Applying Creativity Under Stress

Nora Guerrera
3 min readMar 12, 2024

A graduated approach to building up your creative problem-solving ability

Part 4 of our 5-part series on Creative Problem Solving, featuring graphic designer, brand strategist, and innovation consultant turned EMT Andrew Lebowitz.

Stress is a funny thing.

Too much, and we fall apart. Not enough, and we can’t get ourselves together. Like the quintessential porridge of the three bears, it needs to be just right.

Building your creative problem-solving muscles in one thing. Applying those skills under pressure is yet another, and applying them with mastery and confidence is another still.

So, how do we build our creative prowess under pressure? We train and practice under increasing levels of stress.

Building Mastery

“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”

It is important to build a strong foundation of basic skills that can be deployed almost subconsciously. Said another way, you don’t learn to shoot free throws in the playoffs. There is no substitute for hard work, persistence, and practice. A strong foundation allows you to change or even break the rules when and if you need to. (Refer to the skills and mindsets covered in Cognitive Flexibility and Applied Learning).

Graduated Pressure

“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” ― Victor Frankl

Turn up the heat too fast, and you’ll just get burned. Turn it up too slowly, and you won’t get the actual “stress” factor. The trick is to alternate between mastering the basics, increasing stress, and increasing complexity.

Remember, the last time you want to learn or apply a new skill is during a stressful event. Practice the fundamentals with minimal stress, then turn up the stress over time, adding new complexities and challenges.

Frameworks and Flexibility

“…Under conditions of complexity, not only are checklists a help, they are required for success.” ― Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

Discipline is an important element in any creative practice, but having the ability to check off your basics at key moments can help free up your cognitive load to focus on more demanding or less well-known tasks.

If you remember from the first article in this series, creative problems are ill-defined, novel, complex, demanding, and exploitable. Frameworks — and even checklists — give us a structure to start addressing challenges while still leaving enough flexibility to apply our creative problem-solving skills.


To be able to apply creativity and creative problem-solving under stress, one must:

  • Build a strong foundation of the basics
  • Turn up the stress over time
  • Use frameworks to lighten the cognitive load
  • Leave room for flexibility

Related Resources and References:

If you are interested in discussing or developing your creative problem skills further, Andrew is available for training, coaching, and consulting for individuals and teams. You can message him directly here:

Andrew is a graphic designer, brand strategist, and innovation consultant turned EMT. Now, he is applying his own creativity to help those in their moments of greatest need.



Nora Guerrera

Strategist, Leader, Coach, Teacher. I help clients explore, create and use digital to bring game-changing experiences to their businesses and their customers.