“But I Work Best Under Pressure”
A common myth, and a fraudulent excuse, about procrastination.
Posted July 5, 2022 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- Time pressure does not produce success.
- Procrastination research involves experiments, not just self-report studies.
- Don't believe the myths or fraudulent excuses you hear about procrastination.
You do your best work under time pressure? Don’t believe it. We do not work best under time pressure when close to a deadline.
I have addressed some common myths here that people have told me over the years about being a procrastinator. Folks say, "Our lives are busier today than ever before.," for example. I discussed in a previous post that it’s a myth. True, we are busy today but not busier than previous generations who had life to deal with. Folks say, "Technology makes procrastination easier today than in the past." I've discussed that this is also a myth, and a fraudulent excuse. True, tech can make us procrastinate but there has always been technology that “gobbles up” our time so it's not the tech that is the issue, it's how we use or abuse it that leads to procrastination.
In this post, I want to talk to you about the third major myth I have heard from people in my studies on chronic procrastination over the past 35 years. In short, folks like to say, “I work best under pressure. I need to work close to deadline, at the 11th hour, to get motivated and let the adrenaline flow to get me going.” This belief is false; it's another fraudulent excuse.
I am sure you are reading times in the past when waiting for the last minute produced success. For example, an exam that you crammed for, or that vacation deal that was a steal in price when booked just days before. Yes, life is a variable schedule of reinforcement: Sometimes, waiting does pay off. But most times, it does not. Sure, you can recall exams back in eighth grade when cramming worked; but how do you explain all those other exams for which you waited to study till the night before and you really did not do well, or the paper you started at 11 pm that was due the next day and only got you a passing low grade? (In Ferrari 2010 I talk about how academic procrastination is linked to plagiarism and cheating, as students who have no time left to write a paper then just “steal” references and thoughts from others.)
Maybe you are not convinced by my examples. OK, let’s look at the data. In two experiments over 20 years ago, (Ferrari (2001)) I found that under time pressure (i.e., limited time to work on a task) procrastinators made more errors, completed less of the tasks, and performed worse than non-procrastinators. However, when asked how they did, the procrastinators claimed they did well, or even better than others, on the same tasks, compared to non-procrastinators.
I hope you realize that the published studies on procrastination have been more than surveys for correlational studies. I hear this often—that most procrastination studies are just self-report studies. However, I have and continue to engage in experiments on procrastination, not just correlational studies. So, don’t believe that myth that some reporters and others say about procrastination research.
Back to those studies, briefly: Ferrari (2001) used university students who came to my lab after being identified as procrastinators (or not) in a large screening testing session. Of course, folks did not know if they were procrastinators or not. Briefly, participants engaged in two simple reaction time studies, with the first one completing a series of decreasingly sized circles on a sheet of paper. Participants then had to place an “X” inside each circle, as many as they could in a limited time frame. Then, I scored them for the number completed and the number of errors (e.g., incomplete Xs, or going outside the circle). I also had participants work on a cognitive memory task while marking the circles (a cognitive load task). Simple, I agree. Well, procrastinators made more errors and completed fewer circles than non-procrastinators in the limited time. Procrastinators were not able to regulate their performance skills, compared to non-procrastinators. In the other study, besides a cognitive load task, some participants heightened their self-awareness of working on the task (the usual “mirror presence” situation) and had limited time not electronically recorded. (See the article for full details.) Again, procrastinators made more errors and took longer to do the task.
What is interesting is that not only were the procrastinators performing poorly under the time restraints, when asked how they thought they did, and how compared to others, procrastinators (compared to non-procrastinators) stated they thought they did great.
The bottom line: Procrastinators do not do well under time pressure, yet they think they do. What needs to be done is for us to work on tasks when we are assigned, to learn to handle more than one assignment at the same time, and to put aside a belief that waiting to the last minute gets us going and motivates us.
Life is short. Focus on what needs to be done and do it. Focus on the needs of others and help them. Life is not about me, it's about we. Do not use excuses; use the excitement of doing things. Live with science and be productive.
Ferrari, J.R. (2001). Procrastination as self-regulation failure of performance: Effects of cognitive load, self-awareness, and time limits on “working best under pressure.” European Journal of Personality, 15, 391 - 406.
Ferrari, J.R. (2010). Still procrastinating? The no regrets guide to getting it done. New York J Wiley & Sons.