Deadlines, Pressure, and Performance

I’ve been spending a lot of time of late thinking about pressure – the feeling of having to get on and do or achieve something lest some gradually closing in on you monster reaches up out of the darkness and eats you alive. I’ve always felt varying degrees of it in my work – the pressure to perform, the pressure to keep going, and the pressure to deliver at an ever higher levels of quality and result.

Who or what the looming monster is varies. At times, it takes on the threatening form of poverty or bankruptcy; at times argument or divorce; at other times just a vague sense of “something bad will happen if I don’t” do whatever it is I think I’m supposed to do in the time frame and at the level I think I’m supposed to be able to do it.

The reason it’s been so much on my mind isn’t because I’ve been feeling a lot of it lately, but rather because I’ve been feeling less and less of it. When it does show up, I wonder how I ever lived with it as my constant companion. It’s a bit like I imagine it would for a frog wandering by a boiling pot filled with frogs who’ve been in there since the heat first came on. He might jump in to see what all the fuss was about but he’d jump back out immediately, wondering why on earth all those other frogs think they’re in a hot tub and not boiling themselves to death.  

Now what’s interesting is that my life is as filled with activity as it’s ever been. I’m writing this on my 9th consecutive day in a hotel room in London, preparing to begin day two of my fourth event in the past week and a half. I’ve just finished writing and editing my newest book, and I’m preparing to film my fifth and sixth video-based projects of the year in a couple of weeks time before heading off to Dubai and Kuwait to do some more training and speaking before the year ends.

And yet while nothing’s really changed in terms of my schedule or output, everything’s different. I’m honestly enjoying myself and I’m surprised by how much I’m actually doing because it all feels fairly low key. My health is good, and I’m working out more for fun than to stave off stress or undo what I thought of as the inevitable wear and tear of a busy life.

While I can’t point to one magic game changing insight that’s led to this change, there are a couple of questions I’ve been playing with which at the very least seem to be worthy of exploration and sharing…

1. Can you really get things done without the pressure to deliver?

I have long prided myself on never having missed a writing deadline. From a brief stint writing comedy sketches for the BBC in the mid ‘90’s to working on a dozen books and over 1100 blogs in the new millennium, everything has always been delivered up to a full minute before the final accounting came due.

Early on in my career, this was driven from a fairly constant sense of pressure and panic, often in the guise of “not wanting to let people down.” Over time, and with the help of both insight and experience, I’ve felt less and less pressure to deliver and more and more enjoyment in the process. But it still felt like what pressure I did feel was both inevitable and in some ways even helpful to getting myself to write.

Until my most recent book. I couldn’t pressure, threaten, or cajole myself into writing any faster, and I somehow managed to miss every deadline I was given, leading to scheduling conflicts, late night emails, and not one but two delays to the publication date. For the first time in my career, I felt some empathy with Douglas Adams, creator of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, who wrote “I love deadlines. I love that whooshing sound they make as they go by.”

At first, I thought this was “proof” that pressure was an essential part of getting things done. But on reflection, it looks more true to me that I’m just used to running on “deadline pressure” and this was my first attempt at delivering a project of any size and scope without it.

As a first attempt, I’ll give myself a 6 out of 10. On the down side, I delivered late. On the upside, I’m as proud of the quality of what I delivered as I’ve ever been and in the end, there’s a great new book coming in to the world in January. And I’m confident that if I continue to write without making pressure a cornerstone of my motivation strategy, I’ll continue to learn how to create without the pressure to perform.

Which leads us to our next question…

2. Would you perform better or worse without the pressure to perform?

I recently read about a most unusual tennis tournament organized by W. Timothy Gallwey, the author of the Inner Game series of books and a pioneer in the world of modern performance coaching. In an attempt to give participants an experience of what it’s like to play to learn instead of playing to win, he setup an upside-down structure where the loser of each match would advance to the next round.

His theory was that by taking away the incentive (and by extension for many, the pressure) to win, people would play with less on their mind and more awareness of what was going on behind the scenes. In practice, while some players were befuddled by the whole idea, many reported playing their best game for years.

I start with a similar premise in our Creating the Impossible programs. We set out to create something that would be thrilling to see come into being, but that we are almost certain to fail at. While initially many people see that as pointless or even counter-productive, as the program unfolds they experience a level of freedom, creativity, and success that is surprisingly unfamiliar in their experience of goal setting and “making things happen”.

While both of these notions – the upside down tennis tournament and the creating the impossible project – are designed to give people an experience of performing without the pressure to perform, the real payoff comes for those who realize along the way that human beings NEVER perform better when they’re up in their heads obsessing about results, consequences, or anything else that’s outside of our direct control.

Here’s how I write about it in my new book on Creating the Impossible:

There is no pressure pre-existent in the world or inherently present in any given situation. The only pressure we can ever feel is 100 percent generated via Thought in our own mind.

Pressure is just a thought that comes and goes of its own accord.

So why would we ever attempt to increase the amount of pressure that we feel? Why do we make our goals or deadlines more important than they are?

The reason, as best I can tell, is that we mistake the clarity, presence, and focused intention (i.e. ‘flow’) that often come while working towards a clear target or deadline with the pressure our thinking often generates as we do so.

Or to put it another way, we mistake correlation for causation. The fact that two things often occur in close proximity to each other doesn’t mean that one causes the other. Firetrucks don’t cause fires. Umbrellas don’t cause rain. And pressure isn’t an intrinsic or even essential element of high performance.

What are your own thoughts about deadlines, pressure, and performance?

What would your life be like if you could give up pressuring yourself without giving up on your dreams?

What would it be like to create without the pressure to perform?

With all my love (and happy exploring),