Work under pressure

Here's a thought to ponder. Is it better to work under pressure or not? You know, pressure as in deadlines, quality, never-happy (and forever-alone) client, hungry children waiting for their daddy (me) to come home with a salary, etc? Does stress help me and my work, or is it damaging to both?

Under pressure, photo by

The Good...

Personally, this is not an easy question. I don't like pressure, but more often than not the work I do becomes better thanks to it. Just don't tell my boss*. There are several benefits of pressure:
  • Easier to decide what is unimportant. We all have a lot of tasks on our plate, but when pressure builds up we manage to decide quickly what tasks to leave out for now. This works automatically for the really unimportant stuff — we simply forget about it.
  • Improved motivation to complete the task. Oh the joy of starting new projects, where are you after the 80% of cool stuff is already done in the 20% of time, and now you need to spend 80% more time to get the routine stuff done? Having a deadline or other kind of pressure really helps in such cases.
  • Stress-training. Like a gym workout, your need to push yourself a little further to be able to go even further tomorrow. I already shared some thoughts on this in “Getting past the Aha! point”, though from a somewhat different perspective. But if you accept pressure as inevitable, getting some of it today will help you manage it better tomorrow. Just remember to not overdo it.
  • “High efficiency” mode. This is the mode that forces you to be on a continuous look out to do things faster, cleaner. This is a result of the above two points, but on a tactical (not strategical) scale. No more complex and overly-beautiful solutions, no more “I'll develop a new OS to solve this simple task in all its possible incarnations and permutations”. You just want to get it all done.
Interesting that the above doesn't really work with “slight” pressure. It all really shines when the pressure, the stakes, the stress is high, adrenaline rushing and all that. I've met some people who can't really manage any kind of stress, and I feel bad for them, since sometimes (more often than not) it is necessary.

...the Bad...

Now, there are risks involved, which almost mirror the above advantages (as it happens so often):

Tunnel vision, photo by
  • Tunnel vision. Really “important” tasks may get delayed by currently “urgent” tasks. Actually, that's a thought of its own — the ability to decide that some urgent tasks are just decoys is a very important skill. Unfortunately, stress quite often reduces this skill to nil.
  • Burnout. Stress can be bad for you. Really? Yes. Long stretches of “highly-motivated” state can lead to a forced restoration period, aka “the burnout”. It is not always bad either, but it may be undesirable if you have more tasks to complet.
  • Too many corners cut. And on the tactical level, moving at the speed of light can mean that you produce work of lower quality, and that can come back and haunt you later, in endless support / rework / refactoring and so on. We've all been there, and none of us want to go back. Don't let the necessary pressure of today create more of unnecessary pressure for tomorrow.
One self-observation — I tend to argue that pressure is bad for some kinds of tasks, the type that require high and lots of thought. Yet that may just be my bias — ability to push everything else aside can help those tasks too. Helps them a lot, in fact. But it could hurt them too, for the above reasons.

...And the Question

So, what do you think, is it better or not? And in cases where pressure is missing, should we add it artificially, to improve our work? Set yourself a deadline, make a promise to your friends etc? At the cost of destroying our life and/or sanity? :)

In my case, there seems to almost always be enough pressure, so there's no immediate urgency to look for more. Yet, since I don't like stress, thinking about it is positive terms actually helps. Yes, it makes working harder, but it also makes my work better.

* ­­— though I suspect he already knows this. And that helps, even though I don't like to admit it.


  1. 1. Stress is good, if you need any work done.
    1.1. Speed of work in direct proportion to amount of stress.
    1.2. Polish/intricacy/completeness of work in reverse proportion to amount of stress.

    2. Stress is bad, if you need to be happy and healthy.
    2.1. It's impossible to have no stress at all. No stress=no wishes and no incentives. So it's not very good actually.
    2.2. But having solutions on stress problems give happiness. So it's not absent of stress that is good, but ability to solve stress reason.

    Conclusion: stress is good as tool to achieve some task. But, as every tool, it have it's limits and uses. Hammer is the best solution to nail picture, but very bad help in painting it.

    Also, for me personally, mentioned "task", in it complete form, must be comparable with personal happiness from it's solution and spending health. Otherwise it not worth it at all. You can stress yourself to run 100m for 7 sec. And irreversibly injure legs in process. Is it worth it? Yes, if you are saving your son. No, if you achieving nice yellow piece of metal. But... it's _my_ priorities.

    Conclusion of conclusion: _For me_ stress above some amount is evil. But it's often needful evil. But I will try to avoid it as much as I can.

    1. Agreed :) Thanks for the additional thoughts and details. I think it is natural to avoid stress (except for adrenaline-addicts :)). And good point on happiness - it is indeed not "absence of stress", but dealing with it properly.

      Except, as I wrote about pt 1.2, stress can cause you to put everything aside and concentrate really hard on the task at hand - in which case polish / finesse / completeness etc can actually go up. Unless you are too stressed to be concentrated - that happens too.

  2. I think just having a self-set deadline is enough. At least it worked for me and even though I let that deadline slip by 3 days :) No stress involved. Just doing it day by day. Stress and pressure suck.

    1. Perhaps me using “pressure” and “stress” as synonyms is wrong — they aren't the same. So, yes, stress is not good, but reasonable pressure is good. Or did you use a self-set deadline for another reason?

