Email Is Controlling Your Life: Here’s How to Change That


Editor’s note: This is a guest post by SaneBox, a service that helps you save time by filtering unimportant emails out of your inbox. Learn more about them at or follow them on Twitter.

Email is a fast and convenient way to communicate with coworkers and family. When email first became popular, it was because the recipient could respond to the email at their leisure rather than right away. More urgent matters could be managed with a telephone call.

However, checking and replying to email has replaced simple and quick calls to those same people. It has become the standard for urgency given the immediacy of delivery. Where once it helped to expedite work production at the office, it now consumes over a quarter of an average employee’s work week according to McKinsey Global Institute. Some companies are trying to reduce time spent reading emails by including email management in their time management workshops. Others have gone as far as axing company email altogether. And then there are those who either see no problem or have given up and accepted it as a necessary evil.

Email Overload and Addiction

Our internal data at SaneBox shows a twenty percent increase over the past few years of the amount of unimportant emails in the average user’s mailbox. Workers are copied on emails that do not require them to take action, the amount of promotional and cold sales emails continue to rise, and people are sending emails when they should be calling or saying nothing at all. Reading and deciding what to do with these emails is an incredible drain on workers’ productivity. The Danwood Group study published in 2015 reported that it takes approximately a minute to process the email interruption and return to the flow of work. This interruption dramatically decreases productivity.

Studies are being conducted around the globe relating to the amount of stress induced by email access. In the U.S., study participants wearing heart rate monitors were discovered to have reduced stress when given limited access to emails. This same study also showed that participant focus on tasks was higher in the group that had limited access to emails as opposed to those that had unlimited access. This shows an absolute correlation between unlimited access to emails and decreased physical health.

France recently passed a law that included a right to disconnect amendment. This portion of the new labor law was designed to help workers achieve a work-life balance and separation by urging companies to limit the amount of work done during off hours and at home. Workers worldwide are struggling to balance their private and professional lives because of technology, and now France has potentially set a precedent for other countries to follow.

But are policy changes the best course of action? And whether they are or not, what good will future regulations do to help us today?

Strategies to Help

For those in search of a more efficient, less stressful, and overall better email environment today, look no further than these strategies.

  1. Don’t get stuck doing email—use the Scan-Block-Ask system to keep yourself honest. Its steps include a) scanning for urgent items that need attention now, b) establishing scheduled blocks of time to tackle less urgent and less important email, and c) when you get sucked into your inbox, asking yourself if that’s the best use of your time l right now.
  2. Notify colleagues and clients that you value their communication but have to limit responding to emails to certain times of day. Stick with that time. By establishing and sticking to a schedule, you help others break the horrible habit of using email for urgent matters. In general, responses required within an hour should get a phone call or face-to-face visit; those requiring a response within a few hours can be addressed via text or instant message; and those needed within 12 to 24 hours can be emailed.
  3. Turn off mobile and desktop notifications to save yourself from continuous distractions. If you don’t know that you received an email, you can remain focused on the task at hand. If you hear that ding or see that push notification, your brain will be pulled in a different direction even if you don’t act on the new message at that time. Over the course of a day, these disruptions add up.
  4. Move your email app off of your phone’s home screen. As with notifications, simply seeing the app icon can distract you or incite you to check your email. Removing the visual cue, like removing junk food from the house when you are dieting, can prevent you from checking email out of boredom, habit, or mental weakness.
  5. Stop responding to every email. Not every message needs an answer and most do not need an answer right now. Some emails are sent to you for informational purposes only while many others are spam, bacn, or solicitations. Aside from saving time by writing fewer emails, sending fewer emails has the amazing added benefit of receiving fewer (and therefore reading fewer) emails.
  6. Adopt an email system with automated and intelligent filtering. This can be one that you create yourself by setting up rules within your client or can be an email program. When only important emails arrive in your inbox, you save an incredible amount of time and boost your clarity and focus.
  7. Keep yourself accountable by tracking and even preventing your time in email. We at SaneBox have been big fans of RescueTime for a while now for this reason. Anecdotally, it’s easy to feel that you are spending too much time in email, but seeing actual numbers and trends over time is impactful in a way that prompts better choices. Beyond the data, blocking distractions is paramount for times of weakness that occur when you need to get things done.
  8. Remember that it’s important to disconnect to recharge. Constantly being plugged in can have emotional, physical, and psychological consequences that compound over time. When you are stressed, distracted, and overwhelmed, your work-life happiness and output suffer. Take time for yourself, away from digital devices, to reset and recharge. Your sanity and your career will thank you for it.

