“I Work Better Under Pressure!” (Seriously?)

By Susan de la Vergne


If you’re reading this, I bet you’ve said it: “I work better under pressure!”

You mean, then, that you (1) consistently do your best work when you have no time to double-check or review it; (2) always reach your creative peak when the clock is racing behind you; and (3) never fail to turn out your best when you stay late and you’re tired.

Seems unlikely.

We’ve all had the experience at some point of pulling off a great feat under pressure, and it was a kick! A neighborhood is plunged into darkness during a blizzard, and it’s your job to find the problem and restore power, and you do! A project manager is summarily fired, and you’re asked to take over. When you do, you learn that the testing process is stuck on a daunting problem, and the product is scheduled to release in a few days. Miraculously, you figure out what’s wrong, and the schedule is saved!

How about something less dramatic? You’ve lost track of your task list, and one morning you’re horrified to discover that in two days you’re teaching a class about how to use your new product. You haven’t done a thing to prepare. So you go home, make a pot of coffee, and lock yourself away for hours. The creative juices are really flowing (what’s in that coffee?) as you’re coming up with content, organizing it, banging out brilliant slides and handouts. In a single night, you pull together a masterpiece. Two days later, you deliver a great class. Everyone says so.

At the end of the day, you say to yourself, “Looks like I do my best work under pressure!”

You got lucky. That’s what really happened. In retrospect, it was kind of fun, and it worked out. There’s no harm in that—unless you make it part of your regular M.O., using it henceforth as an excuse to procrastinate. That’s the real downside of the phrase “I do my best work under pressure”—it becomes an excuse to put things off.

Some procrastination researchers (among them Dr. Timothy Pychyl at Carleton University in Ottowa) say that some of us enjoy the rush, the adrenaline surge that comes with rallying to a cause at the last minute and making it across the finish line in the nick of time. That’s probably what happened when you put that class together at the last minute. You blazed along, thanks to adrenaline (and caffeine). But should you live like that?

Bottom line: if you postpone the work just so you can enjoy the rush, it’s not likely to turn out well most of the time.

Procrastinating is a common problem. If you know you’re a procrastinator, you also know you’re not alone.

But did you know that procrastinating makes work assignments take longer? That you actually spend more time on something you don’t want to do when you put it off than if you do it promptly?

Example: in my corporate management career, the one thing I liked least about my job was the requisite monthly financial management work. Reviewing and revising financial reports, projecting expenses, figuring out accruals and depreciations, reviewing project accounting. Yech.

So I did what any normal, red-blooded manager with a long to-do list would do: I procrastinated. I could always find something more fun to work on. Pretty soon, our financial analyst would start emailing me. “I need your sign-off on the project expenses by tomorrow!” By the time I sat down to do what she wanted, it would be late and I would be tired, so I would put it away, still unfinished. Multiple emails, a few fits and starts, and then finally, back to the wall, I’d make myself do it.

Because I procrastinated, I was dogged by emails and reminders, emails that would never have made it to my in-box had I not procrastinated.. Because I procrastinated, I dragged myself to the assignment when I couldn’t really perform, then had to start over. That is time wasted!

Nobody has time to waste. If you procrastinate, that’s exactly what you’re doing: wasting time. So, then, the very simple moral of the story: don’t do that. (It is a choice, you know.)


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