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More PsychNotes: Work and Productivity

May 11, 2016       

Time Pressure and Work Performance: Finding Balance
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

scale Balance! Balance! Balance! An ongoing theme in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is balance. Extremes are where most problems lie. In psychology we often refer to an “optimal level” of something rather than elimination. Whereas most people think of getting rid of negative aspects of life such as stress, research has shown that, in moderation, stress may be beneficial.

For instance, many people are aware that a time pressure on a task creates stress. However, some people indicate they work best under a time pressure. So, rather than eliminate time pressure, the question is, when is the stress of time pressure good and when is it not?

Researcher Bryan Edwards and colleagues (2014) showed that the difference depends upon the intensity of the situation. For instance, the more at stake, the more stress experienced. Interestingly, people were more affected by time pressure in mild-to-moderate situations by how they perceived the situation whereas they were affected more in intense situations when pressures were placed on them by someone else.

In other words, most work situations usually involve time pressure that does not have extreme consequences. In such cases, when the individual experiences stress, it is usually due to how they are viewing the situation, not due to outside demands. However, in intense time pressure situations the stress is caused more by the outside demands and not by the perception of the individual.

The good news, then, is that much of the stress caused by time pressure can be managed. Some ways to do this include:

1) Reframing hindrances. The ability to look at problems as challenges can have a great effect on improving performance and well-being. Try a simple experiment: think of a problem and say to yourself with a sigh, “I'm never going to be able to this.” Then, think of the problem and say, “This can be a challenge but I'm sure I can handle it.” As you say these statements to yourself, notice your body's reaction. For example, with the negative statement your shoulders may sag defeatedly and your head tilt down whereas with the challenge statement you may pull your shoulders back with a slight nod of the head. When simply saying a statement can affect you in such a way, imagine how believing these statements can impact you.

2) Control emotional reactions. Much of controlling emotional reactions can be done with the reframing already described. However, you can also use simple techniques such as breathing or relaxing your muscles to help control emotional reactions. For example, think of a situation that makes you angry—clench your fists, tighten your jaw, inhale sharply and hold it for a few seconds. Notice the intensity of the anger feeling. Now think of the same situation but relax the muscles in your hands and face and breath slowly. Do you notice a difference in the intensity of your anger? It is often hard to feel intense emotions in a relaxed state.

3) Focus on the task. Instead of focusing on your thoughts, judgments and evaluations of the task you are doing, focus on the task itself. This process is mindful work. By focusing on doing the task and not being caught up in the negative thoughts about the task you are less likely to be stressed by it.

4) Resolve specific stressors. If a particular situation or person is the source of your stress, see if you can resolve the problem. For instance, if the time pressure put on you by a boss is unreasonable and the stress makes it more difficult to perform, have a discussion with your boss: “I want to do a good job and I understand that having a deadline is beneficial. However, when it is not possible to meet the deadline, it increases my stress and causes me to perform at a lower level. Can we discuss what would be a good deadline so I can perform at my best?”

Edwards, B., Franco-Watkins, A.M., Cullen, K.L., Howell, J.W. and Acuff, R.E. Jr. (2014). Unifying the Challenge-Hindrance and Sociocognitive Models of Stress. International Journal of Stress Management, 21, 162–185. DOI: 10.1037/a0034730

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Dr. Monica Frank

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