Recognizing that you have an addiction to email is the biggest step in breaking the cycle. Adapting your work and off-work habits can help reduce your stress, increase your focus, and achieve a better work-life balance. Adopting an email management strategy also will help you save time.

There are many other ways to eliminate email addiction and increase your focus and productivity at work—which strategies are missing?

About SaneBox

Remember when email used to help your productivity, not hurt it? SaneBox gets you back to those days again with intelligent filtering, one-click unsubscribe, follow-up reminders, and much more. Start your 14-day free trial today, then enjoy an additional $20 off for being a member of the RescueTime community. Clean up your inbox »

Updates to our Zapier Integration!


The RescueTime app on Zapier helps you connect your time to hundreds of applications, letting you make updates in other apps based on your time and logging important actions that happen outside of RescueTime. We recently added some new features that we’re really psyched about: offline time logging, actions and weekly report exporting.

If you’re unfamiliar with Zapier, it’s a service that makes it easy for non-developers to connect two (or more) different web applications together. It’s a great way to automate tedious parts of your work so you can focus on other things. You create Zaps, small workflows that chain two or more applications together to accomplish a task. It’s one of the tools we get the most mileage out of around the RescueTime offices. It’s a fantastic Swiss-army knife of a tool that just seems to get better the more I use it. Every week or so I stumble on something really valuable to automate.

Here’s how RescueTime works with Zapier

You can log offline time

Offline time shows up alongside your other activities

Offline time shows up alongside your other activities

You can connect any other app that exports events with a start / stop time – such as your calendar – and automatically log that time in RescueTime. Lots of people have requested this feature and we’re really thrilled with the number of services that Zapier makes this possible with. You can track workouts with RunKeeper or MapMyFitness, meetings with Google Calendar, or import time logged with Harvest or Toggl.

One thing to keep in mind: Calendars can be tricky, noisy messes, and if you aren’t careful, you can accidentally log inaccurate or useless time. Zapier’s advanced filters really shine here, though. You can use them to weed out the noise from your calendar and only log the activities you really want.

You can export weekly & daily summaries
Every week, a new summary is available with details about how you spent your time. You can use these summaries to construct your own custom email reports, log a note in Evernote, update a spreadsheet, or post a status to Slack or HipChat.

The logic you can add within a Zap comes in handy here. You can get really fancy with it if you want. For example: If a weekly summary comes in, you can check it to see how much productive time you logged, and if it’s an absurdly high number, you can post a message in Slack bragging about it, but silently do nothing if your time that week was less flattering. 🙂

Zapier's filters let you act on data only if it meets the right conditions

Zapier’s filters let you act on data only if it meets the right conditions

Other apps can respond to your RescueTime alerts
RescueTime alerts keep you informed in real-time about how your day is shaping up. They can also trigger actions in other apps. You can brag to your co-workers on Slack when you’ve been super-productive (or to your friends on Facebook, for that matter), track your alert times in a Google Sheet, or update a goal on Beeminder. My personal favorite is the Zap I have that calls my phone when I’m working too late at night and tells me to knock it off.

You can automate your FocusTime sessions
Sometimes, really important stuff happens in other apps that you need to respond to with your full attention. Or there are times you just want to focus and not be disturbed. FocusTime and Zapier are your best friends in those moments. When Pingdom alerts you that your website is down, you can automatically start FocusTime so you won’t be distracted while looking for a fix. If you use Toggl for time tracking, you can automatically start FocusTime whenever you start a new timer so you can devote 100% of your concentration to getting the job done.

