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We propose that organizations use a new framework of workday design to enhance the creativity of today's chronically overworked professionals. Although insights from creativity research have been integrated into models of work design to increase the stimulants of creativity (e.g., intrinsic motivation), this has not led to work design models that have effectively reduced the obstacles to creativity (e.g., workload pressures). As a consequence, creative output among professionals in high-workload contexts remains disappointing. In response, we offer a framework of work design that focuses on the design of entire workdays rather than the typical focus on designing either specific tasks or very broad job descriptions (e.g., as the job characteristics model in Hackman et al. 1975). Furthermore, we introduce the concept of “mindless” work (i.e., work that is low in both cognitive difficulty and performance pressures) as an integral part of this framework. We suggest that to enhance creativity among chronically overworked professionals, workdays should be designed to alternate between bouts of cognitively challenging and high-pressure work (as suggested in the original model by Hackman et al. 1975), and bouts of mindless work (as defined in this paper). We discuss the implications of our framework for theories of work design and creativity.
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Organization Science
Vol. 17, No. 4, July–August 2006, pp. 470–483
issn 1047-7039 eissn 1526-5455 06 01704 0470
inf
orms
®
doi 10.1287/orsc.1060.0193
© 2006 INFORMS
Enhancing Creativity Through “Mindless” Work:
A Framework of Workday Design
Kimberly D. Elsbach, Andrew B. Hargadon
Graduate School of Management, University of California, Davis, One Shields Avenue, Davis, California 95616
{kdelsbach@ucdavis.edu, abhargadon@ucdavis.edu}
W
e propose that organizations use a new framework of workday design to enhance the creativity of today’s chronically
overworked professionals. Although insights from creativity research have been integrated into models of work
design to increase the stimulants of creativity (e.g., intrinsic motivation), this has not led to work design models that
have effectively reduced the obstacles to creativity (e.g., workload pressures). As a consequence, creative output among
professionals in high-workload contexts remains disappointing. In response, we offer a framework of work design that
focuses on the design of entire workdays rather than the typical focus on designing either specific tasks or very broad
job descriptions (e.g., as the job characteristics model in Hackman et al. 1975). Furthermore, we introduce the concept
of “mindless” work (i.e., work that is low in both cognitive difficulty and performance pressures) as an integral part of
this framework. We suggest that to enhance creativity among chronically overworked professionals, workdays should be
designed to alternate between bouts of cognitively challenging and high-pressure work (as suggested in the original model
by Hackman et al. 1975), and bouts of mindless work (as defined in this paper). We discuss the implications of our
framework for theories of work design and creativity.
Key words: creativity; job design; job stress
This paper is about using work design to improve the
creativity of professional workers. The Hackman et al.
(1975) original model of work design, i.e., the job char-
acteristics model, was designed primarily to improve the
work output of blue-collar employees by making their
work tasks more interesting, challenging, and intrinsi-
cally motivating. The central findings of this original
job-enrichment model have since migrated to the design
of work at all levels of the organization. Such concepts
as the high-involvement organization (Spreitzer 1996) or
Theory Z (Ouchi 1981), for example, apply many of the
same principles of job enrichment to professional work.
Managers now design white-collar work tasks to appear
more meaningful and significant to the organization in
order to extract even more mindful performance from
designers, engineers, and other professionals (O’Reilly
1989).
However, despite more than 30 years of research on
work design, there are still some areas of work output
that are obviously lacking. In particular, management
scholars and practitioners alike continue to lament the
lack of creative output by professionals (Sutton 2002).
As Ray Bingham, CEO of electronics firm Cadence
Design Systems, Inc., recently noted, “The biggest threat
to the U.S. economy is lack of creativity   It’s really
a question of innovate—or die” (Bingham 2001, p. 24).
Similarly, management guru Deborah House recently
wrote that lack of innovation is one of the top five profit
drains that threaten modern corporations, and added
that creativity and innovation are even more crucial in
today’s economy because, “no matter how stable an
industry is, today it’s changing at least 10 times faster
than 25 years ago” (House 2003, p. 34).
A further look into accounts of current-day profes-
sional work suggests that one reason for this lack of
creative output is that increases in workload pressures
(i.e., time and quality pressures) have undermined the
effectiveness of traditional models of professional work
design. A corporate focus on improving shareholder
value through downsizing, for example, has forced many
enriched professionals to simply do more work in less
time with fewer resources (Ciulla 2000, Fraser 2001).
In addition, the introduction of new information tech-
nologies (i.e., broadband networks, wireless computers,
pagers, and mobile phones) allow supervisors to demand
work updates or request project changes at a moment’s
notice, and expect that employees will provide instan-
taneous feedback on their progress (Fraser 2001). Fur-
thermore, while advanced technologies are promoted
as a means to improve the effectiveness of profes-
sional workers, the cognitive strain such advances place
on these workers has created new forms of thought-
ful labor (Shulman and Olex 1985) and extended work
days (Hoschchild 1997). Finally, the busy, stressful,
and significant nature of professional work has become
an important signifier of status in many organizations
(Amabile and Conti 1999). For example, Fraser (2001,
p. 22) reports that the car manufacturer Lexus ran adver-
tisements that affirmed their high-workload pressures by
470
Elsbach and Hargadon: A Framework of Workday Design
Organization Science 17(4), pp. 470–483, © 2006 INFORMS 471
boasting, “Sure we take vacations. They’re called lunch-
breaks, and “We don’t have a company softball team.
It would lower productivity by 0.56%.
The end result of these extreme and often chronic
workload pressures is that professional work that is
designed to be challenging and intrinsically motivating
becomes, instead, relentlessly mindful and stress induc-
ing (Fraser 2001, Amabile et al. 2002). Given these chal-
lenges, our goals in this paper are to (1) explore why
traditional models of work design have not been effec-
tive in supporting creative output in contexts of high-
workload pressure and (2) suggest an alternative model
for improving professional creativity in these contexts.
To address these questions, we first need to explicate
what we currently know about enhancing professional
creativity through work design.
Creativity and the Design of Professional
Work
Creativity may be defined as “the production, concep-
tualization, or development of novel and useful ideas,
processes, or procedures” (Shalley et al. 2000, p. 215).
Given the importance of creativity to professional work,
numerous studies have examined how the design of orga-
nizational work contexts might affect the creative output
of managers, engineers, designers, and the like. Recent
extensive reviews of this research by Zhou and Shalley
(2003), Shalley et al. (2004), and Egan (2005) come
to the general conclusion that work environments that
enhance intrinsic motivation increase creative output,
whereas those that hamper intrinsic motivation decrease
creative output.
Work Contexts That Increase Professional
Creativity
Zhou and Shalley (2003) outline some of the specific
dimensions of work environments that have been shown
to enhance intrinsic motivation and thus increase cre-
ativity among professionals. These dimensions include,
among others, complex and challenging jobs (Hatcher
et al. 1989), the presence of creativity goals (Carson
and Carson 1993), and developmental (versus control-
ling) feedback and evaluation (Zhou and Oldham 2001).
