How can you do great work under pressure? Not necessarily your “best” work; most people do not “do their best work under pressure.” Best work requires time for reflection and reconsideration and polishing. The only people who really do their best work under pressure are those who don’t do any work without it – which means that their work is never polished and well thought out. Still, under the right conditions, pressure can help you perform well.
On February 15, 1957, the R&B group The Coasters was working in the studio at Atlantic Records with the songwriting and producing team of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. The record company execs had given the group three hours of studio time, and they were expected to come up with four good tracks – an A-side and a B-side for two single 45-rpm records. This was standard operating procedure at Atlantic; if a group only managed to lay down three songs, the third song was as good as useless to the suits, since they would not release a one-sided single. The problem for The Coasters and Lieber and Stoller was that the first three songs had taken almost an hour each to record. They had about nine minutes left in the studio to record one more releasable three-minute song.
Lieber and Stoller had a song at hand, and they were game to try to produce it. The two men were both only 24 years old, but they had been writing songs together for seven years, and had already penned two classics, “Kansas City” and “Hound Dog”. They had also formed and run their own record company, Spark Records, where they had written and produced songs for several vocal groups. When Atlantic Records bought Spark, it brought Lieber and Stoller on board, too, and by 1957 the pair had as much know-how and experience in songwriting and studio work as almost anyone else in the nascent rock music industry. The Coasters, too, had chops. The group had been recently formed, but each of its four members – Carl Gardner, Bobby Nunn, Leon Hughes, and Billy Guy – had been singing professionally since the early 1950s, and Gardner and Nunn had worked with Lieber and Stoller at Spark Records.
The group and the producers took the new song and, in Lieber’s words, “just roared into” it. Facing the pressure of a nine-minute deadline, they quickly worked out the arrangement, rehearsed the phrasing and harmonies, and then set to work laying down the recording. It came off beautifully. “Everybody was together,” Lieber would later say. “It was one of those moments in time that rarely happens.” In nine minutes – one-sixth the time it had taken to lay down each of the other tracks – they had recorded “Searchin’”. The group’s first huge hit, it went to #1 on the R&B chart and #3 on the Pop chart and established The Coasters as one of the most popular acts in the U.S.
What happened during those nine minutes? Lieber’s description suggests that the people in the studio that day had entered flow – the mental state in which individuals perform with complete involvement, focus, and energy. Colloquially, they were in a groove; they were lost in their work. Because flow is associated with both high skill and intense concentration, it is often a highly desirable and productive mode in which to perform at work.
So how can you enter flow and enjoy its advantages? Mihály Csikszentmihályi, the psychologist who first proposed the concept of flow, suggests that three conditions must be in place in order for someone to slip into flow at work: clear goals, quick feedback, and a balance between ability and task. The Coasters’ nine-minute recording session for “Searchin’” provides a demonstration, and suggests why, under the right circumstances, a little time pressure actually can help us perform better. First, the goals in the studio that day were crystal clear – Lieber and Stoller had a song, and The Coasters had to get it on tape. Second, feedback would be coming as soon as the finished product was played to the Atlantic Records executives. (Note that the feedback is important not to help hone the finished product, but to convey the significance of the work; when the results of your work enter some indefinite bureaucratic void, it is harder to believe that what you do actually matters, or that you should devote any particular attention to it.)
Third, the talent and experience of the people in the studio were matched to the demands of the task at hand. In general, flow occurs when people are faced with levels of challenge that fully engage their gifts and know-how. What if those gifts and know-how are unusually well developed? The Coasters were seasoned performers, and Leiber and Stoller had been putting music together all their adult lives. They had very high skill levels, and so required very high levels of challenge to engage them. Under ordinary circumstances, recording a song would not have been that challenging. But recording one in nine minutes? That cranked the challenge level up just high enough so that the musicians and producers could move into flow and create a great record.
This is where the legend of “best work under pressure” comes from. When something is within your ability, time pressure can raise the challenge just enough to cause flow, which can produce great work. Not your best work – best work is always work that has had time for review, correction, and amendment – but sometimes extremely good. And efficient, too; you may roar through something in one pressured hour that you might have dawdled over on a more relaxed afternoon. Imposing a little time pressure on yourself through judicious scheduling – or taking advantage of pressure when it arises through circumstance – may help you get into a productive, energized state of flow.