When the Pressure Is On

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?

2 thoughts on “When the Pressure Is On

  1. For years I have been under extreme pressure teaching about time and half…usually 7-8 classes to “make ends meet.” When one has too much to do in the time allotted, good time management and keeping track of the details is vital. Now that I am becoming a wise old crone, I can’t keep track of those details quite as well. I’m also less able to manage my time due to the outside challenges of the weather (it’s snowing AGAIN), other people’s needs, increased challenges from administration to change things or document change, and so forth. So as “making ends meet” has become less of a priority (the plight of the part-time professor is a topic for another time), my guilt over missed deadlines has lessened. One can only do what one can do. Over the years, I have found that physically I do not do well under pressure, but I have learned also that I become distracted when there is no pressure at all. So I certainly am now attempting to avoid the extreme pressure, but also am glad when I know deadlines. Knowing the rules gives a person agency. I can choose to work hard and meet the deadline, I can not meet the deadline and pay the consequences, or I can ask for an extension. I also find that I am better able to work hard on something (grading for example) when I am alone. Other people around mean interruptions which break the “flow” experience. I would think that to be a “writer,” one would have to be very disciplined and have control over one’s time to a large extent. Do you agree?

    • I agree with so much of what you wrote, especially not doing well physically under pressure and being in control of as much of my time as possible (easier now that our son is grown but somehow I still get myself in situations where more of my time is controlled by outside forces than I’d like). Finding that alone time is crucial. Sometimes I don’t know how I ever survived my schools days when so little time was private, and it’s so much worse now for young people–even when they are alone, they are not really alone.

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