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How to Use Pressure to Get More Done Without Freaking Out

How to Use Pressure to Get More Done Without Freaking Out

    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.

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    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!

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    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.

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    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.

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    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!

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    Last Updated on August 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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