I Work Best Under Pressure

I work best under pressure.

Have you ever heard someone say that? I have. In fact, I’ve even said it.

What does it mean that someone works best under pressure?

A Dialog

Many times you hear those words when someone is trying to justify their lack of progress on a task. The deadline is looming and, from the supervisor’s standpoint, there has been precious little done.

For example, here’s a hypothetical conversation between a supervisor and a worker.

Super: How’s that TPS report coming along?

Worker: It’s going well.

Super: How far along are you?

Worker: Actually, I haven’t started it yet. But I know what it needs to say.

Super: You do realize it’s due on my desk by the end of the day.

Worker: Yep.

Super: I’m curious. You’ve had this assignment for two weeks. Why haven’t you started work on it?

Worker: That’s how I work. I do my best work under pressure.

(This is what the worker wants the super to say)

Super: Wow, that’s a relief. I’m so glad you have it under control. You really are amazing. I see that all those long lunches and all the times you came in late and left early have not affected the quality of your work. Carry on!

(This is what the super wants to say)

Super: How about I call security and have them escort you from the building? Would that be enough pressure for you?

(This is what the super says)

Super: Uh huh. Right. Just make sure the report is on my desk by five o’clock. For your sake, I hope it’s right.

No doubt the report will miraculously appear.

Will it be right?

Will it even be adequate?


It may be that the worker was being truthful in saying that he or she works best under pressure. Or maybe the worker had given it some thought and knew exactly what needed to be in the report and that it would not take very long.

Then again, maybe not. For a hundred different reasons, the report may be inadequate or incomplete. Data might not be available that the worker thought would be there. A personal or family emergency could have arisen just as they sat down to work on the report. Or the worker could have just underestimated the amount of work required to finish the job.

The most likely case is that the report will be adequate but will also be missing important data or observations the worker could have included but did not.

Why not?

To understand one reason why not, we need to take a side excursion into the fascinating world of human thought.

Diffuse Thinking

Psychologists have identified two modes of thinking in which the human brain engages, the focused mode and the diffuse mode.

Focused mode is just as the name implies—we are focused on a single task or concept. When we are concentrating on something we are in focused mode.

Diffuse mode is what happen when our attention wanders. Focused attention is tiring and we tend to allow other thoughts to intrude or our eyes to wander around the room.

You would think that focused thinking would be good and should be engaged in as much as possible, and that diffuse mode is bad and should be discouraged.

You would be wrong.

Experiments in cognitive science have revealed a most interesting thing—when we remove our attention from a difficult or complex task, our minds continue to grind away, subconsciously.  It is during this diffuse mode thinking that many of our most creative ideas occur.

This is actually not such a new concept. I have heard many people say “I get my best ideas in the shower” or “I like to take a walk and take my mind off the problem…then the answer comes to me.” This is just the diffuse mode in action.

The Danger of Procrastination

I am a world-class procrastinator, so this is not a diatribe against procrastination, and certainly not against procrastinators. There are many, well-known disadvantages to putting off the tasks we should be working on. It creates stress (pressure!). We are unable to enjoy free time because the task is always niggling at our consciences. The constant feeling that we have undone tasks is exhausting to us, mentally.

But I would say that the greatest danger in procrastination is that it denies us the opportunity to engage the diffuse mode. This robs us of our best ideas, our most creative observations, and the solutions to our most pressing problems.

Of course, we are not always given enough time to complete our tasks. We don’t have much choice If we’re given a short deadline, jump right on it, and finish it just in time without much time to set it aside and let diffuse mode crunch on it. (Supervisors would do well to take this into consideration when setting deadlines!)

More often than not, however, we are given enough time. We, if we are of the procrastinating sort, squander it.

Fast First Draft

What do we do, then? How do we work so that we bring our focused and diffuse modes both to bear on the problems we’re solving?

If we’re just being lazy or distracted, then the obvious answer is to get off our collective butt and get to work. Unfortunately, I’ve known too many good folks who are neither lazy nor distracted, and yet they experience the same issues with procrastination.

There’s a lot to be said about procrastination, but right now I have one suggestion that might be helpful. This is based on the observation that many people, including me, have trouble just getting off the starting line.

My suggestion is to create a fast first draft. This sounds like writing advice, and it is, but it applies to any project. Create a fast first design. Create a rapid prototype. Do something quickly. You may end up discarding this work, but it will do several things for you.

1.     It gets you moving.

2.     You feel a sense of relief and confidence that you’re actually doing something.

3.     It’s a concrete point of departure to lead you to what you really want to say/design/build.

4.     It gives you sufficient time to receive constructive feedback from stakeholders and allows you the time to engage in diffuse mode thinking.

Whenever I’ve executed a fast first draft, I’ve experienced much more success in my tasks than when I am tentative, not making a move until I’m absolutely sure it won’t be wasted effort. No one likes to waste effort, but if you knock something out quickly and then get feedback, the rework may actually be reduced. You will find out if your headed in the wrong direction before you get too far down the road.

Perhaps more importantly, you’ll give yourself some time to take a break from the project, allowing your mind to ruminate in diffuse mode.

It may also help you avoid awkward conversations with your supervisor.