Cultivate Performance Under Pressure

For decades, I’ve believed – and told others – that almost anyone can produce a top-notch performance, deliverable, or result on a sunny day when they feel fine, when resources are plentiful, and when everything’s going right. But on a cold and rainy day, when you feel weak and ill, you’re running short of the resources you need, and things are going horribly wrong at every turn, you can turn in a top-notch performance, deliverable, or result only after you’ve already “made your bones” as an expert.

One of the most important differences between those who can and those who can’t when the going gets tough is the ability to perform well under pressure.

Typically, you’ll face a variety of important, watershed situations in your work and your life at both ends of the “pressure” spectrum: pure joy with no pressure and pure pressure with no joy. In most cases, you’ll have no control over when these situations crop up and how much pressure they carry. Because of this uncontrollable uncertainty, cultivating your ability to perform well under pressure always pays off: it’s a useful way increase your overall level of effectiveness and also build a solid reputation for reliability and excellence, come what may.

Here’s how to get started:

Master Your Skill-Set

The ability to perform well under pressure depends – naturally enough – first and foremost on the plain-and-simple ability to perform well. If you haven’t mastered the skills, knowledge, and experience to do a particular task, complete a specific project, or achieve an explicit goal, you’ll likely perform worse – not better – when the squeeze is added on.

That’s why professional athletes “put in the work” to practice the individual skills required by their sport. That’s why you’ll likely get a better outcome from the doctor who specializes in treating your ailment and handles cases like yours all day, every day. These and countless other high-performing individuals understand that mastery offers the best antidote to the difficulties of working under pressure.

Learn From Your Experience

In the process of acquiring mastery, you’ll inevitably encounter a wide range of situations, difficulties, complexities, and outright “stumpers” that can help educate you in your chosen endeavors. It’s important to wring all the information and understanding you possibly can from these experiences. The lessons you can learn on your journey toward mastery are invaluable.

There’s an old joke about a company having a problem with a complex machine that suddenly stops working. Many try to fix it, but no one can get it going again. Finally, a master craftsman shows up, looks at the machine for five minutes, and makes one adjustment. The machine instantly starts working like new. When he asks for a fee of $50,000, company officials demand he itemize such an outrageous charge for so little time and effort. He tells them: “I charged you $100 for making the adjustment, and $49,900 for knowing what to adjust.”

Practice Working Under Pressure

With mastery, information, and full understanding available in your portfolio, you still won’t perform well under pressure unless you get used to feeling squeezed.

When I worked with some high-powered investors who routinely risked the price of a house, or more, on each of their stock or option trades, they convinced me that “paper trading” – the practice of pretending to bet on specific stock market price movements – was helpful only for learning the mechanics of particular trades. The peerless method for learning how to stay cool when the heat is on, they taught me, is accumulating actual experience:

  • Starting with relatively low-pressure situations,
  • Getting familiar and comfortable with your feelings when being squeezed, in their case by the pressure of serious money at risk,
  • Steadily employing your skills, information, and experience despite feeling all that pressure, and
  • Gradually exposing yourself to more and more pressure until it no longer impairs your analysis, decision-making, courage, and overall performance.

Cultivate Calm

You’ll become more capable under heavy loads of pressure when you consciously seek to cultivate a feeling of calmness, relaxation, and comfort despite being squeezed.

You can do this because the mind is a curious instrument you can train, like a muscle, to respond the way you want under specific conditions.

For example, you can become more effective when working remotely after establishing a start-up routine: working at a certain place, at a certain time, having completed a certain ritual, and so forth. Your mind learns to respond to your start-up routine by shifting into “work mode.”

It’s the same with learning to feel calm, relaxed, and comfortable. Once you train your mind to respond with calmness to a specific set of signals, it can quickly and reliably shed fear and nervousness in difficult situations. The signals can be almost anything, such as:

  • Taking a few deep breaths,
  • Touching your thumbs to your forefingers,
  • Closing your eyes momentarily, and
  • Visualizing your “happy place.”

There are many sources of information on ways to cultivate calm. Investigate and find the one(s) that work best for you. Then practice them assiduously.

The result of all this personal development will be a gradual, but definite improvement in your ability to withstand the bad luck and trouble that all of us occasionally encounter. When others become paralyzed or knocked off their game by unwanted, unavoidable, restrictive demands, your calmness and comfort under pressure will better equip you to utilize your mastery and achieve the best possible outcome.

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