Do you work well under pressure?

lady-knox-887005-mThat is the first prompt for this month of daily blog posts, and I am stumped immediately. My answer(s)?

Often not. In terms of the flight or fight response, I definitely want to flee, or acquiesce … or sleep. A recent Atlantic article discussed the drowsiness that some people feel when faced with emotional pressure, and, like the author, I, too, have wondered “what was wrong with me. Why was my body, in the face of conflict, simply acquiescing? Where was the fight in me?”

Sometimes. It depends on the origin of the pressure. It also depends on whether the work or task or goal is personally meaningful. When other people are forcing me to do things that I care strongly about, I can definitely withstand the pressure better than if I couldn’t care less about the task. Notice, however, that I used the word “withstand.” It’s not as though the outside pressure helps me to do better; it’s just that it doesn’t get in my way.

What do we mean by pressure? Sometimes pressure comes from deadlines, not at all a bad kind of pressure in my experience. While we often rue and procrastinate in the face of deadlines, they also can be our best friends. In my work as a book indexer, for example, the short turn-around deadlines of two weeks not only keep me on task but also give the work a kind of urgency that strangely makes it more enjoyable, even allowing me to get into the flow that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has defined so well. No deadlines = no flow.

Writers might say they hate deadlines, but most of us know that some kind of deadline—whether from a publisher or ourselves—is far better than an attitude of “I’ll finish this whenever I feel like it.” (On the other hand, we also know writers who wrote fantastic first novels with no external deadlines whatsoever, but whose second books either go unwritten or fail to be as good as the first in the heat of pressure from a publishing contract.)

While our dream may be to quit all of our paying jobs and have 24/7 to write, experience suggests that such a life free from pressure may not be good for our writing careers. In the words of Mason Currey, author of “Keep Your Day Job,” having too much to do is also an unbeatable motivator. A writer at rest often stays at rest unless acted upon by some force or pressure, which is often a deadline.

In an interview with New ScientistSian Beilock talks about her research on how we perform under pressure. She offers several insights and tips, such as this for how to deal with worries that can undermine our performance:

“Getting people to write about their worries before they take a test or give a big presentation can really help. This seems counter-intuitive because writing down fears about what you are about to do might make them more noticeable. But, back to the computer metaphor, writing about your worries almost ‘downloads’ them so they are less likely to pop up and impact your performance. This is especially true for students who are habitually anxious about tests. In a recent paper we showed that writing about thoughts and feelings for 10 minutes before a test boosted scores from B- to B+.” Read More

I hope that after 31 days of writing about pressure I will have a better sense of what it means to me and how I react it, as well as how to use or manage (or avoid) it more effectively. How do you respond to pressure?