On handling stress and creative projects

We all get stressed, sometimes. That’s just part of life.

But I’ve noticed that as designers running creative projects, we often have an obsession with running a ‘perfect’, project that’s flawless from start to finish. Especially when we’re working with clients.

Clients pay us handsomely to design the right things, and working with them is often challenging. Each new client means you have to start all over again and win their trust.

While we talk a lot about the need to fail fast on our internal projects, it can sometimes be difficult to get comfortable with failures and missteps when you’re working with a client.

That inevitably gets a little stressful from time to time.

But stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing

Like much else when it comes to the way our bodies behave, stress happens for a perfectly valid reason. There’s also creative value to a little stress or pressure. As Larina Kase (author of The Confident Leader) explains:

“Stress often precedes or accompanies creative breakthroughs. If our minds are totally calm and relaxed, they don’t need a reason to see things differently. We’re likely to feel an increase in stress when we hit on a new path because change is typically associated with new stress. Your creative output feels intimidating because it’s different for you and you don’t know how others will react [to it].”

But when project stress goes beyond being a ‘mind sharpening’ tool and begins to make you freak out, it’s clearly not a positive thing. Prolonged or intense stressful situations are going to do more harm than good. What’s worse is that when you’re stressed, it tends to increase the stress levels of those around you.

We need to change the way we think about problems and stress that emerge on projects.

First, we need to give up on the pursuit of perfection

I try to remind myself often that if you’re running complex projects, things will always go wrong.

If we’re designing a product, we all know that there’s no such thing as finished perfection. There will always be iterations and improvements to make. So why do we hold on to the idea that there’s such a thing as a perfect project?

I think the idea of a totally flawless project is pretty much a chimera. A creative project will always have problems, and working to fix those problems when they occur is just a natural part of the creative process.

And flawlessness isn’t just impossible, it’s in fact not even desirable. As Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios says in Creativity, Inc. (a brilliant book):

“If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy—trying to avoid failure by outthinking it—dooms you to fail.”

Even Pixar projects have their problems:

“What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.”

The price we pay for designing great things is that problems (and stress) will pop up somewhere in the process.

Letting go of the idea of running the perfect project isn’t the same as lowering your standards or not caring.

It’s just about reframing your perception of problems on projects and having a healthier attitude towards what’s going to happen. Then, when problems do come up, you’re in a better place to find ways around them.

Second, we need to get comfortable with stress

Just like the problems that will inevitably appear on projects, stress is always going to appear somewhere, too.

Even if our personal lives are calm, we’re not going to be able to totally eliminate stress. On top of that, personal problems outside of work can easily introduce very real stress at work too.

At Hanno, we work hard to keep improving our process to make sure that needlessly stressful situations don’t keep appearing. I think that’s a really important part of building a healthy creative environment. But as Catmull says (also in Creativity, Inc.–it’s a really good book!):

“Making the process better, easier, and cheaper is an important aspiration, something we continually work on—but it is not the goal. Making something great is the goal.”

So if we can’t get rid of stress entirely, the best way to deal with it is to improve the way we react to it.

There’s a great TED talk by Kelly McGonigal that’s well worth a watch. In it, she explains the scientific evidence around our response to stress and the effect that this stress has on us physically and mentally. In short, there’s evidence that high levels of stress are only physically harmful if you see them that way. The way we perceive stress makes a big difference on how that stress affects us.

As McGonigal says, you need to “make stress your friend” and trust yourself to handle stressful situations when they occur.

We’re never going to be able to remove problems and stress from the creative process. But if we can change our perspective on problems and stress that appear on projects, we’ll be doing ourselves a huge favour. If we can stay clear-headed and calm and accept stress and problems as natural, we put ourselves in a far better place to run happier, healthier creative projects.