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The Procrastination Fallacy of Working Better Under Pressure

Do you wait until you are nearly out of time before you start?

How often have you heard yourself say that you work better under pressure? Does working better under pressure explain why you frantically rush to catch up? Does that mean that you can only do better when you feel pressured to perform?

When you say that you work better under pressure, this often means that you’ve put something off for as long as you could before rushing to meet a deadline1. If you too often find yourself in this predicament, here are five questions for you:

  • Why would you want to feel pressured at the last minute to do something when you have ample time to get things done earlier with less stress?
  • Can you prove that you function more productively only when you are in a bind for time?
  • If you believe that you work better under pressure, why not intentionally schedule yourself to start late and pressure yourself to perform at the 11th hour anytime you can?
  • If you truly believe that you work better under pressure, why not pressure yourself to start performing sooner?
  • Does working better under pressure mean that you need to feel time urgent before you start?

What do you think?

Are You Trying Too Hard To Avoid Pressure?

Avoiding pressure may be a primary reason why you delay. However, there comes a time when you have a lesser of two evils situation. Which is worse: starting at the last minute or not at all?

If you wait until you are nearly out of time, then rush to finish, you are probably procrastinating. Working better under pressure is an excuse. For example, how do you work better when distracted by stress?

You may do worse when you've put yourself in a time bind and you feel distracted by emotional commotion and stress. That’s not working better under pressure. You may frustrate easily and snap at anyone who interrupts you. That’s not working better under pressure. You may go over the same ground, have trouble finding misplaced materials, and leave gaps in your work. That’s not working better under pressure. These are examples of procrastination-related inefficiencies that can lead to more inefficiency and stress.

If you delay, delay, delay, and then rush to finish, you may not like feeling pressure. Yet the accumulated pressures from delaying, combined with last minute pressures, will normally exceed the lesser pressure you avoid when you delay starting. Can you do better?

How Professionals Handle Pressure

Operating effectively under pressured conditions is different than the working better under pressure fiction. For example, you are an accountant. You need to do your company’s end- of-the-quarter report. There is a limited amount of time to do this. You know what to do. You efficiently execute the process. You handle the time constraints quite well. That is because you focused on doing the task.

You are a gymnast. You are going for the gold. For many, this is a time and performance pressured situation. However, you are focused. You are in control. You are energized. You don’t freeze. When you need to perform, you automatically and smoothly do what you practiced. Your top competitor freezes by overthinking the situation.

Both the accountant and gymnast are in pressure situations but handle the pressure well by focusing on the activity and getting the job done. I call this p-stress (propelling and productive stress) 2. Stress expert Hans Selye, calls it effort stress 3.

Destructive stress (d-stress) is a negative, pressuring stress that rarely enhances performance. You may be thinking of the activity, but you focus on yourself. You may know what to do and how to do it. However, the pressure to avoid both the task and the pressured feeling interferes with you performing in a timely and effective way.

A great deal of procrastination starts with an expectation that what you want you should have now. Your feelings of discomfort should immediately go away. These expectations are formulas for d-stress4. Let's look at a p-stress alternative.

Two Simple Steps for Starting Sooner

There is no meaningful evidence that pressured performances that follow procrastination produce superior outcomes. The opposite is more likely.

Let’s assume that you feel stressed about doing a task. You hope that later will be a better time to begin. Maybe you think you’ll be inspired at some indefinite time in the future 5,6. That hope is an illusion. It is unlikely that you'll suddenly feel inspired to do something you once found uncomfortable to start. Can you try a different way?

Here is a two-step process for you to try. First visualize what you want to accomplish. In this case, the goal is to start sooner. The second step is to launch an action 7. Here is an example:

Visualize: Pick an activity that you are probably going to wait until the last minute to start. In your mind’s eye, imagine yourself thinking positive thoughts, such as I am ready to act. I am starting to act. Imagine thinking those thoughts as you launch an action. Imagine how the first step would feel.

Visualizing an action, where your thoughts and feelings are congruent with the action, sets the stage for launching an action that is congruent with the vision.

Now you are ready for step 2.

Launch: In step two, you act the way that you visualized yourself acting. You focus your attention on taking the first step. You take it. You'll soon see if this first step is sufficient to break a wait-as-long-as-you-can procrastination process.

Follow the two-step way and you may do what people who effectively manage time pressure do. You focus on the task. You follow through. In the process, you buy extra time to add quality to your work without having to run breathlessly as time runs out.

Experiments are meant to test ideas, not to prove ideas. Try this two-step method. Repeat it. If this experiment doesn’t work for you, try a different way. If it proves effective for you, you are in a position to choose whether to follow a p-stress or d-stress path.

For help on operating more productively, click on my self-help book End Procrastination Now

For help on combatting more tenacious forms of procrastination, click on my self-help book The Procrastination Workbook.


1. Knaus, W. 1983. How to Conquer Your Frustrations. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall.

2. Knaus, W. 1994. Change Your Life Now. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

3. Selye, H. 1974. Stress Without Distress. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co.

4. Ellis, A. and Knaus, W. 1979. Overcoming Procrastination. New York: New American Library.

5. Knaus, W. 1979. Do it Now: How to Stop Procrastinating. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall.

6. Knaus, W. 1998. Do it Now: Break the Procrastination Habit. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

7. Knaus, W. 2014. The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety. Oakland CA: New Harbinger.

© Dr. Bill Knaus. 2015. All rights reserved.

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