Amabile et al. (1996) refer to these types of factors as
environmental stimulants to creativity, and have included
them in a scale that measures the climate for creativity
in organizations.
A careful look at these environmental stimulants of
creativity reveals that they parallel many of the core
job dimensions in the original job characteristics model
of job design by Hackman et al. (1975)—a model that
was also designed to improve the intrinsic motivation of
work. For example, “decision-making freedom” in the
Amabile et al. (1996, p. 1166) model is equivalent to
“autonomy” in the Hackman et al. (1975, p. 58) model;
“challenging work” or “a sense of having to work hard
on challenging tasks and important projects” in the Ama-
bile et al. model is equivalent to the Hackman et al. def-
inition of “task significance”; and “sufficient resources,
including information” in the Amabile et al. model is
equivalent to “feedback” in the Hackman et al. model.
A number of field studies show how these basic job
dimensions or stimulants of creativity have been applied
in real-world work contexts and where, in practice, they
have made real improvements in the creative output
of professionals. For example, Amabile et al. (1996,
p. 1166) found that work defined as challenging (i.e.,
“a sense of having to work hard on challenging tasks
and important projects”), and work defined as provid-
ing freedom (i.e., “freedom to decide how I am going
to carry out my projects”) was more strongly associ-
ated with high versus low creativity projects by man-
agers in a diversified electronics firm (Amabile et al.
1996, p. 1166). Similarly, in a study of white-collar work-
ers in a heavy equipment manufacturing organization,
Zhou and George (2001) found that high (versus low)
levels of useful feedback from coworkers increased cre-
ativity among professionals who were satisfied with their
work, whereas Oldham and Cummings (1996) found
that increased work complexity led engineers, design-
ers, and drafters to receive higher ratings of creativity
from their supervisors. Finally, in a study of admin-
istrative employees in knowledge-intensive professions,
Dorenbosch et al. (2005) found that professionals whose
work involved a variety of skills and bases of exper-
tise were more likely to engage in creativity-oriented
behaviors (i.e., they were more likely to generate ideas
to improve services and generate new solutions to old
problems) than those whose work was more routine.
Work Contexts That Decrease Professional
Creativity
Whereas contextual factors such as challenging work
and autonomy have been shown to enhance intrinsic
motivation and creativity among professional workers,
Zhou and Shalley (2003) report that other environmen-
tal or contextual factors may hamper these outcomes.
In particular, work contexts involving chronically high-
workload pressures have been shown to be particularly
harmful to professional creativity (Amabile et al. 1996).
Chronically high-workload pressures occur in work envi-
ronments that routinely involve mindful and cognitively
challenging tasks, have high-time pressures for com-
pletion of those tasks, include frequent interruptions as
multiple tasks intrude on each other, and involve atten-
uated control over the timing, pacing, and quality of
work output as supervisors attempt to manage time defi-
ciencies by imposing deadlines or rearranging project
schedules. These high-workload contexts would qualify
as both high in job demand and low in job control, as
Elsbach and Hargadon: A Framework of Workday Design
472 Organization Science 17(4), pp. 470–483, © 2006 INFORMS
defined by models of job strain (Karasek 1979, Karasek
and Theorell 1990).
As noted earlier, one consequence of such high-
workload pressures is that professional workdays may
move from a state of mindful work, which may increase
creativity, to a state of relentlessly mindful work, which
may actually decrease creativity. In support of this
notion, Amabile et al. (2002) found that intense work-
load and time pressures, as well as frequent work inter-
ruptions, led professional workers to be almost half as
creative as they would otherwise be (i.e., they report
fewer creative ideas over time). Similarly, in their study
of downsizing, Amabile and Conti (1999) found that
a number of environmental factors, including work-
load pressures, were significantly increased by down-
sizing, and in turn, these environmental factors nega-
tively affected self-reported creativity. In another study,
Mueller et al. (2001) used daily questionnaires to track
variations in time pressures, along with peer and self-
evaluations of creativity in a corporate setting. These
questionnaires revealed that increased time pressures sig-
nificantly reduced individual creativity on the day of
the perceived time pressure and on the following day.
Finally, in a four-year study of product development
engineers, Perlow (2001) found that engineers reported
low levels of creativity and high levels of stress when
time pressures and interruptions were high.
However, unlike research on stimulants to creativity—
which, as described above, appears to have led to
real improvements in professional worker creativity—
research on the obstacles to creativity does not appear
to have resulted in similar improvements. On the con-
trary, recent research suggests that organizations may
be beginning to experience long-term underperformance
and lack of creativity due to the chronic stresses of
intense workload pressures (Hallowell 2005). Psychia-
trist Edward Hallowell suggests that chronically over-
worked employees display signs of attention deficit
trait—a state characterized by “distractibility, inner
frenzy, and impatience”—that is completely caused
by one’s environment (compared with attention deficit
disorder, which has both genetic and physiological com-
ponents) and has become an “epidemic” in today’s orga-
nizations (Hallowell 2005, p. 1). As evidence of this
epidemic, a recent survey by the nonprofit organization
Families and Work Institute reveals that one-third of
respondents feels chronically overworked, one-half had
felt overwhelmed at least once in the previous month
(Galinsky et al. 2005), and that poor performance and
lower creativity may be a direct result of these workload
pressures.
Common Remedies for Overcoming Workload
Pressures
If work design has helped to support the stimulants of
creativity, why hasn’t it helped to overcome the obstacles
of creativity as well? In particular, why haven’t models
of work design helped to overcome the negative effects
of workload pressure on the creativity of modern pro-
fessionals? One likely reason is that the most common
remedies for overcoming intense workload pressures—
i.e., scheduling blocks of free time or creative brain-
storming time into the workday—may be difficult to
implement effectively.
The Folly of “Free Time.Unstructured free time is
often prescribed to both reduce urgency and encourage
the cognitive process of reflective thinking or incuba-
tion, which is viewed as central to creativity (Russ 1993,
Armbruster 1989). In this manner, Schon (1983) defines
the creative role of reflection-in-action as oscillating
between involvement and detachment—where detach-
ment is supported by time away from the work tasks
themselves. Studies have also found that the processes
of reflection and incubation are often difficult to achieve
because they involve engaging in behaviors that often
appear inefficient to observers (e.g., taking free time
from work to think and stare out the window). As
a result, Staw (1995) suggests that free time may be
bad for morale (coworkers may feel as if the creative
types are free-riding on their hard work), and there’s no
guarantee that creative ideas will emerge from any one
episode of divergent thinking or incubation.
More importantly, such unstructured time may more
likely be abandoned in times of high-workload pres-
sure (Collins and Amabile 1999). For example, in her
two-year study of software engineers, Perlow (2001)
found that, while scheduled quiet time for engineers
was culturally embraced and effective in improving the
overall creativity and productivity of the group, this
effect eroded over time as the firm’s time-sensitive work
impinged on engineers’ schedules. As Perlow (1999)
notes, “for the next month [after the initial introduction
of quiet time], I noted a marked deterioration in engi-
neers’ adherence to quiet time. Many engineers spoke
favorably of the study and what they had learned. Yet,
quiet time as previously structured began to disintegrate”
(p. 124).
