The Upside of Pressure

“With eight seconds left in overtime…” This line and the song that goes with it has been stuck in my head for weeks.  (Over My Head by The Fray)

“Just in time…” is how I recently described my coaching style.  Might even be the title of a new book I’m working on.

"The Art of the Timeout under Pressure" ...a misunderstood and underutilized coaching tool I've been talking with leaders a lot about lately. 

The Timeteller”...book by Mitch Albom, who I got to see and hear speak the other day, and left thinking about time, our infatuation with it, and its impact.

A pattern here, maybe?  While it’s telling of where my thinking has been, there’s also some bigger learning here to share about time, pressure, and what you’re doing with it.

Of course it came together with a recent coaching client, as I reoriented her to a breakthrough. Currently in between the high-stakes, high-pressure, all-consuming projects she normally leads… this high-performing, rising star of her firm is currently in a period of downtime, and presented with several internal “interesting,” ongoing initiatives within the firm which have been waiting.  While critical and the stuff of which the future of the firm will be built (like groundbreaking new business development), she’s just not fired up about taking it on.  She reached out to me because she’d like to move up to the next level of leadership in the firm, yet is feeling stuck with this current outlay of not-so-exciting initiatives to engage with and wanted direction.

I chuckled to myself at the irony-  a high-performing rising star, eager to move up and forward but wholly unmotivated by all there is to create around her, and unsure how to engage.

So… what happened?

Downtime.That golden time when things slow a bit, and you should theoretically get so much done in all those key areas you otherwise neglect when you’re slammed with other time-sensitive work… right?  These key areas are important; building-the-structure-and-system work, completing-the-growing-ideas work, writing-the-article-to-share-the-success work, mapping-the-course-forward-to-ensure-our-long-term-success work. When we’re slammed with getting deliverables out the door, we fantasize about having space to think about, let alone execute, these fundamentals.

And then… things slow down. The calm arrives. Except all that completion, creation and productivity we envisioned actually doesn’t happen, does it?

When the pressure cooker we’re used to (in which we regularly produce multiplied brilliance within a compressed time) cools off and we have clear space to create, complete, be deliberate and thoughtful… we’re less productive, less motivated and slower.  This happens, right? At least it does for some of us, including my client today.  Why?

Pressure vs not. For some of us, while we might even complain about it, the truth is that we feed on the pressure of… the glorious impending deadline.  Under it, the clock ticks down, pushing the best ideas to the top, the endorphins through our system and the rush of creativity to our thinking. The more we thrive on that pressure- the 11th hour before the presentation to create the very best insights and work and client deadlines to drive our process-  the more we need it to get to that endorphin-firing state of creative productivity.  That pressure keeps us driving, cranking and producing.  Yet it can also become a crutch we’re dependent on in order to produce.

For my rising star coachee, even the desire to excel wasn’t enough to generate the same spark.  I’ve been there, too.  As the pattern emerged today, I pinpointed the most important and deadly word in it all for her (describing the initiatives she had to engage with)- the very word we should all eliminate… ongoing.

Sometimes there’s nothing worse than something that goes on and on and on with no clear end.  It’s like a life sentence- ugh.  Our brains like clean beginnings and clean endings to things, lights at the end of tunnels, and yes… clear finish lines to cross.

Time is finite for a reason- it gives us both perspective and the push to get moving. Tick tock.

Messing with it...                                                                                                               
When we compress time (or someone/thing compresses it for us), performance goes up, because it doesn’t have a choice. Create it now, take your shot, or you lose the moment forever. Tick tock.

Some people naturally feed on this dynamic as fuel- knowing our best work happens under pressure, best ideas right before the deadline… maybe even in not starting until just before deadline, knowing it’ll just come.  Other people may not be inclined this way (and our apologies if you’re teamed with those who are), yet learn to adapt to it and learn how to generate under pressure. Some don’t, and the best thing for them is to identify it early on. I’ve coached many people out of roles, teams and jobs where cadence and pressure-response were just too mismatched in this way- misery for them.

For most, though- when we expand the time allotted, then the work and the process also expand to fill it. The urgency disappears and often the energy right along with it.  I have gone into lethargic, deadened team settings as a coach, simply compressed everyone’s time a bit, and noticed the energy and productivity come alive instantly, because deadlines spur action.

So… create the pressure where you need it.  The magic is when you can create it yourself rather than having to be dependent on (or at the mercy of) life, clients, teammates to put the pressure on. There is a way we need to set ourselves up to get moving and bring it. 

I said to our star…. “Leaders task themselves. They don’t wait until there’s the pressure of an expectant client or challenging leader or deadline- they CREATE them. Often from nothing. Take every “ongoing” initiative that’s been labeled and compress its time- give it a 10-day deadline to get to resolution, concept or deliverable. Then what might happen?”   She paused, then simply said, “Thank you.  That’s all I needed.  I’m on my way.”  She then went on to reset those firm initiatives with real time, tight deadlines, rallied and dove in.

Could it could really be that simple?  Just compress the time for yourself, create a deadline, and work within the constraints you’ve given yourself.                                           
If you’re working on your own, and need the pressure to kick you into gear, you may have tried setting arbitrary deadlines for yourself to get your brain to activate.  If you have amazing self-discipline in this arena, that’s probably working beautifully for you.  You give yourself little deadlines and force yourself to hit them.  And you do.  That’s awesome.  Yet sometimes it’s actually not that straightforward. For many reading this, I’m guessing that the results in the arena of “just set a deadline for yourself” have been inconsistent at best.  It may have worked the first time or so, but then didn’t anymore.  Here’s why…

• Deadlines and the pressure that goes with them have to be real, or they don’t work.  Your brain is too smart for fake deadlines.  It’ll skate out of it and go through its normal evasive pattern of avoidance until it has real pressure to push it into action.  There are a few ways to make it real…

• Get someone else to be accountable to. This could be someone you choose to whom you’ll deliver the finished product to by a certain time- who will hold you to it.  A team is even better. Just knowing that they’re expecting it, planning around it can kick you into gear. They will be your pressure.

• Create an event around it.                                                                                      
Beyond just people expecting something from you, create an actual happening around your deadline, so you’ve got something on which your performance will hinge.  A team meeting, a presentation, even a “let’s meet for coffee so I can show you…”  The impending event is great pressure- you’ll perform.

• Lead.                                                                                                                                  
This brings all of it together. One of my favorite parts of leading is being able to have others able to help execute great ideas. When I told my coachee today that “leaders task themselves” I was serious- leaders task themselves- often along with tasking others, and that’s why it works.  It’s a beautiful thing- an idea is born- you put it out there, and create a deadline for the team/organization to hit.  They’re fired up about the goal, you’re in it with them (to varying degrees), everyone performs and… it gets done.                                    
And if you’ve been paying attention… make that deadline short.

• Most importantly… Keep it in Perspective.                                                               
The one thing none of us want is pressure that goes toxic, and turns into unhealthy overwhelming stress. There’s good and bad stress- and that’s the bad kind.

Sometimes it’s about just getting perspective on it.  Specifically, keep checking your WHY in it all- that’s your reason for doing whatever it is in the first place.  It’s easy to get wrapped up instead with When (as in deadline pressure).  The Why is what gives it all a reason to be- your reason to care in the first place.  Find your Why in what you’re doing until it speaks to you.  Then come back to the When as your trigger to action- to get moving.

So- check your Why, get yourself set up for optimal push, and then…

Tick tock.