Why Do We Work Better Under Pressure?

Do you produce your best work if you wait until the last minute to do it, and are under the stress of an impending deadline? If you don't, chances are you know someone who does. But why? What is it about the tension of putting things off that gets our creative juices flowing?

Photo Credit: Ed Schipul // CC BY 2.0

Short answer? Actually it doesn't, and if you think it does, you're deluding yourself in a way that could be destructive.

When I spoke with University of Calgary's Pierce Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation and an expert in the field of procrastination research, he told me that the people who most needed to hear this news would be the least likely to confront it, learn about it and deal with it.

"Procrastination is a perfect disease with a perfect means," he says. "It's beautiful and it's sick – like a virus that perpetuates itself by making its host avoid it." You're not going to succumb, though, right? You're going to read this straight through. Or at least maybe bookmark it. Right? Have a look at it this weekend? Sure you are.

The Myth

"The idea that people perform better under pressure is a myth," says psychologist Tim Pychyl, director of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University and author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle. Pychyl tells us that, to his knowledge, there is not one study that supports the claim that people perform better under the gun of a fast-approaching deadline. In fact, he says, the research says just the opposite.

Stress makes it harder for your brain to function, burdening it with cognitive loads that can interfere with your ability to not only learn and assimilate knowledge, but translate ideas into meaningful information. People under temporal pressure have been shown time and time again to make more errors of omission (not doing or including something they should have) and commission (doing something, but doing it wrong or poorly) than people working on a more protracted time scale. People obviously respond differently to stress, says Pychyl, so these studies reflect a lot of individual differences when it comes to how much we can tolerate before having our performance suffer – but suffer it most certainly does.

That's not to say people don't work under pressure or put things off. All of us do, to varying degrees. "It is 100% natural for us to procrastinate," says Steel. "It's working with the future in mind that's abnormal." A quick video from AsapSCIENCE does a good job of summing up why:

"Human motivation is highly influenced by how imminent the reward is perceived to be," explains AsapSCIENCE's Mitchell Moffit explains. "The further away the reward is, the more you discount its value. This is often referred to as present bias, or hyperbolic discounting."

There is evidence that present bias and hyperbolic discounting are bound up with the well-documented tendency for us to think of our future selves from a third-person perspective. Last year, New York University psychologist Hal Hershfield documented this case of temporally split identity by monitoring test subjects' brain activity while they described their current selves, future selves, and strangers forgoing small, immediate rewards in favor of larger, long-term ones. His team observed brain patterns that suggest we think of our future selves like a person unknown to us. His findings imply that when we say we're going to leave something for tomorrow, it's almost like we're leaving it for a stranger to do.

Again – our proneness to postponement is symptomatic of very natural, very deeply rooted mental processes. In a thought-provoking essay that digs into the metaphysical and philosophical underpinnings of why we so consistently delay action, psychologist and behavioral economist George Ainslie calls procrastination "as fundamental as the shape of time" – more fundamental, even, than our desire for sex, drink, drugs and food. Even gambling, considered by some to be a vice borne of our basest drives, carries with it the promise of an oh-so-intoxicating short-term thrill. But procrastination, Ainslie argues, requires no great pleasure to drive it. And yet it persists, perniciously, having perhaps lost whatever adaptive purpose it might have served in our evolutionary past. Our propensity to drag our heels, he concludes, "could well be called the basic impulse."

The Pitfalls of Rationality

What's most fascinating about procrastination is its ability to maintain such a firm grip on our lives even as we examine it at arm's length, affirm its existence and ferret out its tricks. At the heart of this struggle is a rather unfortunate failure of human rationality. Our capacity to question and understand by reason and logic has carried our species far, but, when it comes to procrastination, rationality's role is often that of a wicked double-agent.

I'm speaking, here, of our tendency to explain our habits of procrastination retroactively. It is through rationality that we come to understand procrastination, but it is through rationalization that it preserves its hold on our daily responsibilities. This is how the myth of working better under pressure persists.

We tell ourselves all sorts of logical sounding lies to not only enable our procrastination in the moment, but justify it after the fact. A big one, says Pychyl is the belief that your motivational state needs to match the task at hand. It doesn't.

Pychyl and his colleagues have conducted a series of studies that use electronic pagers to track the way people engage in and experience procrastination over time. The setup is fairly straightforward: Pychyl's team distributes the pagers to a group of test participants and sends the subjects on their way. Over the next couple of weeks, his team pings them periodically with questions like "What are you doing?" "Is there something else you should be doing?" "How are you feeling?" and "What are you thinking?" In some studies, Pychyl has participants rate their current ongoings and postponed obligations according to how stressful they perceive the task to be.

"Early in the game people will tell you 'I'll feel more up to [the postponed task] tomorrow, or 'I work better under pressure,'" Pychyl says. "But when we page people during their last minute efforts, we don't get people saying 'this is how I like to work'; they say 'I wish I'd started earlier.'"

There are also times in our lives when we manage to pull off the last-minute push with surprising ease, clarity or creativity. This, says Pychyl, is the exception, not the rule – "but we'll hold on to this example like gold to justify every time thereafter."

Then there is the case of self-handicapping, which gives procrastinators an out for putting our self-esteem on the line. If we succeed, we point to that success and say "Look how well I did!" If we fail, that failure is easy to write off. "Oh," we tell ourselves, "I threw that together in a few hours. Just imagine what I could accomplish if I really applied myself!"

For many of us, though, total self-application remains stranded in the realm of the imagination. If any one of us works "better" under pressure, then, it is because we only work under pressure. Avoiding this pitfall requires acknowledging our limitations and taking measures to avoid it, every day.

In reading this, you've already taken the first step. We won't deal with the second step here – but the good folks at Lifehacker have some posts to get you started.