Perlow suggests that this deterioration of quiet time
occurred because, although managers had changed the
norms about the value of respecting coworkers’ unstruc-
tured free time, they had not changed the compensa-
tion structure in the firm, which continued to reward
individual deliverables rather than creative output. When
time pressures were high, individuals began to inter-
rupt coworkers during quiet time to get help on their
own projects. As Perlow (1999) reports, Additional
time gained through altering the work patterns was sim-
ply poured back into work on individual deliverables”
(p. 127).
Elsbach and Hargadon: A Framework of Workday Design
Organization Science 17(4), pp. 470–483, © 2006 INFORMS 473
The Blind Side of Brainstorming. As a variation on
scheduled free time, professionals often attempt to sched-
ule moments of creativity in the form of brainstorm-
ing sessions (see Osborn 1957, Mullen et al. 1991, Sut-
ton and Hargadon 1996) which are held in conference
rooms, creativity workshops, or at off-site retreats. These
moments are intended to remove professionals from the
demands of their traditional work environment for a few
hours or days in order to focus on generating creative
solutions to particular problems.
Several studies raise fundamental questions regarding
the productive value of such focused moments, particu-
larly because these studies relate creativity to the ongo-
ing social context of the organization. For example, these
formalized moments of creativity involve group activi-
ties. Mullen et al. (1991) performed a meta-analysis of
the research on brainstorming and found consistent sup-
port for the conclusion that groups are less effective at
the number and quality of new ideas than are individuals
working alone (see also Paulus et al. 1996). Additional
research has also placed such formalized creativity ses-
sions within the context of organizational life. Sutton
and Hargadon (1996), for example, found that brain-
storming sessions within one product development firm,
although ostensibly about the generation of new and bet-
ter ideas, were often used primarily to serve other func-
tions in the organization. For example, these meetings
provided an arena for status competitions among design-
ers, and for impressing outsiders with the skills of these
professionals. This study suggests that, although such
formally scheduled creativity sessions may be useful for
the organizations, they are not necessarily effective at
generating creative outcomes.
Alternative Paths to Overcoming
Obstacles to Creativity
Given the unsatisfactory effects of scheduled free time or
brainstorming sessions on creative output by profession-
als, we suggest two alternative paths to overcoming the
obstacle of intense workload pressure on creativity. First,
we suggest that models of work design should explicitly
consider creativity as an outcome variable, and in turn
focus attention on the antecedent conditions that are nec-
essary to achieve this outcome. Second, we suggest that
models of work design should explicitly recognize work-
load pressure as a contextual factor that moderates the
links between work design and work outputs. We now
discuss these two remedies for overcoming obstacles to
creative output.
1. Including Creativity as an Outcome Variable in
Models of Work Design
Most existing frameworks of work design do not explic-
itly recognize creativity as an outcome variable. This
omission may be due, at least in part, to the reality that
most blue-collar work, which was the basis for the orig-
inal theory of job enrichment, does not require or allow
a great deal of creativity. This goes for even those blue-
collar tasks that have been enriched (e.g., a line worker
in a cereal manufacturing plant may be allowed to make
decisions about line speed, or make suggestions about
packaging materials, but creativity in these decisions is
often constrained by equipment and material choices that
are beyond these workers’ purview).
An important consequence of the exclusion of cre-
ativity in models of work design is that these models
then exclude important antecedents of creativity, such
as the antecedent psychological states defined in the
Hackman et al. (1975) job characteristics model. The
neglect of these antecedent psychological states means
that related obstacles of creativity are not brought to
light. For example, there is increasing evidence that the
psychological state of positive affect (i.e., the experi-
ence of positive emotions such as contentment, happi-
ness, and joy) may improve creativity in a variety of
contexts, including problem solving, brainstorming, and
artistic work (Isen and Baron 1991, Amabile et al. 2005).
In turn, research on job stress has shown that positive
affect among workers is diminished by high-workload
pressures (Carver and Scheier 1994). Thus, by focus-
ing on the antecedent psychological state of positive
affect, the creativity obstacle of workload pressure is
highlighted and recognized. Such recognition is the first
step in developing work design models that may over-
come these obstacles.
2. Including Chronic Workload Pressures as a
Contextual Factor in Models of Work Design
A second means of overcoming obstacles to creativity is
to explicitly include workload pressures as a contextual
factor in models of work design. In the job characteris-
tics model (Hackman et al. 1975), for example, only pay,
job security, coworkers, and supervisors are considered
as explicit contextual factors that might affect intrinsic
motivation, and thus creativity (see also Hackman and
Oldham 1980). Similarly, Katerberg et al. (1979) con-
sider satisfaction with pay, coworkers, and supervision
as the primary contextual factors affecting their model
of job complexity and work design. A possible explana-
tion for the lack of consideration of contextual factors—
such as time pressures and interruptions—in models
of work design may be the finding that professional
workers actually perceive themselves as more produc-
tive and creative under high-time pressure, even though
actual performance measures show the opposite is true
(i.e., they are less productive and creative; see Amabile
et al. 2002). Thus, researchers may not see declines in
self-reports of creativity in high-time-pressure environ-
ments and may not recognize the importance of includ-
ing workload pressures in their models.
Elsbach and Hargadon: A Framework of Workday Design
474 Organization Science 17(4), pp. 470–483, © 2006 INFORMS
Figure 1 Effects of Chronic Workload Pressures on Work Design: Relentlessly Mindful Work
Relentlessly mindful work
High internal
work motivation
High quality
work performance
High satisfaction
with the work
Low absenteeism
High creativity
Combining tasks
Formal natural
work units
Establishing client
relationships
Vertical loading
Opening feedback
channels
Skill variety
Task
identity
Task
significance
Autonomy
Feedback
Experienced
meaningfulness
of work
Experienced
responsibility for
work outcomes
Knowledge of the
actual results of
the work activities
High
workload
pressure
High
workload
pressure
Implementing
concepts
Core job
dimensions
Critical
psychological
states
Personal
and work
outcomes
Strong effect
Weakened effect
Source. Based on the Hackman et al. (1975) job characteristics model.
However including workload pressure as a contex-
tual factor in models of work design might go a long
way toward explaining why work designed to be reward-
ing and motivating turns into work that is discourag-
ing of creativity (van Yperen and Hagedoorn 2003).
Specifically, we suggest that excessive workload pres-
sures may undermine professional workers’ abilities to
experience positive psychological states that are impor-
tant for creativity (such as experienced meaningfulness
or work) by creating too much demand for core job
dimensions (such as skill variety and task significance).
These negative effects on work design are illustrated in
Figure 1.
