Procrastinating on that passion project? Try this technique from the Netflix show 'You'

Can working under pressure make you more creative? The story line of 'You' suggests a unique way to prioritize your creative outlets and finally start on that passion project.
Image: Penn Badgley, james Scully
Penn Badgley and James Scully in "You."Beth Dubber / Netflix
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By Danielle Page

Having trouble finding the will to finally start working on that novel, script, painting or other creative endeavor you keep saying you'll get around to but never do? On the most recent season of the Netflix hit "You" James Scully's character Forty Quinn tries a particularly intense tactic to motivate himself (and his writing partner Joe Goldberg, played by Penn Badgely) to finish a screenplay: hiring two hit men to kidnap the team and hold them captive until they produce a completed script.

It's an extreme method — one that's also probably pretty expensive depending on the going rate of faux hitmen these days — but the concept is an interesting one. Are there any benefits to putting that kind of pressure on yourself? Does it make you more productive? Force you to finally channel that creative energy? And if you can't afford to hire someone to keep you hostage, what more practical strategies can you use for creating an urgency to complete that creative project you can never seem to find the time for?

The pros and cons of the "You" method

In the case of our "You" characters, being held captive acts as their catalyst for motivation, in place of more traditional sources like a deadline set by a client who's paying you for work. But does working this way yield a better end result than it would if you were working against a less dire timeline?

"It seems counter intuitive, but constraints can really improve your creativity," explains Tonya Dalton, productivity expert and owner of inkWELL Press. "Setting limitations can force you to think outside of the box about the resources you have available. Famously, Dr. Seuss created 'Green Eggs and Ham' after being challenged by his editor to produce an entire book in only 50 different words."

Whether it's working with less time or fewer resources, Tonya says limitations can help hone your focus and make the best out of the creative idea you already have. But as Lauren Cook, doctoral candidate at Pepperdine University, explains, too much pressure can have the opposite effect on your work.

"Working under pressure can certainly spark more creativity; although it can also spark sloppiness more often than not," Cook says. "Creating a meaningful product is laborious, time-intensive, and even painful at times. While some people operate well when they procrastinate, it is not a guarantee for enhanced creativity. So while the pressure to get the job done with a time crunch can help someone churn out the task, it doesn't mean that it will be well-done."

In the case of "You," the screenplay had to pass approval from all three of the characters working on it before they were released from hostage status; it couldn't just be "good enough." Which is a tactic that does work to your advantage when trying to complete a project. A recent study done by the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) found that participants were 65 percent more likely to achieve a goal when they had an accountability partner to keep them on track — whether that person is your writing partner, friend or the hit man standing outside your door.

How to apply the "You" motivation method to your own creative work

What inspires you? Is it art, music, writing? There's likely a creative outlet that you'd like to indulge in, but have let fall to wayside. If you don't have hit men readily available for hire in your area, here are a few tips for using the "You" method to get your creative project off the ground.

1. Make your goals known

"We're more likely to accomplish a goal once we've shared our plans with someone else," says Cook. "Problematically, many of us keep our goals to ourselves because we doubt what we are capable of. Declare what you want for yourself and see how this accountability kicks you into gear."

2. Get monetarily invested

You may not have a client waiting to pay you for your completed work, but having skin in the game can help keep you motivated — whether that means buying new equipment, enrolling in a class or even a self-imposed fine for not staying on deadline. "You may not hire a hitman, but have a friend or family member hit you with a bill for not getting your work done on a projected date," says clinical psychologist Tricia Wolanin.

3. If you can't stick to a deadline, use someone else's

If you know self-imposed deadlines are not working for you, join a group that will set them for you. "Think of groups like a startup bootcamp or a writing group," says Dalton. "It’s easy to push around our deadlines when there’s nothing really holding us accountable, but if you have to show up to a group or event where they expect you to have some work done, you’re going to get that work done, or it’s at least going to be harder to not have some work done."

4. Find a creative community to join

If enrolling in a class or workshop isn't possible, seek out creative groups in your community or online that can act as a support system. "Having a community can be helpful because you have other people encouraging you to complete the project," says Brooke Sprowl, a licensed clinical social worker practicing in Los Angeles. "Additionally, you begin to feel more accountable since you have people checking in on your progress. It can also be helpful to have other people to bounce ideas off of or to help you overcome challenges or roadblocks that you're experiencing."

5. Plan a showcase

Whether it's an in-person event where you show your completed work off to friends and family, or an online release date for your social media followers, not wanting to let people down can be a huge motivator. "When we set a deadline and make a firm commitment to another person, we are accountable – people depend on us," says Wolanin. "If it is a passion project like a book, podcast, art piece or website, share it on social media and have a launch date set for loads of other people who plan to follow up with you.

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