Is the Ability to Perform Better Under Pressure a Plus or a Minus?

If you feel like you perform better under pressure, you may be wasting your potential. Find out in which situations this can be an advantage and in which it's a handicap.
Is the Ability to Perform Better Under Pressure a Plus or a Minus?

Last update: 09 June, 2022

Were you one of those students who studied the night before an exam? Or, did you need constant supervision to complete your assignments? As an adult, do you tend to put off getting work and projects done until the last minute? Perhaps you feel that the added tension motivates you and makes you efficient? In this article, we ask the question, is it really a plus or a minus to have the ability to perform better under pressure?

The answer isn’t simple. That’s because it depends on different factors. As children, we were encouraged to approach our projects and objectives calmly, giving ourselves plenty of time to carry them out. However, many people have since found that, without additional stimulation, they’re unable to concentrate and complete their tasks. If you’re one of them, you’ll be interested to learn why this is the case and what are its consequences.

The ability to perform better under pressure has advantages

Stressed woman at work
Some degree of activation can be beneficial. That’s why many people feel comfortable working under pressure.

The first thing you should know is that it isn’t just your imagination and you probably do perform better under certain pressure. It might be caused by lack of time, the supervision of a superior, or how much risk is contained in the activity or project.

As a matter of fact, this is a well-known and contrasted reality in the field of psychology. In fact, it was reflected in the famous Yerkes-Dodson law. These authors developed their theory at the beginning of the 20th century. They stated that the relationship between anxiety and performance takes the form of an inverted U. That’s to say, a certain degree of activation (physical or mental) is beneficial. However, if it’s excessive it becomes counterproductive.

As a matter of fact, an element of pressure provides motivation and allows you to focus more on the task at hand and be more careful and meticulous. Without it, you may feel apathetic and approach your work reluctantly and with imprecision. On the other hand, if the pressure is too much, you’ll feel overwhelmed and paralyzed, and will perform below par.

That said, calculating the exact degree of activation you require for optimal performance isn’t easy. That’s because it depends on different variables. For example, the personality of each individual or the characteristics of the task. In the face of a simple activity that you know and can do really well, pressure can act as a stimulant. On the contrary, when faced with a complex, unknown job, in which you’re not particularly skilled, excessive anxiety can make you fail.

The need for the ability to perform under pressure

man thinking
Perfectionism and procrastination are often behind the need to work under pressure.

There are also people who systematically need and provoke situations of tension when facing a task. As a rule, they leave everything to the last moment and start the activity with hardly any time left to tackle it. This tendency, known as procrastination, often hides the fear of being unable to complete the task.

Paradoxically, procrastination is typical of perfectionists as the degree of demand they place on themselves makes the task seem overwhelming. For this reason, they avoid facing it and indefinitely postpone the moment to start. Instead, they get themselves entangled in other unimportant matters and tasks until they eventually have no choice but to face exactly what they’ve been avoiding.

These people may feel that they perform better under pressure. Nevertheless, in reality, they have difficulty managing the negative emotions that the project or activity in question evokes in them.

The ability to perform better under pressure has pluses and minuses

As we said earlier, your personality is one of the factors that most influence the degree of activation that you’re able to withstand before your performance decreases. This is precisely why some people know how to perform better under pressure than others.

Today, this quality is highly appreciated and valued by companies. Indeed, it’s one that recruiters tend to focus on in personnel selection processes. It reassures employers about the candidate’s ability to carry out a project quickly and efficiently in situations of tension, without feeling overwhelmed or paralyzed.

However, it’s one thing to know how to act under pressure and another to need pressure in order to act. If you voluntarily wait until the last minute to tackle your pending tasks and do it because you need that pressure to motivate you, you’re making a mistake.

In such a situation, you’ll most likely do a mediocre job, or, at least, well below what you could’ve done under other circumstances. In these instances, the pressure no longer makes you work ‘to win’, but simply ‘not to lose’. You’re no longer able to pay attention to the small details and review or add new ideas, you have to settle for simply complying.

For this reason, if you’re a person who tends to procrastinate and who can’t motivate yourself without extra pressure, you may need to review your dynamics, fears, and emotional management. By doing so, you’ll come closer to being able to really tap into your potential.

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  • Galarregui, M., Arana, F., & Partarrieu, A. (2011). Procrastinación académica y su relación con Perfeccionismo. In III Congreso Internacional de Investigación y Práctica Profesional en Psicología XVIII Jornadas de Investigación Séptimo Encuentro de Investigadores en Psicología del MERCOSUR. Facultad de Psicología-Universidad de Buenos Aires.
  • Yerkes RM y Dodson JD (1908). “The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation”. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology. 18: 459–482. doi:10.1002/cne.920180503.