For instance, in a high-workload context, the degree
of skill variety required of professionals may make it
difficult for them to see how all of their work tasks
fit together in a meaningful way (e.g., jumping from
finegrained data analysis required in one project to
broad strategic planning in another may provide com-
peting explanations about the importance of a profes-
sional to corporate goals). Second, under conditions
of high-workload pressure, task significance may lead
to a state of negative self-criticism rather than posi-
tive experienced meaningfulness. That is, tasks that are
viewed as significant because of high-time pressures
may lead to what Gagné and Deci (2005) call intro-
jected regulation—i.e., a motivational state in which one
works hard on a task because one’s self-worth is per-
ceived to be contingent on task performance—rather
than the desired state of intrinsic motivation, in which
one works on a task because it is interesting and enjoy-
able. Employees may feel that keeping up with high-
workload demands is a test of their abilities and self-
worth, rather than an inherently interesting thing to do.
Finally, while feedback about work tasks may arrive,
it may not be processed or examined by professional
workers who are under high-workload pressures. In turn,
these workers may not experience the critical psycho-
logical state of knowledge of the actual results of work
(Hackman et al. 1975).
Professional Workday Design Under High
Workload Pressure: A Framework
Involving Mindless Work
Although traditional models of work design have been
increasingly applied to professional work, the above
findings suggest that, they have not yet been modified
to consider the importance of creativity as an outcome
of this work, or the effects of increasing workload pres-
sures on the realization of that outcome. In response,
we propose a new framework of workday design. This
framework suggests that instead of only focusing on the
design of specific tasks (e.g., performance evaluation)
or the design of broadly construed jobs (e.g., being a
project manager), that work design should also focus on
the design of professional workdays—which typically
involve work on a variety of specific tasks important to
the fulfillment of broad job requirements (e.g., over the
course of a workday a project manager may complete a
performance evaluation, work on a budget request, and
participate in a strategic planning discussion).
Integral to this framework of workday design is the
construct of mindless work illustrated in Figure 2. We
Elsbach and Hargadon: A Framework of Workday Design
Organization Science 17(4), pp. 470–483, © 2006 INFORMS 475
Figure 2 The Design of Mindless Work
Legitimate and scheduled mindless work
Implementing
concepts
Core job
dimensions
Critical
psychological
states
Personal
and work
outcomes
High creativity
Required and
scheduled
completion of
simple, easily
mastered tasks
Time orientation
of work
Low
cognitive
difficulty
Low
performance
pressure
High cognitive
capacity
Psychological
safety
Positive affect
Source. Adapted from the Hackman et al. (1975) job characteristics model.
discuss mindless work in more detail below, but define
it simply as tasks that are low in cognitive difficulty
and performance pressures. Examples of such mind-
less work include performing simple manufacturing line
tasks (e.g., filling supply bins), making photocopies,
simple cleaning chores (e.g., cleaning laboratory equip-
ment), performing simple maintenance tasks, sorting or
collating tasks, and simple service tasks (e.g., unpacking
and stocking supplies).
In our framework of workday design, scheduled bouts
of mindless work tasks are inserted between the more
cognitively challenging, time-pressured, and interrupted
work tasks that make up the bulk of the workers’ days.
That is, mindless work occurs in sequence with more
mindful work over time (imagine a sequencing of Fig-
ures 1 and 2). While we do not prescribe specific guide-
lines for how long and how frequent these bouts of
mindless work should be, anecdotal evidence from the
popular business press suggests that these bouts should
last at least half an hour and occur several times a week,
if not daily (Freiberg and Freiberg 1998). We also rec-
ognize that these tasks must serve legitimate purposes
for those engaging in them: Cleaning one’s desk is get-
ting organized, and working on the production line is
management by walking around.
Defining Mindless Work
To explicate the construct of “mindless” work in detail,
we use the original job characteristics model (Hackman
et al. 1975) as a guide. Thus, we discuss critical psycho-
logical states of mindless work first, followed by the core
job dimensions, and finally the implementing concepts.
1. Critical Psychological States of Mindless Work
Hackman et al. (1975) suggest three critical psycholog-
ical states that help employees to become intrinsically
motivated by their work and perform well: (1) experi-
enced meaningfulness of work, (2) experienced respon-
sibility for outcomes of work, and (3) knowledge of
work results. We suggest three additional critical psy-
chological states, shown in Figure 2, that help employees
become more creative in their work: (1) positive affect,
(2) psychological safety, and (3) high cognitive capacity.
Positive Affect. As noted earlier, a substantial amount
of psychological research suggests that positive affect
improves creative output among individuals (see Russ
1993 for a review). Early work in this area is dominated
by the studies by Alice Isen and her colleagues (Isen
and Daubman 1984, Isen et al. 1987, Isen and Baron
1991). These studies have shown that positive affect pro-
motes creative problem solving, unusual word associa-
tions, and creative categorization processes (Isen et al.
1985). For example, Isen et al. (1987) found that those in
positive (versus negative, or neutral but aroused) mood
states were more creative on a word association test and
on Duncker’s (1945) candle task. Isen and colleagues
attribute these findings to “the tendency of persons of
positive affect to relate and integrate divergent material,
to form new associations, and to recombine mental ele-
ments, all of which, according to most current concep-
tualizations, are involved in creative thinking” (Greene
and Noice 1988, p. 895). In support of this notion in
organizational contexts, a recent large-scale study of cre-
ativity among project-team members (see Amabile et al.
2005) found that positive affect led to peer assessments
of employee creativity, and that this effect was due to the
increased cognitive variation that resulted from positive
affect.
As an alternative explanation for the favorable effects
of good moods on creativity, Russ (1993) suggests that
positive affect improves creative thinking by allowing
individuals to access affect-laden thoughts and memo-
ries, and to experience the affect itself. Specifically, Russ
suggests that affect-laden primary process thinking (i.e.,
Elsbach and Hargadon: A Framework of Workday Design
476 Organization Science 17(4), pp. 470–483, © 2006 INFORMS
illogical thinking that is drive laden, aggressive, oral,
and libidinal) and the creative process are tightly linked.
Descriptions of the creative process by writers and artists
suggest that the same processes involved in creative
thinking (i.e., a dreamlike state, a state of illogical loose
associations) are also those identified as affect-laden,
primary process thinking (Russ 1993).
Finally, other recent work in this area suggests that
positive emotions may improve creativity by expanding
the resources upon which people can draw in their cre-
ative work. In this manner, Fredrickson’s (2001) work on
the broaden and build models of positive emotions posits
that “[The experience] of positive emotions broadens
people’s momentary thought-action repertoires, which in
turn serves to build their enduring personal resources,
ranging from physical and intellectual resources to social
and psychological resources” (p. 218). For example,
Fredrickson (2001, p. 220) describes how the emotion
of joy has been shown to create “the urge to play, push
the limits, and be creative” (Ellsworth and Smith 1988,
Frijda 1986), whereas the emotion of interest creates
“the urge to explore, take in new information and experi-
ences, and expand the self in the process” (Csikszentmi-
halhyi 1990, Izard 1977, Ryan and Deci 2000, Tomkins
1962). In a framework similar to Fredrickson’s, Carver
(2003) has developed a model that treats positive feel-
ings as an error signal in a cognitive feedback loop that
directs incentive-seeking and threat-avoidance behaviors.