You can log data points from other apps as Actions

examples of actions logged from other apps

examples of actions logged from other apps

Actions in RescueTime are a new-ish feature*. They automatically collect data points from other applications so you can see what you’re accomplishing alongside the time you’re spending on different activities. Any trigger from another app can automatically log an action in RescueTime. You can log actions for blog posts in WordPress, completed cards in Trello, tasks completed in Todoist or Asana, or even checkins at coffee shops in Swarm.

*actions used to be a subset of Daily Highlights, but they’ve been upgraded and can now be categorized and scored just like time logs. You can still use Zapier to log daily highlights as well.

For more ideas on how to use the RescueTime integration, check out some of the popular RescueTime Zaps on Zapier.


Faster, Not Smarter: Does Caffeine Really Make You More Productive?

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Alex Senemar, the CEO of Read more about exploring data and turning numbers into meaningful insights on the Sherbit Blog.

Cropped shot of a woman at cafe working on her laptop computer. Female wearing smartwatch using laptop with a coffee cup on table.

With over four hundred billion cups of coffee consumed each year, caffeine is by far the world’s most widely-consumed psychoactive drug. For many of us, a hot cup of coffee proves to be a powerful and potent stimulant — a necessity to start the day. But caffeine’s effects vary significantly from person to person, and its actual effects on productivity remains unclear. Beyond anecdotal evidence, numerous studies show that, in small doses, caffeine provides an increase in energy and alertness, while improving reaction time and cognitive performance. But is coffee really making you more productive?

What does the research say?

The effects of caffeine on productivity have been a topic of considerable academic interest — researchers at Johns Hopkins University recently found that consuming small amount of caffeine can have a positive effect on long-term memory. In a double-blind trial, participants were given either a 200-milligram caffeine tablet or a placebo, and were asked to study a series of images. The next day, both groups were shown a new set of images, including pictures that were visually similar to the previous — the caffeine group was better able to identify these new images as “similar” rather than citing them as the “same.” In a paper published in Nature Neuroscience, the researchers wrote that this ability to recognize the difference between similar but not identical items — called “pattern separation” — suggests that the caffeine group benefited from greater memory retention.

However, other research suggests that many of the benefits of caffeine can be replicated by placebo. In another double-blind study at the University of East London, participants were randomly given either caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee — half were told they were regular coffee, and half that they were given decaf, also at random. Interestingly, the participants who were told that they received caffeinated coffee performed better on tests measuring reaction time, self-control, and reward motivation. The researchers concluded that the relationship between caffeine consumption, mood, and performance depends on many individual psychological variables — strangely, all participants in the study reported increased feelings of depression after drinking coffee, although this increase was slightly lower in the group that received caffeine.

Research also shows that caffeine also has a complex effect on creativity. Maria Konnikova observed in The New Yorker that “creative insights and imaginative solutions often occur when we stop working on a particular problem and let our mind move on to something unrelated.” As evidence, she pointed to a 2012 study in which participants performed better in creative thinking exercises (for example, devising novel and inventive uses for an everyday object like a newspaper) after they had allowed their mind to “wander” by switching between “undemanding,” low-intensity tasks. This suggests that caffeine may assist more in very simple, repetitive tasks like checking e-mails or filling out forms, and less in jobs that require high levels of insight and creative thinking.

And, for the same reasons caffeine increases alertness and wakefulness, it also has a tendency to cause anxiety, jitteriness, and sleeplessness. Scientists at Rice University studied the effects of caffeine on sleep — they observed that a typical cup of coffee decreased the average sleep time of study participants by an average of two hours; it also increased the amount of time it took to fall asleep by thirty percent. Coffee also had significant effects on quality of sleep: the number of sleep awakenings in the experiment subjects doubled. These conclusions has been reproduced in numerous studies, and suggest a significant risk of impairing your creativity and productivity if you don’t properly manage your caffeine intake.

