How to Stay Focused #2: Working Under Pressure

The following article in my series on how to stay focused deals with working under pressure. Let’s face it, professional stress can become a handful even for the highest achievers out there.

If you’re anything like me and are always looking to optimize your activity to the fullest, then you’ll most likely relate to the methods presented below.

Now let’s dive into how to stay focused in mentally demanding situations.

Has Procrastinating Become a Way of Life for You?

“Procrastination is, hands down, our favorite form of self-sabotage.” – Alyce P. Cornyn-Selby, procrastination and self-sabotage author

The Procrastination Problem

Procrastination has become widely accepted in our society due to its humorous and relatable nature. Everyone does it, so it can’t be that bad, right? Wrong! This type of behavior is actually detrimental to our productivity and success.

A study published in October 2001 conducted on two test groups composed of procrastinator and non-procrastinators demonstrated this. During the experiment, procrastinators completed fewer tasks with less accuracy.

Thus, the conclusion of the research is that constantly delaying duty completion harms the self-regulation of performance speed and precision. Thus, maybe it’s time to consider that last-minute problem-solving might not solve any problem in a real sense.  

The Solution to Procrastination

  • Take a look at the bigger picture. Some tasks might not be pressing at a certain moment, but they will be in the future. Instead of postponing them constantly due to their apparent lack of urgency, focus on getting them over with as soon as they appear.
  • Acknowledge your feelings. Who said feeling overwhelmed isn’t natural? If someone told you this, block their number from your phone because you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.
  • Don’t let your self-worth depend on a task. The main issue chronic procrastinators are faced with is a deep-rooted fear of failure. The day I understood that falling flat from time to time doesn’t make me less of a person was the same day I began thriving.

Go Even Deeper

If you want to thoroughly explore what’s making you procrastinate and tackle the issue, read Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s book on willpower: “The WillPower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.”

Not only is this book easy to go through, but it also has practical, short training breaks to make sure you scrutinize the problem, not just acknowledge it.

Find Kelly herself in the video below talking about the “willpower instinct.”

Is Your Mind Revolving Around Stressful Thoughts?

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” William James, 19th American philosopher and psychologist

The Incessant Negative Thinking Problem

Unending negative thinking is your own worst enemy when it comes to staying focused under pressure. To add insult to injury, it’s a foe of your own creation. A clinical study conducted almost three decades ago established this from the get-go.

It demonstrated that people who tend to worry and stress out over tasks suffer from disruptive thinking patterns which impairs cognition. During the investigation, the participants’ inability to complete tasks intensified as the difficulty of the trial increased.

After all, concentrating on hardship is a one-way ticket to meltdown city. Do you recognize yourself in this pattern? I sure did, and that’s when I understood that I shouldn’t let stress dominate my life.

Although it might sound impossible to a chronic stressor, we as human beings have the power to choose our thoughts. William James, the founding father of psychological functionalism, firmly believed in the mind’s capability to filter disruptive clutter.

The Solution to Disruptive Thinking Patterns

  • Understand toxic thought patterns. Discovering the origin of your disruptive tangents is essential in combating them. What makes these toxic feelings tick? Knowing yourself is essential on the path towards healing.
  • Anticipate stressful moments. When are you most likely to tense up? For example, I become worried before events which require public speaking to any extent. Find your trigger and anticipate the moments it is set off.
  • Nip harmful ideas in the bud. Once you catch an intrusive thought starting to form, replace it with its optimistic counterpart. Instead of “I’m going to fail at this presentation and get fired”, think “I’m going to rock this presentation because I came prepared to blow some minds”.

Are You Surrounded by Negative People? 

“Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher.” Oprah Winfrey, television personality  

The Problem of Having Negative Company 

There are many people out there who don’t react well to working under pressure or don’t understand how to handle stress. When faced with these situations, they become the Negative Nancy of the team. Unfortunately, this attitude is contagious.

In other words, your cynical colleague and his or her gloomy attitude will rub off on everyone else. According to a study conducted in 2010 and cited by Wired Magazine, feelings and emotions can be infectious in the same way that diseases are. Thus, you might catch a case of pessimism from your coworker as easily as you catch a cold.

What is more, constantly having these thoughts shapes the way your brain works. A study conducted in 2013 on more than 30,000 people revealed that dwelling on negative feelings is the main reason why people today experience mental health issues.