In this model, Carver (2003) posits that positive emo-
tions provide a signal that things “are going better than
necessary and are presumed to induce coasting” (p. 241).
As a result, Carver suggests that positive affect acts as
a signal that one can attend to something else, such as
creative work.
It is important to note that, by contrast, some recent
research suggests that negative affect may positively
influence creativity by fostering a perceived need for cre-
ative solutions and spurring action to implement such
solutions (George and Zhou 2002). However in this
research it does not appear that workload pressures are
high. Furthermore, it appears that negative mood only
enhances creativity in cases in which employees per-
ceive that creativity is recognized and rewarded in their
organizations. In these cases, it seems that creativity is
a salient focus of employee work and that employees
could, if they choose to, easily engage in creative behav-
ior. In sum, it appears that when workload pressures
are low, negative affect may be necessary to motivate
creative work, but when workload pressures are high,
positive affect may be important for allowing creative
thought to occur.
Psychological Safety and Creativity. Second, research
on psychological safety suggests that feeling that one
may be oneself without fear of image threats may moti-
vate workers to freely engage in innovative and playful
behavior at work. In this manner, Kahn (1990) found
that for summer camp counselors and for members of
an architectural firm psychological safety was associated
with personal engagement in work. Kahn (1990, p. 700)
defines personal engagement as expression of one’s “pre-
ferred self in task behaviors, and notes that such natural
self-expression underlies creativity (Perkins 1981, Kahn
1989).
Further work on psychological safety has shown that
individuals are more willing to take risks in learning
new skills when they feel that relevant others will not
shun them for mistakes. For example, in studies of chil-
dren and creativity, researchers have found that creat-
ing an environment that helped children feel accepted
and emotionally safe, and an absence of appraisal
enhanced their creativity and intellectual development
(Yakovleva 1994). Similarly, in an organizational con-
text, Edmondson (1999) found that manufacturing team
members’ perceptions of psychological safety were asso-
ciated with positive team learning behaviors (i.e., seek-
ing or giving feedback, making changes or improve-
ments, obtaining or providing expertise, experimenting,
and engaging in constructive conflict). In turn, these types
of learning behaviors have been shown to be central
to engaging in creative tasks in organizations (Amabile
1995).
High Cognitive Capacity. A third psychological state
that appears to be important for creative thinking is high
cognitive capacity, sometimes referred to as high work-
ing memory or high attention capacity. In general, psy-
chologists and psychiatrists have found that as cognitive
capacity declines, the brain’s ability “to solve problems
flexibly and creatively declines, and the number of mis-
takes increases” (Hallowell 2005, p. 3). The reason cited
is an overload of processing capacity of the frontal lobes
of the brain—the parts of the brain that govern executive
functioning such as decision making, planning, and pri-
oritization (Hallowell 2005). If the frontal lobes become
overwhelmed by too much information, the brain goes
into a sort of survival model, in which the lower brain—
the part of the brain that responds to fear and panic in
survival situations—takes over control of executive func-
tions. In such situations, Hallowell (2005) suggests that
“the manager makes impulsive judgments, angrily rush-
ing to bring closure to whatever matter is at hand. He
feels compelled to get the problem under control imme-
diately, to extinguish the perceived danger lest it destroy
him   He loses his creativity and his ability to change
plans” (p. 4).
By contrast, researchers have found that increased lev-
els of cognitive capacity may improve creative think-
ing. Psychological research in the areas of cognitive
load (van Merrienboer and Sweller 2005), and cognitive
busyness (Gilbert and Hixon 1991), for example, pro-
vides evidence that high levels of cognitive capacity may
Elsbach and Hargadon: A Framework of Workday Design
Organization Science 17(4), pp. 470–483, © 2006 INFORMS 477
improve problem solving of novel tasks and comprehen-
sive thinking during problem evaluation. To the extent
that creative thinking requires such processes (i.e., novel
problem-solving abilities and comprehensive thinking),
this research suggests that high cognitive capacity might
also increase creative output.
Research on cognitive load and learning, for exam-
ple, has shown that working memory may be limited
by increases in intrinsic cognitive load (i.e., cognitive
load imposed by the intrinsic nature of information pre-
sented, such as its complexity), extrinsic cognitive load
(i.e., cognitive load imposed by the way that information
is presented, such as its order), or both (van Merrienboer
and Sweller 2005). In turn, learning novel and complex
new tasks or skills is hindered by increases in both of
these forms of cognitive load. In support of these notions,
Kester et al. (2001, 2005) have shown that working mem-
ory becomes limited when learning new skills (i.e., trou-
bleshooting electrical circuits) requires that individuals
learn both a complex concept (e.g., an understanding
of how electrical circuits work) and a complex process
to carry out the skill (i.e., the sequence of steps neces-
sary for electrical circuit troubleshooting). If information
about both of these factors is presented simultaneously,
learning is hampered; if these learning tasks are carried
out sequentially, learning is improved. Thus, both the
intrinsic nature of the learning task (i.e., the complex-
ity of electrical circuits) and the way that information
about the task is presented (sequentially or simultane-
ously) affect the available working memory of learners
and, in turn, affect their ability to understand the task.
In the same manner, creative problem solving in high-
workload professional work contexts may involve both
complex concepts and complex processes, about which
information may be presented in a rushed, simultaneous
manner. As a result, it seems likely that creative problem
solving, similar to troubleshooting, would be hindered.
In the same vein, research on cognitive busyness and
categorization processes suggests that reduced cognitive
capacity may lead individuals to engage in narrowed or
stereotypical thinking. For example, Gilbert and Hixon
(1991) found that individuals who activated racial stereo-
types (i.e., the terms “shy, “short, “rice, “polite, and
“nip” activated in the presence of an Asian woman),
were more likely to apply those stereotypes to a later
evaluation of a person belonging to that race if they
were cognitively busy during the evaluation stage than
if they were not cognitively busy. In a related study,
Gilbert et al. (1988) found that individuals who were
cognitively busy were less likely than those who were
not to consider situational constraints (i.e., environmen-
tal factors that cause behaviors) when making judgments
of others. Results of these studies suggest that decreased
cognitive capacity hinders individuals’ abilities to think
comprehensively about an issue, and increases the likeli-
hood that they will rely on simple and even stereotypical
schemas in their person evaluations. In the same man-
ner, cognitive busyness might be predicted to increase
the likelihood that individuals will rely on simple, well-
worn, and stereotypical thinking when evaluating prob-
lems that require creative thinking.
