Many people think they work best under pressure, but that doesn’t mean they like it. A new book suggests that working under pressure gives us a rush even though we’re not necessarily good at it.
“People get rewarded neurologically when they are under pressure. What essentially happens is you get a dose of dopamine and cortisone and adrenalin,” says Kory Kogon, lead author of “The 5 Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity” (Simon & Schuster, 2014).
That hormonal surge is a main driver of procrastination and the reason we believe that “the last minute” brings out the best in us, she adds.
As the pressure worsens and we get overwhelmed, our energy and enthusiasm begin to wane. But even then, our constant busyness makes us feel valuable and, indeed, our culture validates us. “If you’re not busy, there’s something wrong with you, so we wear it as a badge of honor,” says Kogon, global practice leader for productivity at FranklinCovey, a time management training firm based in West Valley City, Utah.
However, just because we’re busy does not mean we’re productive. It probably means we are devoting too much time to unimportant tasks, forcing ourselves yet again into crisis mode when an important deadline looms. And though our brain gets that chemical hit as the due date bears down, “We rarely do our best work under pressure,” Kogon says.
We may work hard and finish on time, but the “quality thinking” that produces great results tends to elude us when we’re stressed, tired and quite possibly panicked, she explains.
That’s not to say anxious brains have never produced brilliant results. Because it gets our adrenaline pumping, working under pressure can sometimes sharpen and sustain our focus and lead to last-minute insights, says Gerald Young, a psychologist in Toronto. “We all know that procrastination can be the worst thing at work,” he adds, “but at the same time, being overly prepared without spontaneity can also limit effectiveness depending on the complexity of the work.”
Complexity matters because at some point, a fired-up brain becomes a frazzled brain incapable of higher-order thinking.
But is some degree of pressure necessary to spur us to action? A take-charge attitude and the ability to discern the most important things to accomplish will amp up productivity while relieving pressure, Kogon says.
But unless the value of the work is “clear and personal,” we almost certainly need pressure in the form of deadlines, says Kevin Berchelmann, president of Triangle Performance in Spring, Texas.
“For instance, if I really want to make more money, I may not need the pressure of a deadline to do those things that improve my success,” he says.
But most individuals don’t reap the primary benefits of work projects. Not only can deadlines serve as a “motivator and reminder,” Berchelmann says, but they also help us prioritize our work accordingly.
The amount of pressure a deadline exerts ultimately depends on us. If we spend our days reacting to things like email pileups that seem to require our immediate attention but make little difference in terms of results, we will subject ourselves to last-minute stress when our work is due.
This behavior is common; perhaps that’s why we’ve convinced ourselves that we work well under pressure. In reality, Kogon says, we’ve redefined success as simply getting things done on time.
Perhaps we should pressure – nay, encourage – ourselves to aim a little higher.