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Personal Growth

How to Deal with Time Pressure at Work

Whether self-imposed or due to outside circumstances, psychologist Christian Jarrett looks at the research behind surviving a time crunch.


Time pressure comes in different forms: you might have a constant 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. 

In some cases, the relentless tick of the clock might leave you feeling paralyzed and stressed out, which obviously won’t do you or your work any good. But that’s not the whole story; in other cases, the pressure of one or more deadlines can fuel your motivation and actually improve your creativity. 

“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,” says Professor Sandra Ohly, a work psychologist at The University of Kassel in Germany. It’s not just your creativity that can benefit from time pressure. Other research has linked it with more proactive job behavior, which is when you go beyond your formal remit at work and take on additional responsibilities.  

So what can you do to ensure that time pressure works in your favor rather than against the good of the work? 

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1. Cultivate a challenge mindset

Part of it is simply a question of degree: taken to the extreme, too little time will, obviously, be a problem if you simply cannot get the job done. However, in moderation, pressure can work in your favor. Research has now shown that this upside depends on your attitude, especially whether you perceive the pressure as a motivating challenge, rather than as an inescapable hindrance. 

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.  

What does it mean to see time pressure this way? It means that you recognize “the more effort you put in, the likelihood is you will be able to cope with that pressure,” Ohly explains, “so it’s stressful because the situation requires a lot of effort but at the same time it’s manageable.” The converse to seeing time pressure as a challenge is to see it as what psychologists call a “hindrance stressor,” which is when it feels unavoidable and unmanageable. 

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. 

Findings like these suggest that, at least in moderation, time pressure isn’t in itself either a good or bad thing, it’s more about how you view it and respond to it. Of course, this begs the question of what you can do to cultivate a mindset that sees the pressure as a motivating challenge, rather than as an inescapable source of stress.

2. Boost your confidence and focus on small steps

The French R&D manager study, above, highlights the importance of seeing time pressure as an opportunity rather than a threat, as a chance to improve and develop your professional skills. Ohly adds that it helps if you believe in your ability to cope, so it helps to remind you of past successes. Another tip is to break down your task or project into manageable chunks: “it helps to remind yourself that the small steps taken together help you reach the whole goal,” she says. 

It’s easier said than done, but you should also try to meet the challenge of time pressure as much as possible by working more efficiently (by prioritizing 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, according to a study led by Johannes Gutenberg-University published last year. 

3. Find out the reason for the pressure

Managers also have an important role to play, by explaining the need for the time pressure and the importance of the work. 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. 

4. If you have a neurotic personality, time pressure can be your friend

Bear in mind that time pressure might be more beneficial to some people than others. A recent finding suggests, perhaps surprisingly, that it is particularly advantageous to people who have more neurotic personalities: that is, who are more prone to mood swings, anxiety, and self-doubt. 

Kai Bormann, a professor of management at Bielefeld University in Germany made this discovery after asking hundreds of professionals to rate their levels of neuroticism and to keep a diary for five working days about their experience of time pressure and their daily creativity. Time pressure helped the more neurotic participants match the creativity of their non-neurotic colleagues. Bormann thinks this is because the pressure helps keep their minds on task, preventing them from getting distracted by worries.

Critically, this benefit was only true for chronic, predictable time pressure—the kind that is consistent and you know is coming. Unexpected time pressure is only likely to fuel the neurotic person’s anxiety. Bormann says that neurotic people can use his findings to their advantage by “rafting a personal working environment that provides comparable doses of time pressure over time.”

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. Ask your manager why time is of such essence and remind yourself why the project matters to you. Above all, try to see that extra pressure as an exciting challenge rather than a suffocating threat. 

More Posts by Christian Jarrett

Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s a senior editor at Aeon. His next book will be about personality change. He is @Psych_Writer on Twitter.


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