2. Core Job Dimensions of Mindless Work
Hackman et al. (1975, p. 59) define core job dimen-
sions as the “key to objectively measuring jobs and to
changing them so that they have high potential to moti-
vate people who do them. They propose that the core
job dimensions of skill variety, task identity, task sig-
nificance, autonomy, and feedback help workers achieve
the critical psychological states required for high moti-
vation and productivity (i.e., experienced meaningful-
ness of work, experienced responsibility for work, and
knowledge of the actual results of work). In terms of our
model of mindless work, we define two additional core
job dimensions (shown in Figure 2) that enable work-
ers to achieve the three critical psychological states of
high attention capacity, psychological safety, and posi-
tive affect. These core job dimensions are low cognitive
difficulty, and low performance pressure.
Low Cognitive Difficulty. Tasks that are low in cog-
nitive difficulty may be completed with little cognitive
effort or attention, leaving ample brainpower for think-
ing about other things (though that thinking could be
related to other work that one performs). It is important
to note that we do not equate tasks that are low in cog-
nitive difficulty with tasks that are boring but difficult.
For example, these tasks are not the work of factory
floors that Roy (1960) describes in his famous treatise
“‘Banana Time’: Job Satisfaction and Informal Inter-
action. These factory tasks, although boring, required
concerted cognitive attention (a daydreaming machinist
could easily lose a machine part or a body part to the
stamper, saw, or stitcher). It is also important to note
that low cognitive difficulty tasks are not the same as
leisure (Neulinger 1981), i.e., they are not activities that
are done for pure enjoyment and that serve no other pro-
ductive purpose. Low cognitive difficulty tasks are easy
but scheduled work, not simply breaks from difficult
work tasks. As a result, tasks that are low in cognitive
difficulty do not require that workers come up with cre-
ative ideas on the spot. Instead they provide the attention
capacity that allows creative thinking to be an unex-
pected by-product of work. That is, they let creativity
happen, rather than force it to be done.
As depicted in Figure 2, we propose that low cognitive
difficulty may enhance professional creativity by sup-
porting the psychological state of high attention capac-
ity. Psychologists have long known about the detrimental
effects of extended periods of cognitively taxing tasks
that drain attention capacity. In his 1890 work, The
Principles of Psychology, for example, William James
Elsbach and Hargadon: A Framework of Workday Design
478 Organization Science 17(4), pp. 470–483, © 2006 INFORMS
proposes that prolonged periods working on cognitively
difficult tasks may lead individuals to a state of directed
attention fatigue (i.e., difficulty focusing on tasks, and
feelings of irritability).
In more recent work on environment and behav-
ior, psychologists have examined the means by which
one’s work environment might facilitate recovery from
directed attention fatigue and thus improve one’s over-
all attention capacity (Kaplan and Kaplan 1983). These
researchers suggest four characteristics of a work envi-
ronment that restore cognitive capacity: (1) fascina-
tion with the environment that “draws one’s attention
effortlessly such as a babbling brook, the stir of
leaves, or the chirps of baby birds”; (2) being away from
one’s routine work, such as taking a “mental break by
gazing out the window, or a walk in the woods”; (3)
becoming immersed in an experience outside of one’s
routine work; and (4) being in an environment that is
compatible with one’s goal of restoring cognitive capac-
ity “such that directed attention is not needed and is
allowed to rest” (p. 78).
Tasks with low cognitive difficulty may allow cogni-
tive restoration and high attention capacity by providing
components of the second and fourth of these charac-
teristics. That is, the act of engaging in tasks that are
low in cognitive difficulty is compatible with restoring
cognitive capacity by allowing for mental breaks away
from the cognitively taxing, yet routine, work that pro-
fessionals engage in a majority of the time (Nickerson
1999, Sternberg 1999).
At the same time, tasks that are low in cognitive dif-
ficulty may stimulate more brain function than simply
resting. For example, researchers have found that simple
rote tasks, such as chewing gum, increase cognitive per-
formance on short-term memory tasks (Wilkinson et al.
2002). Such tasks are suggested to improve heart rate
and blood flow to the brain, without taxing cognitive
capacity. In addition, research on breakthrough thinking
while working on other tasks has shown that engaging
in a simple task allows the mind to free itself from an
unproductive fixation on a difficult task, thus opening
new and more fruitful lines of thinking (Smith 1995).
Finally, in research on cognitive overload, researchers
have suggested that simple tasks may clear the mind and
prevent the brain from entering survival mode (Hallowell
2005). Thus, Hallowell suggests that employees “do an
easy rote task, such as resetting the calendar on your
watch or writing a memo on a neutral topic” (p. 7) to
quiet alarmist messages from the lower brain that inter-
fere with creative thinking. Together, this research high-
lights the importance of engaging in other, less-taxing
tasks (e.g., mindless work)—and not just idle time—as
a means to improve creativity (Simon 1966).
Low Performance Pressure. We also argue (as shown
in Figure 2) that tasks that are viewed as having low
performance pressures may promote the states of psy-
chological safety and positive affect. First, research on
objective self-awareness and self-monitoring (the pro-
cess of checking one’s behavior and comparing it to
some benchmark or target; Snyder 1987) supports the
notion that low performance pressure promotes psycho-
logical safety. A focus on the self is likely to occur
in situations where personal performance standards are
salient (Fiske and Taylor 1991). Such a self-focus can
cause considerable distress in cases where people com-
pare themselves to an ideal performance standard and
fall short (Steenbarger and Aderman 1979). In the worst
cases, it may cause workers to feel guilt, shame, or
embarrassment for not performing adequately compared
to some real or imagined standard (Leary 1995). By con-
trast, when the demands of work are not great and per-
formance standards are not salient, people focus more
on the environment than on themselves (Lewis 1991).
A second stream of research that supports the link
between low performance pressure and psychological
safety is work on play in organizations. This work sug-
gests that tasks that are viewed as merely play may
encourage creativity by reducing performance pressures.
For example, recent research has shown that merely
labeling a task as play (versus work) can change indi-
viduals’ cognitive approach to tasks (Glynn 1994, Tang
and Baumeister 1984). In this vein, Glynn (1994) found
that labeling a word puzzle exercise as play led partic-
ipants to attend more to information about the quality
of their performances, make more elaborate and image-
laden responses, and become more intrinsically moti-
vated than participants who encountered the same task as
a work project. The work participants were more inter-
ested in the quantity of their performances, made more
efficient and goal-directed responses, and appeared more
extrinsically motivated.
Finally, there is evidence that low performance pres-
sures may support creativity by inducing positive affect.
Considerable research has shown that stress is associ-
ated with lower levels of positive affect and higher lev-
els of negative affect (Carver and Scheier 1994). More
specifically, researchers have recently found that stress
related to work performance may lower levels of pos-
itive affect. For example, researchers have found that
critical self-perfectionism—a personality trait associated
with constant and harsh self-scrutiny and overly crit-
ical evaluations of one’s own behavior—is associated
with lower levels of daily positive affect, in part because
it leads to stress over daily events at work (Dunkley
et al. 2003). By contrast, other research shows that mak-
ing favorable (versus unfavorable) social comparisons to
professional peers (in terms of their work performance)
leads to higher positive and lower negative affect (Buunk
et al. 2001). Such favorable comparisons may be more
likely under conditions of low performance pressure.
