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Ways to Get Better at Working Under Pressure

You Can Do It!

Oftentimes life seems like an endless series of stressful situations, particularly at work. Work is hard — if it wasn’t, we probably wouldn’t get paid. Sitting on the beach isn’t very stressful, thus we rarely get paid to do it, unless you’re a lifeguard, and then you’re getting paid to make sure everyone who’d been lying on the beach, then decided to jump into the water, makes it back to the beach (which is probably pretty stressful). Working under pressure is tough, and always necessary, unfortunately, but there are a few ways to get better at working under pressure. 

Get organized.

This is easier than it sounds. Got a big deadline coming up and a lot of work to do? Handling pressure is often as simple as making a list (and checking it twice). Make your list and work your way through it. And yes, sweat the small stuff — bang it out so you feel like you’re making progress, and so you can clear your head (and take on the big stuff with confidence). I make lists of everything — books I want to read, things I need to buy once I have enough money to do so (a Bluetooth turntable is at the top of this list, and an eight-foot foam surfboard). A few good lists will keep you from missing anything — it’s how you multi-task when you have to (and quite often you’ll have to). You’ll be more relaxed with a list in front of you. Also, buried in a project and wishing you could do some food shopping, make some calls, clean the bathroom, etc.? Make a list of everything you want to do after you finish the project. It’ll help you remember your actual life while you’re buried at work. And it’ll give you something, while you’re working under pressure, to work toward. 

Visualize

Hunter S. Thompson once said he couldn’t get anything written without a looming deadline, and I get the feeling having his back against the wall is what set him alight — this is how he got it done. We all know someone who thrives under pressure — for the rest of us, deadlines are the monsters under our beds, the skeletal fingers of storm-ravaged trees tapping at the window — except they’re real. One way to quell the fear is to jump in, as discussed above. Another is to visualize your successful completion of the project. Pressure situations can be more than daunting, but if you’re sitting at your desk in a sweaty panic, or in a panicky sweat, you’re not doing yourself any good. Take a deep breath, close your eyes and see yourself finished. See the finished project on your desk, see yourself handing it to your supervisor… once you see it, you’ll feel it. This will calm you down and give you something to strive for. 

Get started!

American poet Robert Frost once said the best way around a problem is through it. This aphorism is similar to one I inherited from my grandmother — it looks a lot bigger when it’s standing up than when it’s lying down. Knock it down and get started! It’s often the anticipation of how grueling a task will be that makes you anxious. Use all that stomach-churning to get started. I promise you’ll feel better once you just rip into it. Think of each high pressure situation as some kind of Wizard of Oz — pull back the curtain and it’s not so intimidating. And knocking it down to size and getting to it will be give your confidence a shot in the arm, trust me. 

Relax

This isn’t easy in a high pressure situation, but if you’re rational about things, you know anxiety and panic won’t help you get it done — they certainly won’t help you get it done right. And don’t rush. Get a coffee, put on some classical music or bossa nova, and get down to it at a reasonable pace. Haste makes waste, especially when you’re nervous. Remember all those times you were driving, and you passed some slow driver in front of you and finally picked up some speed, only to end up next to that car at a red light. Work deadlines are serious things, yes, but bristling and flailing your way through a tough situation is only going to make it worse. Take a deep breath. Keep your shit in one sack, as a friend of mine used to say, so you can do your best work. 

Know you've been here before.

Anyone who performs well under pressure has the confidence that he or she can deliver. The key is to remind yourself you’ve been here before, that you’ve done this, that you can take this on and get it done — why else would it have landed on your desk if you couldn’t see it through to completion? Look back at your previous successes and remind yourself of how competent you are, of what you’ve already accomplished. Another way to put it? Seat your resume beside you and take a look over at it whenever you need to. You’ve done it before. You can do it again. This is what working under pressure is all about. 

"Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance"

You know about the five Ps, right? The only thing you’re going to find more of at work than pressure situations is interminable meetings, so be ready for them. Keep lists, get smaller projects done as soon as they’re assigned so you’re ahead when you end up with something you weren’t expecting, when a deadline gets cut in half… in other words, assume there’s some sort of high pressure situation lurking off near the horizon, impossible to see at the moment but coming in for a landing. If you keep this in mind, you can be aware of it and arrange your tasks so you have some breathing room once the next stressful situation taxis down your runway.

You can do it! Good luck! 

David Porter
David Porter

David A. Porter has been the editor at large for Stereo Embers Magazine, an online music site, since 2007. David received an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from San Francisco State University. He is a Rutgers graduate.


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