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Time pressure: The good, the bad, the ugly

Some place time pressure upon themselves, some achieve time pressure, and some have time pressure thrust upon them…

Whether fully freelance or a full time employee, we all experience time pressure in different ways but collectively it’s that feeling that there are simply too few hours in the day, or perhaps it’s more that you are working on a single important project with a tight deadline looming. Whichever you’re experiencing, research has shown what you may have discovered for yourself—time pressure can either be your friend or your foe.

On one hand, time pressure can fuel motivation. In many cases, if you’re given one week versus two weeks to get a job done, either way you’ll do the bulk of the work in the space of one week. What do I mean by this?

Well, say you’re expected to design a poster for an event in two weeks. You’ll most likely have a lot of other things on so will spend the first week collecting moodboard references and the second week getting down to delivering the poster by Friday afternoon. If you’re given one week to do the same job, instead of spending a whole week finding inspiration, you’ll spend the first day collecting inspiration or may even rummage for it through your subconscious. In these cases, time pressure can act as an efficient tonic.

On the other hand, in some cases, the relentless tick of the clock might leave you feeling paralyzed and stressed out. In these cases time pressure is the least productive thing in the world as we tend to spend too much time aware of the deadline itself over the work.

According to Professor Sandra Ohly, a work psychologist at The University of Kassel in Germany, time pressure can even make you horny! “Time pressure is activating, so you feel like you have more energy. This can translate into higher levels of creativity, you feel more aroused, and you can come up with more novel and better-quality ideas.” Other research has linked it with more proactive job behaviour, which is when you go beyond your formal remit at work and take on additional responsibilities.

As with most things, and most boring things at that, the key to successful time pressure is, you guessed it, moderation. Time pressure, when framed as a challenge to specific jobs, can manifest creativity.

Consider a study that Ohly conducted involving 150 R&D engineers at a German automotive company. The engineers completed several psychology tests, multiple times a day over several days, including measures of time pressure and creativity. What Ohly found is that time pressure was often a boon to creativity, especially when the engineers saw pressure as a challenge.

Further, consider a study by researchers in France and the Netherlands. They surveyed hundreds of managers of French R&D research teams and found that greater time pressure was associated with benefits to their team members’ creativity so long as the time pressure was not too intense, and especially when the team had a “learning orientation,” that is, a desire to learn new things, and to develop skills and knowledge. For teams with a learning attitude, time pressure was a motivating force.

When experienced as a challenge from time to time, time pressure as an opportunity rather than a threat, as a chance to improve and develop your professional skills. It’s easier said than done, but you should also try to meet the challenge of time pressure by working more efficiently (by prioritising and being creative), rather than by simply working faster and longer, both of which are likely to undermine the benefits of time pressure by increasing your risk of exhaustion.

It also helps when the source of the time pressure is known. Sometimes deadlines for deadlines sake or for the sake of a pushy client won’t make for an enjoyable challenge. Research by Harvard business psychologist Teresa Amabile suggests time pressure is more likely to be beneficial when people see it as necessary for the project (for instance, to compete effectively with competitors) rather than as unnecessary and avoidable. By providing a vision and empowering your team with resources, meaning anything from software to decision-making autonomy, managers can also motivate staff rise to the challenge created by time pressure. As a general rule, you’re more likely to respond to time pressure with a “challenge mindset” if you believe in the value of the work you’re doing and find it inherently rewarding.

Finally, time pressure may find itself more beneficial in the work lives of some compared to others. If, like me, you can be a bit of a chaotic diva creative who needs to have a million and one things on to be productive, then time pressure can help set deadline boundaries. If, however, you’re a relaxed person who likes to take their time and dislikes boundaries and tick boxes, time pressure may feel limiting.

To conclude: Whatever your personality type, time pressure can feel stressful and uncomfortable, but it’s worth considering the opposite scenario: having too little to do or not feeling challenged by your work can also be unpleasant. The next time you’re up against the clock, remember there are practical steps and mental strategies you can use to turn the situation to your advantage.

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