It is all too easy to focus on the enjoyable stuff, and leave the hard work until later.
And such bad habits may actually be reinforced by our education system, with its emphasis on short pieces of written work such as essays, which can be done in a focused burst of effort. Indeed, as a student I often got better marks for essays that I left till later, perhaps because they had more coherence through being written with maximum attention and in a single sitting.
|Deadlines cause a gradual increase of pressure. Image by hufse|
So can last-minute pressure be a positive thing?
"nothing more useless than a bored archaeologist"
The benefits of pressure are humorously suggested in Douglas Adams' 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' where main character Arthur Dent converses with a clone named Lintilla:
LINTILLA: Come! You can help us. We’ve a lot of digging to do and the automatic drill’s broken down.
ARTHUR: I don’t think you can dig your way off a planet, can you?
LINTILLA: No. I said we’re archaeologists.
ARTHUR: Ah! You don’t look as if you’re in good condition for digging with your arm in a sling. Is it broken?
LINTILLA: Oh no. It’s just a pseudo-fracture.
LINTILLA: Pseudo-fracture. It’s artificially induced. All the pain, swelling, and immobility of a fracture, without the inconvenience of a fracture itself.
ARTHUR: Oh. Is that good?
ARTHUR: Yes, particularly?
LINTILLA: Well, you wouldn’t want me to have a broken arm would you?
ARTHUR: Well no, of course not. I mean I hardly know you.
LINTILLA: Right. But the effect is useful.
ARTHUR: Is it?
LINTILLA: Yes, of course it is. Crisis Psychology: the benefits of working under extreme pressure - nothing more useless than a bored archaeologist.
It appears that Adams invented this term - when the expression 'crisis' is used in real psychology, it tends to refer to traumatic life events and people suffering from PTSD.
However, after a few years of thinking about it, the quote started to make some sense to me. Perhaps the it was the pressure of those essay deadlines that made me work better (or at least harder).
But as anyone who has given a speech or done a music exam can tell you, pressure can be destructive, too.
The Yerkes-Dodson Law
One of psychology's oldest theories can help to explain why pressure is sometimes useful and sometimes harmful. The Yerkes-Dodson Law (Yerkes and Dodson, 1908) states that performance is best when the arousal/stress level is medium, and people perform less well at either low or high levels of arousal:
|The Yerkes-Dodson Law - peak performance comes at|
a medium level of arousal or stress. (Image source: here)
For most people working towards a deadline, they will move gradually from the left-hand side to the right-hand side of the above graph:
- At the beginning, procrastinating and working slowly and sporadically (low arousal, low performance)
- As the deadline approaches, working hard and efficiently (medium arousal, high performance)
- In the final hour(s), working frantically and making errors (high arousal, low performance)
What does this mean in practice?
Deadlines are a fact of life - and if we move them (by getting an extension), that simply defers the problem.
But rather than relaxation, what we may actually need is more pressure, earlier on. This will help us reach peak performance - or the state of 'flow' - sooner, and therefore achieve more.
Coming soon: 5 ways to increase the stakes and get better results
Please comment below if you have experienced good or bad effects of pressure.
Yerkes, R.M. and Dodson, J.D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459–482.