Creative Tension

Being comfortable in discomfort


Matt Smith

Sep 11, 2020

8 minutes read

If there are any positives to find in this pandemic, it might be that it allows us to steer our ship on a slightly different tack.

Pointing as high into the wind as possible, to keep our metaphorical sails full. Away from the daily grind and into calmer seas, we can ask ourselves, “What do we want to achieve? What world shall we create?”

1. Creative Tension

In a way, Covid-19 has been a social experiment in creative tension. Creative tension is the energy created from the gap between vision and current reality. If there was no gap, there would be no need for any action.

Stay with me here.

It’s 2019. The world is sort of normal. Then like a bat out of hell, Coronavirus hits. The world goes into indefinite lockdown. Life as we know it no ceases to exist. This is what we call our current reality.

We all want things to get back to how they were pre-pandemic. Sharing a smile with a stranger, shaking hands, and catching up for coffee. That’s our vision.
Feel that anxiety, frustration, and discomfort? You just want things to go back to normal. As quickly as possible. That energy created is tension. And in order to relieve it, you need to take action. Socially distance, wear a mask, don’t travel overseas, close your business, on and on.

Another way to demonstrate creative tension is with the good old rubber band. Grab one now if there’s one lying around. A hairband or anything stretchy will do. I mean, you’re most likely working from your dining room table so maybe check the cupboard under the sink?

Place the rubber band between your thumb and index finger. Now imagine your thumb is your current state—ignoring your colleagues invite to Friday night Zoom-Wine-Down 🥱. And your index finger is your vision—being able to walk out the door to play Pokemon Go. Now pull your index finger away from your thumb. Physical tension is building. There is an energy between your two states that when left unmet causes discomfort. Either your thumb could give in and meet your index finger, or vice versa. The most likely scenario is they’ll compromise and meet in the middle. Ultimately, moving you closer to freely hunt Pikachu.

2. Zeigarnik effect

There’s a bunch of psychology that explains why creative tension works so effectively on us. The most significant is thanks to a phenomenon called the Zeigarnik effect. The Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik discovered that us humans remain unusually focused on aspects of our lives that are incomplete.²

Masterchef has been using Zeigarnik powers against us for years with their strategically well-placed ad-breaks just before the cloche lifts on the final dish. Although rationally we know finding out whether the souffle is set (or not) will have little to no impact on our happiness—we remain irrationally focused on the outcome. Enough to sit through another Masked Singer commercial for about the 57th time.

3. Three essential ingredients

Creative tension has the power to make yourself, and others, take action towards your ideas and desired outcomes. It is something that we can all tap into to help live a more fulfilling and purposeful life.

In summary, remember these three essential ingredients to create healthy tension in your next creative problem-solving opportunity:

1. Identify Current Reality – You, and your crew, must have a collective understanding of how things currently are.

2. Articulate Desired Future – A shared, inspirational vision that motivates all involved to do whatever it takes to realise it.

3. Callout What’s At Stake – Importantly, to create a healthy tension people must be convinced that something is at stake if they don’t take action.³

Keep safe. And remember to keep giving yourself space to be creative.

“Where there is no vision, there is no hope.”

- George Washington Carver


1. Senge, P. (1994). The fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization ; [with a new introduction and tips for first-time readers (1st Currency pbk. ed.). Doubleday/Currency.

2. Savitsky, Kenneth, et al. “Remembering and Regretting: The Zeigarnik Effect and the Cognitive Availability of Regrettable Actions and Inactions.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 23, no. 3, Sage Publications, Mar. 1997, pp. 248–57, doi: 10.1177 / 0146167297233004.

3. McGoff, C. (2017, November 30). This psychological theory will motivate your team to achieve more in 2018.

Matt Smith
Design and Creativity Consultant

Matt has 15 years experiences in the creative industry and is currently completing his Masters in Creativity and Change Leadership at Buffalo State, New York.

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