Measurement of the mechanical properties of single cells is of increasing interest both from a fundamental cell biological perspective and in the context of disease diagnostics. In this study, we show that tracking cell shape dynamics during trypsin-induced de-adhesion can serve as a simple but extremely useful tool for probing the contractility of adherent cells. When treated with trypsin, both SW13−/− epithelial cells and U373 MG glioma cells exhibit a brief lag period followed by a concerted retraction to a rounded shape. The time–response of the normalized cell area can be fit to a sigmoidal curve with two characteristic time constants that rise and fall when cells are treated with blebbistatin and nocodazole, respectively. These differences can be attributed to actomyosin-based cytoskeletal remodeling, as evidenced by the prominent buildup of stress fibers in nocodazole-treated SW13−/− cells, which are also two-fold stiffer than untreated cells. Similar results observed in U373 MG cells highlights the direct association between cell stiffness and the de-adhesion response. Faster de-adhesion is obtained with higher trypsin concentration, with nocodazole treatment further expediting the process and blebbistatin treatment blunting the response. A simple finite element model confirms that faster contraction is achieved with increased stiffness.