In school, all the other kids who hadn’t started their assignments would freak out the night before it was due. Not me. Not because I’d planned it out weeks in advance and gotten things done the smart way. Heck no! I was just as unprepared as everybody else.
I had tried the “smart way” once. It was stupid, because I’d already refined my last-minute technique and was getting good grades, but I decided that I would be “responsible” and plan and research several weeks in advance and write the piece in responsible little chunks.
It sucked. Really sucked. It seemed my teacher agreed, because my grade sucked even more. Fortunately I managed to follow that assignment up with a last-minuter that was apparently so good it retroactively improved the assignment before it and gave me a better grade; little did the teacher know I wrote that assignment pretty drunk, and neither did my dad—which is a moot point now because he reads Lifehack.
Instead of letting the pressure to pull a last-minute assignment out of the hat get to me, I used it. Pressure is a fuel and if you embrace it rather than letting it get you emotional, you can put things off to the last minute and still do a good job, harnessing the energy that pressure builds up.
The way I embraced pressure as a motivator is probably what drove me to begin a Journalism degree I never finished (I suppose there just wasn’t enough pressure!) and, more importantly, what piqued my curiosity about how the mind works and how to get the best results from this piece of advanced technology that comes with no manual. In other words, leaving my high school assignments to the last minute is directly responsible for the fact that I write for a productivity blog today!
When we’re working on something without a sense of urgency and pressure, we’re usually stopping to check email or chat with the guy in the next cubicle in the process. When pressure kicks in, so does a great deal of focus and a degree of tunnel-vision that prevents us from getting distracted by unimportant things. I find that if I don’t feel like I’m intellectually alert enough to complete a task earlier in the day, by the time the pressure is on this problem doesn’t exist anymore and I’ve suddenly got the capacity to take it on.
So what’s the key to the second part of that headline—how to use pressure to get more done without freaking out?
It’s really simple: trust your mind.
Trust your mind to cope with the pressure and know that you’ll deliver what is needed, given the right amount of time (Parkinson’s Law at work).
Trust pressure to kick in at the right time; if it kicks in too late, there’s a good chance you’ve mentally underestimated the time the task will take to complete. Dissect the work in advance so you have an accurate estimate of the time it’ll take to complete and the requisite sense of pressure will kick in when it needs to kick in.
Most objections to this way of working come up when people claim it won’t work for projects that take more than a couple of hours to complete. That’s not true—if you know how long the job will take and when it needs to be done by, pressure can kick in days or weeks in advance. That said, I only ever utilize pressure to help me produce when the task takes less than two or three hours.
This isn’t always the best way to work. I don’t use this technique for 80% of the work that I do. But it comes in handy for the other 20% that I need extra motivation for—things I really don’t feel like doing, such as writing an article on a topic I hate, or doing the dishes (invite some guests over and see how this works!).
Today, of course, grades don’t motivate me to complete tasks; it’s the knowledge that if I don’t finish my articles by the deadline I don’t get paid, or the fact that if I don’t take the garbage out now the wife will hide the remote from me.
Disclaimer: this way of working is pretty irresponsible. Irresponsible is not to say unproductive, it’s just to say that if other people are relying on you, you should think twice. If it gets results for you, and you are able to produce good work with “just enough” time, use it. But don’t rely on it for something really important unless you’re confident it works for you. Also, know what kind of tasks this applies to—writing an article might suit, but planning a marketing campaign probably doesn’t!