“I Work Better Under Pressure”…Really?

Calendar page with 22nd circled in red reads Deadline

Many people sincerely believe they work better under pressure.

Some experts and researchers beg to differ.

Dr. Bill Knaus, writing at psychologytoday.com, says:

Avoiding pressure may be a primary reason why you delay. However, there comes a time when you have a lesser of two evils situation. Which is worse: starting at the last minute or not at all?

If you wait until you are nearly out of time, then rush to finish, you are probably procrastinating. Working better under pressure is an excuse. For example, how do you work better when distracted by stress?

He’s right. When people procrastinate, they end up realizing — at a certain point — that it’s either do or die. Rather than die, in most cases, they end up doing. “Working under pressure” gets the credit as a good thing, but it actually was the lesser of two evils.

People often ask me, as a therapist, why they procrastinate. Sometimes they put things off to a point where they end up not doing them. I’ll ask them, “Did you want to do those things?” The answer may be yes. My reply is, “But you must not have wanted them as badly as you thought.” It’s not rocket science.

When you really want something, you do it. When you don’t want to do it — or you don’t want it as much as you think you do — it naturally gets pushed to the back burner. Remember, there are many things competing for your time, at least if you’re a busy (if not overcommitted) person. While you might sincerely wish to accomplish a particular task, given all the competition for your time and attention, maybe you don’t want to accomplish that task as much as you want to accomplish other things.

You may do worse when you’ve put yourself in a time bind and you feel distracted by emotional commotion and stress. That’s not working better under pressure. You may frustrate easily and snap at anyone who interrupts you. That’s not working better under pressure. You may go over the same ground, have trouble finding misplaced materials, and leave gaps in your work. That’s not working better under pressure. These are examples of procrastination-related inefficiencies that can lead to more inefficiency and stress.

What creates the illusion that you’re “working better under pressure” is the presence of a deadline. Many people realize, because of struggles with procrastination, that with the presence of a deadline, they can do better. If “pressure” means a rational and achievable deadline, then by that standard you possibly do work better under pressure. But if “pressure” means the kind of frenzied, hurried, not-quite-focused and irritable state of mind described above, then it’s a highly questionable fallacy.

If you’re convinced you do work better under pressure, you don’t have to make a radical change right away. Just consider the possibility that it’s really deadlines and structure/accountability (self-imposed or external) that’s working for you. Work to make sure that you’re taking on a reasonable yet still ambitious and challenging amount (assuming you’re ambitious); and don’t mindlessly take on the impossible while kidding yourself that this is what productivity and achievement look like.

Structure, deadlines and things like “appointments with myself” to do certain tasks correspond with rational pressure. “I’m putting aside time to work on this task.” Treat it like an appointment.  Don’t break appointments with yourself with any more ease than you’d break appointments with another person. Stay calm, focused, and don’t treat the possibility of missed (rational) deadlines as catastrophes. Just adapt and keep your momentum going, without the rush or hysteria which might accompany madness — but has little to do with genuine productivity.


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