Many people don’t know that the human body naturally “caffeinates” itself with the hormone cortisol at specific times of day, depending on your body’s natural circadian rhythm — typically early in the morning (between 8am and 9am), around lunch time (between 12pm and 1pm), and once again in the late afternoon (from 530pm to 630pm). If you are an avid coffee drinker, you may be impairing your body’s ability to produce cortisol — by drinking coffee when it’s not needed, i.e. when your body is attempting to naturally energize itself according to its hormonal cycles, you may build a faster tolerance to it.

Test it for yourself!

All the research shows a complex interaction between caffeine and bodily cycles — so instead of relying on the abstract conclusions of large-scale studies, how can you determine the specific effects caffeine has on your body? Caffeine’s effects depends on dosage, body type, weight, age, time of day, and many other factors; so it’s best to monitor all these variables by collecting your own data. First, you need to make sure you’re collecting accurate information: here are some tools we recommend.

RescueTime records how much time you spend using computer applications and browsing web sites. It allows you to keep track of how you are spending every minute of the day, and when and how you are wasting time, and it doesn’t require any effort to set up! It simply runs in the background and stays on top of your browsing habits for you.

Jawbone UP Coffee
Jawbone UP Coffee is a great app for tracking your coffee intake — it’s a simple tool for logging your coffee, tea, and energy drink consumption, to see how it changes overtime.

Sherbit is a personal dashboard that gives you access and control of your personal data in one place. The app syncs with over twenty-five applications including Facebook, Fitbit, Uber and Withings to gather and visualize data. From there, you can identify patterns in your daily habits and correlations across multiple services. For example, if you wanted to find out if you were less active on days you worked more, you could add steps counted by your Fitbit and productivity hours tracked by RescueTime. Download Sherbit from the the App Store here.

Here are some results from our own test:


By combining the data from Jawbone UP and RescueTime, I found a correlation between caffeine and productivity. You can see this by looking at the trend lines and flipping between the tabs at the top of the chart.


However, I found an even stronger correlation with my sleep and productivity — the more coffee I drank, the less sleep I got. This seem to be true for everyday other than JuIy 22nd and July 29th, but as I looked closer I realized that I had consumed coffee earlier in the morning on those days. This may seem like an obvious conclusion in retrospect, but being able to visualize the data made the effects of coffee on my life much more apparent to me. By reflecting on my data, I realized that there’s is a dual effect on the relationship between coffee and sleep: caffeine affects my quality of sleep and reduces the length of time I’m awake… however, when I don’t get much sleep the previous night, I tend to drink more coffee the next day, perpetuating the cycle. I also noticed that my quality of sleep decreases much more significantly when I drink coffee late in the afternoon — I realized that caffeine tends to work best early in the morning, when it will have a minimal effect on my sleep that night.

Have you found interesting correlations between different data sources? Let us know in the comments below.

Editors note: This is a guest post by Alex Senemar, the CEO of Read more about exploring data and turning numbers into meaningful insights on the Sherbit Blog.

Connect RescueTime to hundreds of apps with our updated IFTTT channel!


We just made some exciting new updates to the RescueTime IFTTT channel. You can now use weekly summary reports in your Recipes and log offline time from other apps (like your Google Calendar).

IFTTT is a service that connects hundreds of applications via simple connections that let one application respond to actions in another. You can use the RescueTime IFTTT channel to connect to hundreds of apps to automatically log time, export data for reports, respond to alerts, and add daily highlights. You can even use it to control your FocusTime sessions!

Here are some of the things you can do:

Log Offline Time

This is something a lot of people have asked for. You can connect your Calendar (or any other app that exports events with a start / stop time) and automatically log offline time.

IFTTT Recipe: If new event from search starts, Log offline time. connects google-calendar to rescuetime

IFTTT Recipe: Log your sleep as offline time in RescueTime. connects fitbit to rescuetime

Export Weekly / Daily Summaries

Every day at midnight a new summary is available with details of your time. Use this to construct your own custom email reports, log time in a spreadsheet, or update a personal dashboard.

IFTTT Recipe: Keep a running log of your weekly time on the computer in Evernote connects rescuetime to evernote

IFTTT Recipe: If new daily summary is available, log a row in a Google Sheets spreadsheet connects rescuetime to google-drive

Control FocusTime

FocusTime just got a LOT more powerful. Mute your phone, or post a do-not-disturb note on your calendar. You can also control FocusTime from other apps. Like starting a FocusTime session when you park your car at the office in the morning.

