative under pressure?

Our scribes, masters of scribing and sketchnoting, know a thing or two about staying creative under pressure. That's basically the job description. But it's not just illustrators-for-hire who can't afford to let pressure get in the way of their best ideas. The ability to work and think quickly and creatively is valuable to us all, no matter what we do. So, how can it be done?  

Scriberia scribing creative under pressure

On January 15, 2009, Captain ‘Sully’ Sullenberger was flying a routine flight from New York to North Carolina. But just two minutes after take-off, and 3,000 feet into the air, the flight took a turn for the worse when a flock of geese flew directly into the plane’s engines with catastrophic consequences.

How would Sully return his 155 passengers to ground, safely, securely, and as quickly as possible? Under extreme pressure, he assessed his options, and swiftly concluded that the only surface smooth and large enough for the fast jet airliner to land on, was the Hudson River. 

With the courage of his convictions, he guided the plane in its rapid descent to the river. And, thanks to his quick thinking, everyone survived the impact. 

In a later interview, Sully said: ‘I was confident I could synthesise a lifetime of training and experience, adapt it in a new way to solve a problem I had never seen before and get it right just the first time, and so that’s what I did. In 208 seconds.’

It’s a perfect example of innovation under pressure. And, though few of us (thankfully) have to make life and death calls in our daily work, we’re all familiar with the struggle to keep the cogs turning when we’re feeling the heat. 

So, if you want to be sure that great ideas will hatch when you need them, it’s a good idea to have a few tricks up your sleeve. When our scribes hop off the plane in a far-flung destination (after landing safely, let’s hope) to scribe in front of an audience of experts on a topic about which they know next-to-nothing, they can’t let the pressure get the better of them. Staying calm, controlled and creative is a crucial part of the job. So how do they manage it?

Rethink your nerves

Tiger Woods once said, ‘I always feel pressure. If you don’t feel nervous, that means you don’t care about how you play. I care about how I perform. I’ve always said the day I’m not nervous playing is the day I quit.’

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, thinking like a sportsman can reap huge benefits for creative thinking. Aside from recognising the value of training, rules and competition to creative thinking, it’s also useful to reframe pressure as a positive tool for great performance, just as Woods and many elite athletes do.

Instead of treating a pounding heart as a symptom of debilitating nervousness, sports psychologists believe it's possible to embrace these physical reactions and make them work in your favour. It's a technique known as ‘anxiety reappraisal’, and so the theory goes: because excitement and anxiety have similar emotional properties, it’s pretty easy to convince your mind that your body is just experiencing excitement. So, if your boss puts you on the spot for a great idea, this simple shift in thought will put you in a can-do frame of mind, transforming your nerves into productive energy.

Embrace your deadlines

And once you’re feeling more positive about your nerves, you’ll look at short deadlines and tight time frames in a different light, too.

Although some research tells us that deadlines reduce creative thinking, making us less open to exploring new ways of problem solving, there are undoubtedly some discernible benefits to being on a time crunch.

When on a scribing or sketchnoting job, our team rarely have a moment to relax - too much great content to capture, too little time. So, they have learned to make a virtue of a tight deadline is essential.

I didn’t have time to waste with the “what happened?” phase. I was able to go right to the “how do i fix this?” phase.
— Captain "Sully" Sullenberger, pilot of the "Miracle on the Hudson" flight 1549

Senior scribe, Matt Kemp, says: 'It's so much easier to see your priorities when time is short. You know just what you need to do and can focus your entire energy on it. It's a bit like dealing with an emergency: if your house was on fire, your focus would be on saving the things that mattered. Clarity comes in those high-pressure moments. It's quite a calming place to be, paradoxically.'

This has echoes of our hero, Sully's recollections of the miracle on the Hudson: ‘I didn’t have time to waste with the “what happened?” phase. I was able to go right to the “how do I fix this?” phase.’

And this idea is supported by many others in the creative industry, too. Roman Mars, host and creator of the 99% Invisible podcast, says, ‘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’.

Practice and prepare

Scriberia scribing creative under pressure

Sully went 42 years without experiencing any problems during flight. And he probably didn’t expect his first encounter with danger to be caused by a gaggle of geese. So, to some extent, it’s impossible to plan for high-pressure situations.

But to prepare for the unexpected, there are a few things you can do. And our scribes advise preparing an emergency toolbox to help you re-gain control when you feel as though you’ve lost it.

Just in case their imaginations wander into an inspiration-free zone, our scribes carry around a nifty little deck of cards with illustrated pointers to return them back to a creative sweet spot. We won’t give away all of our magic, but they’re mostly short and simple phrases to inspire some creative thought, such as ‘use popular culture references’, ‘subvert a cliché’ or ‘make a shape pun’.

Although we’d like to take all the credit, the idea behind this was inspired by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s ‘Oblique Strategies’ cards, first published in 1975 as a swift solution to creative block. Much like our Scriberia cards, they include little phrases such as ‘Use an old idea’, ‘Are there sections? Consider transactions’, and ‘Try faking it!’. And it’s difficult to contest their power – they were most famously used by Eno when recording instrumentals on David Bowie’s Heroes.

Although created for and by creatives, these cards can really be applied to anything from ballet dancing to business strategy. So before you find yourself in a fix, pack a few of your own creative strategies into your pocket for emergency use. 

Be confident in your abilities – don’t strive for perfection

Often, it’s our desire to achieve perfection that causes mental block in high-pressure situations. University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock explains: ‘Choking is suboptimal performance, not just poor performance. It’s a performance that is inferior to what you can do and have done in the past and occurs when you feel pressure to get everything right.’

High-pressure situations are only made more challenging when you strive for perfection (which may well elude you even when the conditions are optimal). And, so, your desire to reach perfection will in fact end up hindering your performance. Let go of perfectionism – it’s a pitfall for failure.

Though it can be tough at the time, there is always a real sense of relief and satisfaction to come out the other side and see what you can achieve when you’re under pressure.

— Chris Wilson, creative director, Scriberia

Our creative director Chris Wilson, has learned to relish opportunities to think and work quickly when they arise. 'Though it can be tough at the time, there is always a real sense of relief and satisfaction to come out the other side and see what you can achieve when you're under pressure,' he says.

'Pressures and constraints, inevitably, mean that your work will be in some way compromised; different from what you would have produced with all the time in the world. But every time I work under pressure, I learn something. And it makes me realise the value of practicing your craft. It gives you the confidence to find the right answer faster, when speed is of the essence.'

And that brings us back to Sully, who says that once he made the decision to land on the Hudson River, he ‘had the discipline to stick with it, without wavering, and without second-guessing.’ He didn’t think about whether his solution was perfect, but he did put all of his energy into carrying out the decision he’d made as successfully as possible. 

As Oscar Wilde once said, ‘worry is misspent imagination’. So, don’t waste time letting the pressure get to you. Instead, take a leaf from Sully’s book, embrace the challenge with both hands and let the pressure you're under become a source of creative strength.