Productivity and pressure

Today’s mot du jour (said in a sophisticated French accent, naturellement) is “productive.” It’s 11.07am as I type this and already I’ve run five kilometres on the treadmill, sifted through the reams of crap accumulated in my desk drawers during my sixteen months here (binning most of it and saving a few nuggets that may be of use later on), applied for my New York visa, ordered both my travel money and insurance and made an exhaustively comprehensive to do list covering virtually every remaining minute of my working day (and indeed beyond, as this evening I’ll be helping my boyfriend move into his new place by lugging a massive suitcase from one end of London to the other in the name of love – or lunacy, I’m not sure which).

In short, I’m in the midst of a necessary manic phase, which has got me thinking about the nature of pressure. I don’t know about you but I have a love hate relationship with pressure. When I’m under huge amounts of it I panic; my hands sweat, my head pounds, my breathing is shallow. Sometimes (too often) I turn into a whimpering, gibbering mess in the corner, claiming between sobs that it’s all too much, I just can’t do it. But then a funny thing happens; I remind myself to breathe, drag myself out of the corner, put the kettle on and sit back down at my desk. And then I simply carry on. And you know what? If it wasn’t for the pressure bearing down on me I often wouldn’t complete the task I’d set out to achieve in the first place. In other words, much as it stresses me out, pressure is an essential part of my productivity. I work better with it than without it – and that’s a fact.

At school and university I could often be found at 2am the night before an important exam, cramming every bit of information I possibly could into my brain. It wasn’t that I hadn’t bothered to revise (well, it wasn’t always that), I just couldn’t focus properly until I was under sufficient pressure to be able to block everything else out. I’ll never forget the week before my dissertation was due when it dawned on me I really had left it too late, and I had to pull out every last stop to deliver on time. My body’s reaction to that particular period of pressure was somewhat extreme – I blacked out whilst hyperventilating over the choice of finishing my dissertation and attending a party. Needless to say I eventually (and sensibly, as wasn’t always customary in those days) opted to stay in and finish the dissertation, and thankfully went on to clinch an upper second degree as a result.

In today’s society pressure is, whether we like it or not, all around us. We feel pressure to succeed in every aspect of our lives, from our jobs to our relationships and even in our hobbies. Even those who seem, on the face of it, to be at the top of their game – the company CEO, for example – are under constant pressure to deliver better, smarter, cheaper. But the reason such people get to the top of their game is because they’ve managed to get a handle on the pressure and make it work to their advantage. They’ve understood that often pressure is a good thing which provides a necessary catalyst for change (if you don’t think change is a good thing, see yesterday’s post which, I hope, will change your mind – geddit?).

Now I’m afraid I really must be off, I’ve got a million and one things to do before the day is out and my hands are getting clammy….

This photo shows me at a time when I was under considerable pressure – to host and deliver a successful end of expedition ceremony in Borneo in 2011. You can tell from the sweat on my brow I was nervous (and also brown – so brown, sigh…), but fortunately my effort was passable and the event was a success. See? Pressure in action. I rest my case.

Desiderata

Three weeks ago I was informed my role at work was being made redundant. Well, the official line was that there was a business case for it to cease to exist and that I would therefore be entering a period of consultation, during which I would be quite welcome to put forward a counter proposal should I feel disinclined to agree with the reasoning for terminating my employment.

I felt no desire whatsoever to oppose the business case, in part because I knew I could never continue working for an employer that valued my contribution to the workplace so little they had held the metaphorical axe over my head in the first place. In the main, however, I didn’t wish to oppose it simply because I felt my time there was up.

It’s never nice to feel you’re not wanted, especially when you feel you have worked hard and delivered everything that was expected of you – if not more. But it’s vital for your sanity not to take it personally and to try and move on. You know your value even if they can’t see it, so instead of waiting around for your turn in the hangman’s noose find a new opportunity and avoid it.

It’s this attitude that’s helped me to see my impending redundancy in an entirely new light. I’d been looking (albeit casually) for other jobs for several weeks before the news came, and whilst it was a bolt out of the blue it’s a plain fact I wouldn’t have stayed for that much longer anyway. Being faced with redundancy was exactly the catalyst I needed to make the change I’d been craving, and fortunately my employers have at least been accommodating when it’s come to needing time off for interviews.

Speaking of interviews, I’d forgotten just how much I hate them. It’s horrible having every aspect of you put under the microscope and scrutinised; I’ve often wondered how introverts cope. A good interviewer can put you at ease in a moment – to some extent at least – but a bad one can leave you traumatised for years. And it’s not just down to how skilful the interviewer is, it’s as much about how well you ‘fit’ with the organisation itself.

Take the interview I had this morning as an example. On the face of it there was nothing wrong with either the organisation or the people. In fact, as my preparation had progressed I felt increasingly excited by it. But as soon as I walked through the door something felt amiss. There must have been nearly forty people in the room yet you could have heard a pin drop. Then, when I sat down in the interview room and reeled off my ‘pitch,’ I felt I had impressed them to some extent, but simply didn’t feel any rapport with them. We were all smiling, but to me those smiles felt empty. Something wasn’t right, and I knew in that instant I could never be happy there.

In stark contrast last week I had a second interview at another, smaller, organisation, where I felt I had clicked instantly with both the CEO and the lady who would be my boss were I to be offered the role. The atmosphere was relaxed and even though the interview itself was rigorous I didn’t feel at any point I was being deliberately caught out or put on the spot. Afterwards the PR assistant took me for a coffee to find out more about me. I knew they had seen ten people at first interview and were seeing me and one other people at the second stage, and I was told at the end of the day they were going to take the weekend to decide and come back to me on Monday.

After this morning’s interview I must admit I felt despondent. I knew if they asked me back for a second interview I wouldn’t want to go, but I also knew if the place I really wanted to work came back with a no I’d be back at the drawing board; not a drawing I was keen to start from scratch.

I walked along the river thinking about all I’ve learned over the past few weeks; how much of a difference it makes to at least try to be positive (even though it’s sometimes hard) and how important it is to make the most of every second, and not take people for granted. By the time I got to the train station I was feeling a lot better, and ready to rationalise whatever eventuality came my way.

Fortunately it was exactly the eventuality I’d been wishing for. And I’m now not only going to work for an organisation I think I could really, truly love, I’m also going to have time to pursue my dream of becoming a freelance writer.

To conclude I’m going to use the final verse of my favourite poem, Desiderata, by Max Ehrmann:

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its shams, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.