Why I Don’t Work Better Under Pressure
I don’t mean to brag, but I’m like, really good at procrastinating.
When it comes to avoiding things I need to do, my ability to distract myself with literally anything else is not simply a skill, it’s a gift.
Take this very article you’re reading right now. I’m on the dwindling days of a pressing deadline to finish sorting out the last sticky chapters of my book manuscript, so really, the fact that I’m writing this piece at all is technically a diversion from this week’s mission.
Full disclosure: I’ve even procrastinated on writing this article, which I was trying to get done nice and early so I could focus on my manuscript with the ample time I’d created for myself this week while Adam was away and I had fewer distractions. It was a nice thought. Instead, I’ve procrastinated on my procrastination.
While I was talking to my assistant about this week’s focus and the ensuing myriad of ways I have and likely will continue to drag my heels, she mentioned that this would be a great topic for me to cover. She also benevolently wondered if it’s possible that I just do my best work under pressure, which is much kinder than the judgments I have on myself for dawdling, procrastinating, waiting until the last minute and getting distracted for, oh, just my entire lifetime.
So here I am, pulling back the curtain on my procrastination and the myth of working best under pressure, because this is a good topic to cover. I don’t imagine I’m alone.
On the one hand, my assistant is right: at first glance, I do tend to do my best work under pressure. However, I’m pretty sure that’s not because the pressure is turning my work into diamonds. Believe me, it isn’t.
On second glance, it’s actually that I tend to only actually do the work at all under pressure, and that is because I leave most of my tasks to the last minute. The pressure isn’t improving the quality of the work I produce. It’s only making me get into action, with a hefty dose of panic and self-loathing.
So no, I don’t believe I actually do my best work under pressure. I have simply developed a strong habit of leaving things until the last minute to do them, which means that when I’m doing work, I’m almost always under pressure from not having quite enough time to do what is needed.
Having not quite enough time to do things means I’m rushing, which leads to mistakes and not enough time for reviewing, revising or improving my work before it goes out.
You know the saying, “Measure twice, cut once”? My motto would be more like, “Eyeball it at the last minute and cut it quick and hope for the best because you won’t have time to fix it.”
If you don’t have enough time for reviewing/revising your work, you’re left needing every first attempt to be a home run. You need to be perfect, every single time you do anything ever, which none of us are, myself included (she admits, begrudgingly).
Now, it’s fair to say I’m pretty critical of my work. But doing it at the last minute means I find mistakes or improvements in hindsight. Then I get to make this off-the-side-of-my-desk, not-my-best work mean something about me and my skill and talent (and my worth and value as a human, too, for good measure). I’m left feeling like I’m lazy and half-assing my way through life, cheating myself out of doing really great work that really matters to me.
For the record, I could be talking about anything here: not only do I leave writing to the last minute, but also packing for a trip, returning calls or sending emails, putting away my laundry or driving to an appointment, to name but a few tasks upon which I can merrily procrastinate.
Leaving things to the last minute means I use adrenaline, shame and guilt as the fuel for getting things done, because they burn hot and fast, and at that late stage in the game, I’m going to need rocket fuel to get the thing done. I’m very accustomed to using adrenaline, shame and guilt to goad myself into action. I’ve done it for decades. It works, but it’s not very sustainable. It’s good for short bursts of action or productivity, not for continuous undertakings.
In case it’s not abundantly clear, this is not a pleasant experience, nor a particularly empowered way of living my life. It’s like trying to sprint a marathon. I’m living in a state of panic for the sake of productivity. I often feel like I’m not using my time: I feel like Time is using me.
Adding insult to injury, I can’t even enjoy the time I waste while I procrastinate, because all that time is laden with guilt, shame and obligation from what I should be doing instead. I constantly feel like Everything I Need To Do is hanging over my head — I have no boundaries because I’m not creating them, let alone keeping them. All my moments — even fun or peaceful ones — can end up feeling like stolen moments, time taken from what I should be doing that I’ve been putting off. I’m overwhelmed.
I don’t need a break from doing the work; I need a break from the way I’m showing up about it.
You should see the face I’m making right this very second. I can feel my stomach clench, because I’ve never actually taken the time to see how this Perfect System to Strive for Perfection and Never Reach It™ is working to create the experience of life I’m living. It’s like a bottomless fountain for feeling awful.
What I can see is that this system of waiting until the last minute is squeezing the joy out of my experience of life and kills any pride in what I create or accomplish. It leaves me not respecting my commitments to myself as a priority, not keeping my word to myself and eroding my faith and trust in me.
The reality is that I’m while I can perform under pressure, I’m not necessarily performing better than I would otherwise; I’ve just grown accustomed to using stress and pressure as motivators for doing work, period. And because it works, I keep doing it.
These are habits, not laws or truths. They are practiced, routine patterns of action that I’m accustomed to following. Since we tend to get good at what we practice, that’s why it feels like it works. Working under pressure is the only way I’ve been practicing.
What if I didn’t require distress or dire consequences to get stuff done?
Instead of making myself wrong for procrastinating, as I have done for a long time, I’m more present to the costs of this habitual pattern to my desired experience of life. Instead of simply “fixing” my procrastination problem or making myself wrong for it, I find myself more interested in creating a new, more desirable and enjoyable experience of life.
If you can relate to any of what I’ve shared above, the good news is that this is just a habit, and we can create new habits. The older the habit, the bigger it may seem and the harder it might feel to shift, but you and I, we can do anything big if we break it down small enough.
Do you feel like you do your best work under pressure, or at the last minute? Do you require a confronting deadline or dire consequence to actually get into action? Are you, like me, a little tired of using stress and precious time as leverage, and feeling like a hostage to your commitments?