IFTTT Recipe: Turn off distractions for one hour connects do-button to rescuetime

IFTTT Recipe: Mute phone when a FocusTime session is started connects rescuetime to android-device

IFTTT Recipe: Unmute your phone when a FocusTime session finishes connects rescuetime to android-device

IFTTT Recipe: Schedule FocusTime sessions in advance by marking off time on your calendar connects google-calendar to rescuetime

IFTTT Recipe: Add a 'do-not-disturb' event to your calendar when a FocusTime session starts connects rescuetime to google-calendar

Respond to Alerts

Whenever your RescueTime alerts are triggered, you can respond by taking an action in another app.

IFTTT Recipe: If a RescueTime alert is triggered, post a note about it in Slack connects rescuetime to slack

IFTTT Recipe: Call my phone when a RescueTime alert triggers. connects rescuetime to phone-call

Log Daily Highlights / Action Datapoints

Daily Highlights and Actions help you keep track of your accomplishments. Any trigger from another app can automatically log a highlight or action in RescueTime.

IFTTT Recipe: Track the completed items on your to-do list connects todoist to rescuetime

IFTTT Recipe: Track your trips to coffee shops connects foursquare to rescuetime

Check out the RescueTime channel page on to learn more. There are literally thousands of possibilities. Please let us know your favorites in the comments!

Get the most out of RescueTime with integrations


RescueTime now offers a wide array of integrations with partner services. These allow users to greatly expand the scope and functionality of what can be done with RescueTime data and feature actions. Many of these features are based on user requests over the years, some are new ideas that we have had ourselves that we think will help improve your productivity and enhance your digital lives. Check out all that you can do with RescueTime!

Connect RescueTime to hundreds of apps with IFTTT and Zapier

RescueTime now provides links to two connective services, If This Then That (IFTTT) and Zapier, which give users the ability to connect RescueTime data and feature events to a large number of other services. Features such as Alerts, FocusTime, Daily Highlights, and daily Activity Summaries can interact with applications and apps on your computer, mobile devices, and other internet-enabled devices. Each of these relations is called a recipe (IFTTT) or a Zap (Zapier) and is set up with a few simple steps on the partner website. There are now over 300 connected services and you can even create new connections yourself!

Here are some of the possibilities:

Enhance the functionality of FocusTime. You can do a number of things like start and stop a session based on the date/time or Google calendar events, or have a session block out other distractions by posting “do not disturb” status in your media outlets. You can start a FocusTime session automatically when you arrive at work or mute you phone when it is in effect (some features require additional products).

Use daily summaries to do more with your data. You can have summaries emailed to you at the end of each day to get automated daily reporting. You can have this summary logged automatically to a Google spreadsheet or in a service like Evernote. You can have them logged as a detailed event in Google calendar or receive them as Slack messages.

Extend the range of Daily Highlights. Have a highlight logged when you have a meeting scheduled in Google calendar or when you post a Tweet, or post your Highlights as Tweets. Create a highlight for each email you send in Gmail.

Use Alerts in new ways: post them to Slack or Facebook, send them via SMS, or schedule a phone call when an alert in triggered; send an alert via Gmail based on specific criteria, like after a day when you spent more that 20% of your time on email and communication

Keep track of your photos with timestamps in your logs from iOS devices or Daily Highlight entries from an Android device

Log your visit to your favorite coffee shop with Foursquare

These are just some of the things you can do with IFTTT and Zapier. There are over 300 available services. Find out more information about IFTTT here and Zapier here and start creating your own new features.

Developers, keep track of your code commits with Git and GitHub

Git is a popular version control system for software projects. You can use Git’s flexible hook system to maintain a log of your code checkins within your RescueTime account, so you can see what you accomplished on days when you spent lots of time coding. If you host software projects on the social code hosting repository GitHub, you can keep a log of your code checkins in your RescueTime account. Checkins will show up as highlights on your dashboard and in your weekly emails.

