For most of my life I have been at odds with writing under pressure. Whether it was a school paper deadline, a piece for work, or a personal project, I would find other projects that interested me far more than the one at hand, and habitually procrastinate as a deadline approached. As some fellow alumni may recognize, I come from the University of Pressure Avoidance. It has a long and distinguished career of teaching its students to get everything else done except for that one thing you really should have started about three weeks ago.
But whenever I was in trouble with a deadline, my survival persona would arrive right on time. Captain Super Procrastinator would save the day by cranking out a worthwhile product the night before. (Sound familiar?) This was my creative process for any project that could be crunched into a few frantic hours between 2-5 am. But it was unsustainable, I never did my absolute best, and the stress was killing my overall creativity. Although necessity is the mother of invention, desperate necessity at 3 am can take its toll in the long run.
So, to break this habit — which, to be honest, I haven’t completely kicked — I sought to find out more about the effects of pressure on the creative mind. Not surprisingly, there is always a cost, but you can create a powerful sense of focus if you stay within what I’ll call your Productive Pressure Zone.
That Productive Pressure Zone is actually my favorite place to be. It’s the place where I have just the right amount of motivation and drive to spark my creativity. I’m in the Zone when I know I have to get something done, but I’m not yet at the point where I’m so stressed out of my mind that I can’t think straight.
Now, when it comes to pressure, there are two kinds of people in this world: those who love it and those who hate it. No matter how you feel about pressure, there are a few things we all need to understand.
1. If you ever find yourself in a stress spiral, remind yourself that you’re probably not in a life-or-death situation. Our brains can get so wrapped up in stress that you might be having the same biological response to a looming deadline as you would if you came face-to-face with a grizzly bear. Just take a moment to breathe and reframe the experience. You aren’t staring death in the face. This is a challenging experience; it’s something you have the opportunity to rise above. If you can, go so far as to label it a “fun challenge.”
I fall into the trap of weighing the downside of a high-pressure situation, completely forgetting the reward if I win. When you are afraid of a situation, you can put a lot of energy into trying to create distance. However, if you look at your writing as a fun challenge, you can put your energy and attention into solving the problem.
2. Instead of telling yourself to calm down, coach yourself to get psyched! Your physical reaction to fear is a lot like your physical response to excitement. This may sound strange, but a lot of the physiological processes are the same. This is an opportunity that people often overlook. I’m not telling you to stop breathing deeply if you really need it, but remember, it is often easier to move from fear to excitement than from fear to relaxation.
3. Focus on the fundamentals. If you’re staring down the barrel of an enormous research project, break it into pieces. Focus on the steps you need to succeed, not what success or failure may look like once you’ve done your work. Obsessing about a review and how poorly you may do in a week will not help you put pen to paper now. Try to zero in on the details you can control and forget about everything else.
4. Find benchmarks that motivate you. Word count may motivate some writers, others will prefer counting pages, and some (like me) can best wrap their brains around time in front of the keyboard. Whichever metric gets you writing, use that.
5. Finally, and this is one of my favorite strategies, create a success ritual. Play a song! Read your most inspirational quote! Do a couple of push-ups to get your blood moving! Create a physical and psychological trigger for yourself whenever you’re ready to play for keeps.
Learning to write under pressure is a skill. There is something about pressure that brings some people alive. With just a few tools in your toolbox, you can find your own way to thrive.