Elsbach and Hargadon: A Framework of Workday Design
Organization Science 17(4), pp. 470–483, © 2006 INFORMS 479
3. Implementing Concepts of Mindless Work
Hackman et al. (1975) call implementing concepts the
“specific action steps aimed at improving both the qual-
ity of the working experience for the individual and
his [or her] work productivity” (p. 60). In their model
of job enrichment, these concepts include combining
tasks, forming natural work units, establishing client
relationships, vertical loading, and opening feedback
channels. In our extension, the implementing concepts
that improve the creative experience and output of pro-
fessionals include (1) requiring professionals to perform
simple but necessary tasks, and (2) engaging in periodic
time-orientations of work. These implementing concepts
support the core job characteristics described above.
Required Performance of Simple, Easily Mastered, but
Necessary Tasks. The first implementing concept is the
requirement that even more qualified professionals be
required to perform some simple and easily mastered
tasks that are not a typical parts of their work duties, but
are nevertheless necessary for effective organizational
functioning and will not get done if the professional
assigned to them neglects them. An airline executive,
for example, might periodically schedule time to help
load baggage for an hour, as did Southwest Airlines
CEO Herb Kelleher (Freiberg and Freiberg 1998). Sim-
ilarly, technicians and engineers might schedule time to
help with routine maintenance or cleaning chores (e.g.,
each technician must clean the lab one day a week), or
service tasks (e.g., each engineer must check and fill
supply cabinets once a week). Because such tasks may
be quickly mastered, they do not tax one’s cognitive
capacities when performed on a periodic basis. As such
they support the core job dimension of low cognitive
difficulty. Furthermore, such easily mastered tasks sup-
port the core job dimension of low performance pressure
because almost anyone can do them effectively, and thus
there is little status attached to performing them well.
These links are depicted in Figure 2.
At the same time, by requiring and scheduling such
important but easily mastered tasks, supervisors ensure
that these chores become nonnegotiable parts of the
professional workday that are unlikely to be neglected.
This is because, unlike scheduling free time, schedul-
ing required but simple tasks makes the professional an
important part of the functioning organization and adds
the norms of responsibility, obligation, and teamwork to
the pressures to carry out these tasks when assigned.
Although critical to the effectiveness of mindless work
as a conduit for creativity, requiring easily mastered
tasks of professionals may be a hard sell for many
of today’s professionals. Current working norms have
resulted in recognition of fire fighting (i.e., the heroic
work of professionals who move serially from one cri-
sis to the next) as a marker of high-status profession-
als. Under such conditions, mindful work tasks often
sweep aside the more routine (and mindless) tasks of
the workday and week—from individual acts such as
cleaning one’s desk to more social interactions such as
attending weekly staff meetings. However, for mindless
work tasks to be effective, both the individual involved
and the entire work group must recognize the value of
engagement with such work. Although scheduling does
not guarantee these tasks will be given their due time, it
provides a legitimacy and regularity that reinforces the
value of easily mastered work.
Periodic Time Orientation of Work. A second imple-
menting concept for our framework is the notion that
professionals should periodically engage in time-oriented
(versus task-oriented) work. Specifically, we propose
that, periodically, working on the clock (versus on a
project) supports the design of work that is low in per-
formance pressures (see Figure 2).
The experience and meaning of work for modern pro-
fessional workers is centrally defined by their view of
it as task oriented versus time oriented. Professionals,
by definition, work in a task orientation: They measure
their performance based on tasks completed. By con-
trast, lower-level workers are routinely required to work
in a time orientation: They measure their performance
by hours on the job. The difference between these two
orientations is great and is associated with perceptions
of work as high status and desirable (task oriented) or
low status and undesirable (time oriented). Furthermore,
task-oriented work, in theory, allows workers more con-
trol over the timing and pacing of their work than does
a time orientation. Ciulla (2000) notes,
The task versus time orientation of work explains why we
experience the work we do at home differently from work
we do at [time-oriented jobs]. We don’t say “I have to put
in six hours of work today [at home]. Instead we say, “I
have to do the laundry, clean, mow the lawn, cook din-
ner, etc. These tasks may take four, six, or eight hours.
Some people enjoy puttering around the house. Puttering
is engaging at random in a series of tasks, usually fixing,
arranging, or making things. We freely engage in putter-
ing and we do so without a sense of time or urgency.
(p. 184)
Research suggests that both blue- and white-collar
workers prefer to have control over how long they work
because it allows them to schedule in free time as desired
(Ciulla 2000). In turn, researchers have shown that hav-
ing such control may result in desirable work outcomes
for both employees and their organizations. For exam-
ple, studies of reduced-load workers (workers who work
fewer than average hours and have more flexibility and
control over their work schedules) have shown that peri-
odic breaks from work to concentrate on other life goals
(e.g., family, hobby, interests) help to increase workers’
productivity, creativity, and sense of satisfaction (Buck
et al. 2001, Schor 1991).
Elsbach and Hargadon: A Framework of Workday Design
480 Organization Science 17(4), pp. 470–483, © 2006 INFORMS
Despite these findings, reports show that extreme
workload pressures may lead to a relentlessly mind-
ful work day, in which there is no real control over
how long one works on each task (i.e., profession-
als work on the task that is the most pressing, until
another emergency arises; Ciulla 2000). Organizational
researchers have found that contexts that combine high-
time pressures for work output with expectations of high
quality of work performance may produce a conflict
in which employees have to choose between a time or
task orientation (Moyle 1995). The stress associated with
such contexts has been shown to increase negative affec-
tivity and decrease job satisfaction (Moyle 1995). In
these situations, periodically adopting a time orientation
of work (e.g., working on a task whose performance is
measured by time on the job, rather than quality of out-
put) may actually feel like a break. Instead of having
a dozen projects that all demand attention, the profes-
sional filling supply bins for an hour would only have
that task to attend to, and would not feel pressure to
complete additional tasks, or even to complete more than
an adequate amount of the task at hand (e.g., more than
necessary to meet daily quotas).
In a similar way, Eisenhardt and Brown (1998) de-
scribe how using time pacing to schedule the completion
of new product development in high-tech firms helps
give employees a sense of predictability in their work.
Eisenhardt and Brown argue that such predictability pro-
vides a sense of control to employees who work in
chaotic and fast-paced industries, and may allow them
to devote more cognitive resources to creative problem-
solving than to time-pressure anxieties. Thus, we suggest
that professional workdays that vary between task and
time orientation may allow professionals to experience
breaks from their chaotic mindful work to allow them
to feel a sense of predictability and control, as well as
to provide them with the cognitive capacity to work cre-
atively on other problems.
Discussion: New Thinking About Creativity
and Work Design in Professional Work
Our framework of workday design (i.e., a sequencing of
mindful and mindless work over the course of a work-
day) is meant to be applied, specifically, to professional
work that requires creative thinking. As such, this frame-
work suggests several new ways of thinking about pro-
fessional work design and creativity. These new direc-
tions in thinking include recognizing the role of creativ-
ity and its antecedents in work design, and supporting
creativity in high-workload contexts by designing the
workdays versus the job or tasks of professionals.