The Solution to Toxic Individuals

  • Choose your battles. Knowing when to engage with a negative coworker and when to let it go is essential when your aim is to stay focused. Not every single malicious comment is worth responding to.
  • Set boundaries. Focus on setting boundaries for yourself as far as unconstructive conversations go. You might not be able to ignore everyone, but you can tune them out when necessary.
  • Avoid negative people entirely. There are some negative people out that simply can’t be tuned out by limits. If that is the case, it might be time for you to cut ties with these toxic individuals that are hindering your progress.

Evan Carmichael and his team have put together a great compilation of highly esteemed speakers to convey the strategy of dealing with negative, toxic people. Check the video below:


Do Tasks Seem Colossally Complicated? Break Them Down!

“If it takes less than two minutes, then do it now.” – George Allen, creator of the Getting Things Done® methodology

The Problem of Complicated Tasks

Sometimes, it’s the very nature of the job that turns working under pressure into a challenge. In my line of work, I was regularly faced with more complex tasks that paradoxically had tighter deadlines attached to them.

Of course, my first emotion was always in the family of panic and anxiety. Fortunately, this is how I’ve learned that it doesn’t have to be like that.  Dividing one large duty into smaller chunks is a universal task management hack for those times when a project is overly dense and complicated.

What I like to do here is apply a version of George Allen’s GTD methodology and start with responsibilities that take no more than 2 minutes to complete. It all flows better from there.

The Solution of Uncomplicated Tasks

  • Create a step by step approach. Never attempt to do it all at once. The step by step approach is the most efficient when it comes to staying focused in stressful situations. Regardless of what you have to do, there’s surely a way to complete the task gradually.
  • Focus on the task, not its outcome. There are numerous benefits to focusing on the process instead of its results. Dealing with mistakes becomes easier, and so does taking control.
  • Work around the 2-minute rule. As I’ve mentioned above, I find that breaking down everything into 2-minute chunks is always great for my productivity level. For example, “write up the weekly report and send it via email” starts with “open the spreadsheet”.

Here’s Jack Ma’s approach to “uncomplicate” the impossible:

Are Deadlines Looming over You?

“Deadlines are a great antidote to insecurity.” – Tina Brown, journalist and magazine editor

The Problem to Imminent Deadlines

Many of us perceive working under pressure as a threat. This is a normal response elicited by the brain when faced with stressful situations. However, it eventually ends up hurting the outcome of our actions, causing us to deliver a subpar performance.

To put it bluntly, perceiving any difficulty as menacing impairs attention, judgment, and short-term memory. What is more, we are far more likely to act impulsively once the circumstances at hand become more and more demanding.

And if I know one thing about behavioral patterns, it’s that being impetuous is never good news when it comes to your professional life. It might be romantic, but it’s certainly not business-savvy.

The Solution to Impending Deadlines

  • Transform the threat into a challenge. Thriving under pressure has less to do with handling stress and more to do with your mindset. Stop feeling threatened by your deadlines, and start viewing them as challenges on the way towards your goal.
  • Adjust your thought patterns. To further this cognitive transformation, you need to adopt something Performing Under Pressure authors Hendrie Weisinger and J.P. Pawliw-Fry call “challenge thinking”. Don’t think of your task as a mere project, but rather an opportunity to give it your best.
  • Slow down and breathe. When pressure cracks down on you, you will naturally start thinking faster. Instead of falling into this trap, slow down and breathe for a moment. Use the technique below.

Final Thoughts

“Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.” – Arthur Ashe, three-time Grand Slam winner

Learning how to function in stressful situations at the workplace has been an eye-opening journey. Fretting over the outcome of every single task I pursued was the main impediment in staying focused for me. And I didn’t even worry solely about the final result.

It was the little things that drove me insane.

Every single step along the way, I kept thinking “if I mess this up now, then the next thing I do will come out all wrong”, and other variations of the same intrusive pattern. I dreaded deadlines and couldn’t stop overthinking every single pessimistic scenario.

I’m still discovering how to be more confident every day, so you could say that it’s a work in progress.

As a nice wrapup to everything we’ve detailed above on working under pressure, here is a video from TED-Ed that I found particularly comprehensive and fun:

In the next chapter…

This has been the second installment in my series on how to stay focused. I hope you’ve learned how to cope with professional stress and workplace pressure after reading it. Join me again next time for an ample discussion on practical mindfulness and on the go meditation techniques. In the meantime, feel free to leave any comments or suggestions below. See you soon!

Author: Florina

I’m passionate about personal development and growth, personality traits, and all things related. When I’m not working on myself, I enjoy hiking in the great outdoors, reading, watching movies, and taking care of my indoor garden. But my strongest passion will always be self-help. 

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