Improve Your Performance Under Pressure

There’s a fine line between stress and pressure. Stress is primarily a feeling, a normal reaction to pressure. Pressure, on the other hand, is not a feeling. It’s a demand to perform – usually at a high level, often at a specific place and time. This demand can come from your own internal thoughts, feelings, and desires, or it can be imposed on you by external situations and forces.

For example, if you’re in the middle of a tennis match, you’re probably feeling pressure to hit that serve or return that volley in a way your opponent can’t handle. Depending on how well you play tennis, you may or may not feel some level of stress associated with that pressure.

It’s not the pressure, but the stress it can produce that often has objective consequences in your body. Although stress and pressure are distinct, the two often go hand in hand, and your efforts to control them – before they control you – should be fine-tuned accordingly.

I’ve previously dealt with stress here and here. In this column, I’m going to offer some helpful suggestions on monitoring and favorably controlling pressure:

Pressure Can Be Good

In one sense, pressure is the drive that gets you up and out, into the world, striving to accomplish a task, project, or goal. In a scenario like this, pressure can be good.

We’ve all heard stories about children of the very wealthy who want for nothing, and who grow up to be lazy, selfish, and incompetent. We’ve also heard stories of children of the very poor who must fend for themselves, and who grow up to be hard-working, generous, and capable.

While not always the case, stories like these undeniably contain kernels of truth.

Too Much of a Good Thing Can Be Bad

People under too much pressure, on the other hand, may quit, break down, or otherwise fail to cope. We’ve all seen and heard of people who “choke” – their performance drops off precipitously – under too much pressure.

Scientists who have studied the results of pressure on human behavior find there is a “sweet spot,” a level of pressure that tends to produce maximum performance.

While different for different people, the “sweet spot” of pressure is a level where a person feels enough pressure to try very hard, but not so much pressure that its strain and stress takes a toll on their capabilities.

Study Your Own Performance Under Pressure

To take advantage of this knowledge, keep notes on your own performance under various pressure scenarios. At work, at play, and in as many situations as possible, pay attention to the level of pressure you are feeling, along with your ability to produce a satisfactory outcome in that situation.

Over a period of weeks, months, and years, you’ll come to recognize a pattern that helps identify your own personal “sweet spot” of pressure. Recognizing this will make it easier for you to stay more often within your optimum range.

When Pressure Mounts Too High

It’s usually uncomfortable when pressure climbs too high. We begin to fear or avoid our responsibilities, and our performance markedly drops off.

As you begin to notice you’re feeling more than a comfortable level of pressure to perform, you can take steps to reduce it. For example:

  • Stretch out the time line, so you can go slower on your tasks, projects, and goals.
  • Thin out your “to do” list, so you can focus on fewer items and give each one more attention and effort.
  • Get help, so you can spread the pressure among a larger group and reduce the individual burden on you.
  • Organize and plan better, so you can break down your tasks, projects, and goals into chunks that are easier to handle, and simultaneously reduce the chances of unwanted surprises.

When Pressure Drops Too Low

It’s sometimes comfortable when pressure drops too low. In fact, we often take vacations purposely to reduce the pressure we’re feeling. But most of the time, too little pressure results in fewer accomplishments, or unusually poor results – or both.

As you begin to notice you’re feeling less than your optimum level of pressure, you can take steps to increase it. For example:

  • Tighten up the time line, so you must go faster on your tasks, projects, and goals.
  • Add to your “to do” list, so you must get up to speed on each task more quickly, retain more operational information, and make important choices more quickly.
  • Take on additional responsibility, so you load up with extra concerns and more deadlines than before.
  • Systematically prioritize, so you can spend a greater percentage of your time working on urgent and important tasks, projects, and goals.

The overall goal here is better self-management, so the pressure you feel is far less subject to random, external, unanticipated developments, and far more often an aspect of your work and your life that is under your control.

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