  3. Pressure is a negative thing. If a person wants to be under pressure it's a mental condition which should be treated. But pressure triggers stress. Stress is a state of organism when much more energy is produced per period at expense of very inefficient waste of resources. Much more energy is subjectively good, but resulting unproportionally quick aging is objectively very bad. Stress also shifts more control to limbic system, so cerebral cortex (consciousness) makes less decisions and it feels good due to less responsibility. This results in feeling that it's easier to make decisions.

    So pressure gives us twice as much energy but is costs us tenfold. And easeness of making decisions under pressure is an illusion - we just give up the decision making to subconsciousness not because it is better suited for this, but because we just do not want to make the decision.

    Overall, I think pressure is bad for us. But it may be better for those who reap the fruits of our working under pressure. But only if those who reap are not interested in us living longer and better.

    In my opinion, if there will be no irreversible results, it is better to fail than to endure the pressure. "Fail again. Fail better." And eventually learn to quickly make decisions without stress, learn to motivate yourself without stress.

    1. This is very interesting, since I almost completely disagree. Perhaps we talk about different measures of stress, and I mean reasonable and moderate stress, not the lifespan-shortening kind :)

      So, in my case:
      - stress releases inner reserves of body and mind;
      - it helps stop endless fruitless pondering over insignificant details and decisions, and forces us to “get to the point”;
      - it is akin to exercise in a way that no stress makes us brain-lazy and get out of shape;
      - pressure helps us do things that we otherwise wouldn't do, like public speaking etc, and in the end it is better for us;
      - and in general it makes life more interesting :)

      So I try to see not the destructive, but constructive pressure. And if destructive one arises — we don't always have a choice, — being able to cope (keeping it cool) helps get out of the situation with grace. This ability can be gained by at least marginal exposure to reasonable stress, I don't see any other way.

      And note that phrase “fail again, fail better” is designed to help us harness the stress of failure to move on.

      So, perhaps, we agree in general but imagine different kinds of stresses?

    2. Yes, very interesting, since I also also disagree. :)

      Reserves -- Reserves are just that - reserves. They are needed for bad unexpected situations. If life goes well and nothing bad happens - you never use reserves. Take, for example, strategic reserves of a country. They exist, they are renewed periodically to keep them fresh and current, but it is a bad thing happening if they start to be consumed. For me this means that if you need to release your inner reserves this means you still have not achieved happiness. And releasing the reserves means that something is not right in your life. And in the end, think about a need to replenish the reserves after you've spent them. Nothing positive in my opinion.

      Fruitless pondering -- Yes, stress helps your consciousness stop fruitless pondering. But why do you specifically need stress for this? Isn't it like alcohol? Alcohol helps you cope with emotional problems, helps you unwind and relax. But first of all it's an illusion and your problems never go away because of alcohol. You just totally or partially disconnect yourself from reality for a period of time and artificially change your mood for same period of time. But after that you have both your mood and health be bad for equivalent amount of time (if not worse). For me alcohol is a good analogy to stress.

      Exercise -- You can exercise without stress. Horse can run by herself, or horse can run because it is hit by spurs of a rider. I do not think spurs are good when you are talking about your own brain. I'd say that if you need stress to exercise your brain, you have a problem, a fight between you and your brain. This can't be good. The fact that almost all people have this problem does not mean we should embrace it and rename it from bug to feature.

      Interest in life -- It's a rude analogy, sorry, but rudeness is a kind of stress, so you might like it ;) : "If you want to make your life more interesting - hit your thumb with a hammer, and a fountain of emotions, thoughts and actions will immediately paint everything around you in bright colors!". Right? :)

      Pressure can be constructive, but the fact that to make something constructive you need pressure is a sign of problem. If a car engine is not running you can push the car by hand, constructively bringing all the potatoes filling the car closer to the goal. It's constructive, but it is a solution to a problem, while a working car driving all the potatoes to goal is even more constructive and problemless. :)

      "Fail again. Fail better." -- I see the core of our disagreement here. For me this quote is not about harnessing stress of failure, but about understanding that failure is not a problem and that failure must not produce any stress.

    3. Could it be character-driven, then? I like the adrenaline of high speed, of heights, of unexpected surprises, and I expose myself to them when I get a chance. Someone may call this bad, or sickness, or dependency, but I don't see it that way.

      Also, when I talk about stress in exercising, I don't mean the spurs on a horse, I mean the horse flexing her muscles to produce the force that moves it forward.

      It may be that what you call self-motivation — I call “reasonable level of stress”, since in most my activities I am more internally motivated, than externally, and that does make me happy :)

    4. I think it's just a matter of attitude. Most alcoholics also like the alcohol and "don't see it that way". :)

      As to my attitude - I know that I'm addicted to stress and that I need it most of time to work productively or to receive pleasure from life. But I know it is not right and there is a better way, and I constantly try to find it.

    5. Ok.

      In any case, that's an interesting view, not just the usual “it makes life hard” or “I am lazy” kind (which is far more popular than stress-addiction :)), so thanks for sharing it!

    6. As I see it, laziness and stress addiction are perpendicular. :) I am stress addicted. And I am lazy too. Extremely lazy.

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