The Role of Creativity and Its Antecedents in
Models of Work Design
A first implication of our theorizing is to recognize the
role of creativity and its antecedents in models of work
design. On the one hand, our framework suggests that
the original job characteristics model was probably more
supportive of creativity than most gave it credit for. In
particular, it appears that this original model was sup-
portive of the psychological states of positive affect and
psychological safety through the design of interesting
and autonomous work, which in turn supported creativ-
ity as an output. On the other hand, our framework also
suggests that chronically high-workload contexts may
undermine these critical psychological states, and thus
weaken the effect of work design on creative output.
Both of these findings suggest that including creativity
as an explicit outcome in models of work design may
be important to understanding the full potential of such
models, and to uncovering other key mediating variables
(i.e., critical psychological states such as high attention
capacity) that enhance creative output.
This implication fits with a small amount of recent
research that suggests that there may be important medi-
ating factors that link characteristics of work design
(e.g., job autonomy, skill variety) with innovation or cre-
ativity in less stressful work settings (Unsworth et al.
2005, Dorenbosch et al. 2005, Ramamoorthy et al.
2005). For example, in a study of 450 Dutch administra-
tive employees, Dorenbosch et al. (2005, p. 133) found
that jobs with high skill variety led to increased inno-
vative work behavior (e.g., generating new solutions to
old problems or eliminating obstacles in the process of
idea implementation). Dorenbosch et al. suggest that this
effect is due to the mediating variable of perceived own-
ership of work problems. That is, high skill variety leads
to greater ownership of work problems, and in turn leads
to greater innovative work behavior to solve those prob-
lems. Similarly, in two other studies, Ramamoorthy et al.
(2005) and Unsworth et al. (2005) found that job auton-
omy was linked to innovative behavior through the medi-
ating variable of requirement or obligation to innovate.
These studies suggest that giving workers job auton-
omy increases their perceived obligation to innovate, and
thus, leads them to exhibit more innovative behavior.
Together, these studies suggest that a focus on mediating
variables (such as psychological states) is important for
the effective design of professional work.
Designing Workdays, Not Jobs or Tasks
A second implication of our theorizing is to explic-
itly recognize how high-workload contexts undermine
many of the benefits of job or task design for profes-
sionals. Our framework suggests an alternative approach
in such contexts: Designing the workday of profession-
als to alternate between any type of challenging work
and bouts of mindless work. This perspective suggests
that enhancing professional worker creativity in high-
workload contexts requires scholars to look beyond the
dimensions of broad jobs or individual tasks (e.g., are
they challenging? do they provide feedback?) to the
Elsbach and Hargadon: A Framework of Workday Design
Organization Science 17(4), pp. 470–483, © 2006 INFORMS 481
dimensions of the workday (i.e., is it balanced between
mindless and mindful work?). It also suggests that orga-
nizations may not need to worry as much about design-
ing tasks that are overly challenging, or entire jobs that
have too many challenging dimensions, as they do about
designing workdays that are relentlessly mindful.
This is an important distinction. Most research that
links work demands to enhanced intrinsic motivation
has focused on managing the demands and challenge
of broadly defined jobs (van Yperen and Hagedoorn
2003). For example, in their demand-control model of
job demands, Karasek and his colleagues (Karasek 1979,
Karasek and Theorell 1990) argue that what they call
active jobs (i.e., tasks that are demanding but also allow
for worker control and autonomy) will both decrease job
strain and increase intrinsic motivation. These arguments
have been supported by a few empirical studies (Parker
and Sprigg 1999, Theorell and Karasek 1996, van Yperen
and Hagedoorn 2003).
At the same time, there is evidence that, even in high-
demand and low-control jobs, workers may be intrinsi-
cally motivated if they can incorporate breaks into their
mindful workday by periodically enlisting the help of
coworkers. For example, van Yperen and Hagedoorn
(2003) found that job-social support (e.g., “I can ask my
supervisor for help when things get tough, “I can ask
coworkers for help if I need it”) was associated with
high intrinsic motivation, even for workers who occupied
high-demand jobs. It seems reasonable that what these
job-social-support items measure, at least in part, is a
periodic lessening of the mindful work that is required of
workers. Furthermore, these items imply that job-social
support comes at intervals (i.e., only periodically, when
demands become high), suggesting that periodic breaks
from mindful work are being inserted into the workday
by employees. Thus, it appears that when workers are
given jobs that they cannot design, they may find cre-
ative ways to design the flow of their workday to allow
for more creativity.
Limitations
Although our framework of workday design illuminates
many new dimensions relevant to improving creativ-
ity among professional workers, it is not without its
limitations. First, it is important to recognize that this
model is explicitly intended for application to creative
jobs in chronically high-workload contexts. In contexts
where creativity is required but workload is not high,
the need for mindless work may not be critical, and may
not provide great improvements in creative output. In
these contexts there may be other variables (such as the
requirement or obligation for creativity discussed above)
that are more important for creative output than peri-
odic mindless work. Future research may investigate the
threshold levels of workload pressure at which mindful
work becomes relentlessly mindful, and creative poten-
tial declines. Second, as noted earlier, our model does
not specify how to schedule mindless work between
more mindful tasks. Empirical work may be neces-
sary to determine how long such mindless work tasks
should last and how often they should occur. Finally, we
acknowledge that the term mindless work may not be the
best choice for describing a model of workday design to
professional workers. Professionals may respond more
positively to terms such as hands-on time or recharge
time as descriptors for mindless work that is done on the
factory floor or in the office. Clearly, future studies need
to address how best to position and present a framework
of workday design that includes bouts of mindless work.
Conclusion
Workdays consumed by tasks having low cognitive
complexity, little significance, and unchallenging perfor-
mance expectations are exactly what the job character-
istics model and work design were meant to remedy.
However, after 30 years of application—and its dissem-
ination into the design of professional work—there may
be reasons for recognizing the value of small doses of
mindless work in the workdays of professionals. Such
mindless tasks, introduced into otherwise chronically
overenriched work, may provide critical opportunities
for reflection and reinvigoration. The jazz composer
Miles Davis was noted for his recognition that the qual-
ities of musical pieces are not captured in the arrange-
ment of the notes, but also in the arrangement of
the silences between notes. A similar perspective may
apply to understanding work design—by recognizing
that the qualities of work performance may hinge not
just on the nature of mindful tasks, but also on the nature
of the mindless tasks in between.
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The goal of this handbook is to provide the most comprehensive, definitive, and authoritative single-volume review available in the field of creativity. The book contains twenty-two chapters covering a wide range of issues and topics in the field of creativity, all written by distinguished leaders in the field. The volume is divided into six parts. The introduction sets out the major themes and reviews the history of thinking about creativity. Subsequent parts deal with methods, origins, self and environment, special topics and conclusions. All educated readers with an interest in creative thinking will find this volume to be accessible and engrossing.