Learn more about connecting RescueTime to your Git or GitHub repositories here.

Find correlations between your time, sleep, fitness, etc…

You can do more with your data with the data analysis tools Gyroscope, Zenobase, and Gyroscope, for example, is “A personal website powered by your life.” Connect your online accounts and see beautiful weekly reports showing how all your productivity and fitness data fits together. RescueTime can add time about your productivity levels to your weekly Gyroscope reports.

Supercharge FocusTime to limit distractions

To really block out distractions while in a FocusTime session, connect RescueTime to Slack and you will be automatically marked as ‘do-not-disturb’. If you are feeling more masochistic, try connecting RescueTime to a Pavlok wristband and shock yourself every time you hit a blocked page during a FocusTime session. You can also use IFTTT and Zapier to mute your phone, post do-not-disturb messages on your calendar, and much more.

Learn more about integrations that work with FocusTime here.

Many more integrations

Some of the other notable integrations we have:
Automatic: Track your driving time just like an app or website
Beeminder: Commit to meeting your productivity goals or pay a fine

See the full list of integrations here.

At RescueTime, we are always looking for ways to expand our horizons. Have a suggestion for an integration? Let us know in the comments!

Remember to allow space for high-impact work

I was just checking out this week’s episode of Create & Orchestrate, a video series of entrepreneurial insights by Nashville-area startup vet and investor Marcus Whitney. The episode focused on the idea of effort capacity, which is essentially the amount of time and energy you are able to put forth on a given thing at a given time. It struck me as a good way to think about time management because it forces you to make a distinction between high-impact and low-impact work and consider if you’re making enough room for the former. If your capacity for making effort on the really meaningful stuff is not very high, your chances of doing anything but treading water aren’t great.

RescueTime is a great tool for wrapping your head around your current effort capacity and making changes to increase it over time.

Understanding your effort capacity

Start by taking a look at your RescueTime productive activities report (requires RescueTime login) for the past month (maybe even add a time filter so it’s just Mon-Fri during work hours). Try to identify activities that are really key to pushing yourself forward. Most people find a lot of the productive work they do is tactical day-to-day stuff that, while necessary, may not be the thing that will break them through to the next level. Churning through emails, meetings, customer support, bug fixes or status reports can all easily fall into this category (obviously there are always exceptions). Subtract those activities from your time, and you get a pretty good idea of how much time you actually have  for more high-impact strategic work. Far too many people assume they have 40 hours a week to do solid meaningful work. The actual number is often a fraction of that.

Adjusting your effort capacity

Once you know how much time you have, the game becomes all about finding ways to maximize it. There’s going to be all sorts of possibilities for this. Some really easy low-hanging fruit, but also some things that require tinkering and experimentation.

Here are a few of my personal tactics for squeezing more availability into my day:

  • An automatic 30 minute FocusTime session every weekday morning when I get started to keep me from getting lost in rounds of catch-up on news, blogs, & social media.
  • I have FocusTime linked up to my Slack account so I’m not interrupted during times that I want to focus.
  • An alert that goes off after I’ve been in our support portal for more than 1 hour, reminding me not to let it take up my entire day. I have similar alerts for time spent in email, Google Hangouts, etc.
  • I have specific goals set up for design, software development, and strategizing. I review them in my weekly summary emails and make adjustments as needed.

What tricks do you have for increasing your capacity for meaningful work? Here’s Marcus’s take on it which got me thinking about it in the first place:

New Year’s Resolution Idea – Don’t Give Up On Creativity


Ask a dozen people what makes someone creative and you’ll probably hear answers like cleverness or mental acuity. But researchers Brian J. Lucas and Loran F. Nordgren of Northwestern University have been digging into what really makes creative people tick.

What they’re finding is that the most creative people – the folks with the truly novel and useful solutions – are the ones that don’t give up easily.

Persist, and then persist again

Lucas and his team are promoting persistence as a principle pathway to creative performance. There’s a load of historical research and anecdotal evidence to support this belief. Everything from Edison testing thousands of theories before inventing the light bulb to Csikszentmihalyi’s introduction of the concept of flow.

The researchers at Northwestern wanted to see if people actually recognize the value and importance of persisting when idea generation gets difficult. Their basic hypothesis: “People generally underestimate the value of persisting on creative tasks.”

After a series of 7 cleverly constructed creativity experiments, a few things are clear:

  • People perceive being creative as difficult.
  • The best ideas are often produced later rather than early in the creative process.
  • People probably abandon the creative process before coming up with their best ideas.

Creativity: The generation of ideas and solutions that are novel or useful to a given situation.

On being creative…

Before we take a look at the studies and results, let’s examine creativity. Specifically, why it’s generally considered difficult to “be creative?”

The researchers identified two attributes of creativity that are illustrative of its perceived difficulty, and I think these are both fantastically insightful.

First, creativity is a two-stage, iterative mental process. In stage one, we scour our long-term memory for anything associated with whatever it is we’re trying to be creative about. In the second stage, we apply, break apart and reform associated knowledge to form new ideas.

People move back and forth between memory and idea generation in an attempt to create something novel and useful. If you think about it for a bit, there are four logical outcomes to this process.

  1. Booo… We fail, and no association is made.
  2. Yawn… We come up with something commonplace – an idea that lacks novelty.
  3. Meh… We make an association, but it doesn’t prove useful. (Remember our definition? We’re looking for creative solutions that are novel or useful!)
  4. Eureka! We’ve come up with a cool, new idea.

This is a grueling mental process. It’s hard to be creative because of all the false starts and unsatisfactory ideas. Perseverance is necessary to win the numbers game!

The second attribute pointing to the difficulty of creativity is that, unlike defined processes and procedures, it’s really tough to verbalize your progress toward a creative goal.

The example that Lucas and his team used to illustrate this is a math problem. Try adding two large numbers together. It’s pretty easy to figure how close you are to having the correct answer, right?

Not so for creative challenges. Think of the last time you were trying to come up with a creative solution for some problem. At any point, could you tell someone how close you were to a breakthrough moment of insight?

Probably not. That progress isn’t really something you can measure.

And because of these attributes, it’s easy to think that being creative is hard. The researchers at Northwestern put that perception to the test to see if we can be more creative if we keep working when others might give up.

I won’t go into each of the 7 studies in detail. I think the first experiment is the most informative. Also, the paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology is available on Lucas’ website and it’s well worth a read.

The research

Lucas and Nordgren invited participants to take 10 minutes to generate creative answers to a simple question. All they were asked to do was come up with a list of things to eat and drink at Thanksgiving.

After coming up with a list of ideas, each participant was asked to estimate how many more ideas they could make with a subsequent “persistence phase.” The researchers then compared the estimates with the actual number of new ideas produced.

The participants came up with nearly 22 initial ideas on average. When asked how many new ideas they could come up with if they kept working, the average answer was 10 more ideas. Interestingly, their predictions for performance in the persistence period was much lower than the number of ideas actually produced (15).

And here’s the coolest part…

The researchers ran all the ideas past another group of test subjects to determine which were the most creative. This shouldn’t come as a surprise at this point, but the participants came up with their best ideas when asked to keep going.

This shows us that:

  1. People tend to undervalue persistence.
  2. We are at our most creative when we keep working on a problem, even after we think we have all the answers.
  3. People who give up too soon or too easily miss out on their best ideas.

Pragmatic creativity

It’s worth noting that time has a very real cost. Sometimes – be it in school, work or with a personal project – it’s more important to be finished than to be creative.

But understanding that we tend to shy away from persevering on difficult challenges because it’s just plain hard to come up with new and useful ideas is a valuable bit of information. Knowing this, we can make conscious, deliberate decisions about when to accept an idea as good enough and when to go back to drawing board in search of more creative solutions.

The next time I’ve come up with a new and creative idea, I’m definitely going to pause and wonder if I’m leaving my most creative ideas on the table. And then maybe I’ll set a timer for ten minutes to see if I can come up with something even better.