Have you ever worked on a project that went beautifully? You knew exactly what to do, you were operating at the peak of your skills and abilities, and you seemed to be catching all the breaks? Your productivity and success were pretty high on that project, weren’t they?
But now think about some other projects you’ve worked on that were relative nightmares. Maybe you weren’t fully motivated, and you didn’t give the project your full attention. Or maybe you were in over your head, with too many competing demands and not enough time or resources to meet them. Maybe you also made some foolish choices on that one. Your productivity on that project was pretty low, wasn’t it? And if you experienced any success at all, it was probably far less than you had originally anticipated.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could dial up that higher level of productivity and success whenever you wanted to?
Well, you can!
Maintaining your maximum productivity and success levels may sound like a dream, but it’s actually a function of managing the pressure you’re feeling while you work.
According to research, there’s a direct relationship between the pressure you feel to accomplish a particular goal and your performance on tasks and projects that contribute toward that goal.
It works like this: When you feel too little pressure to perform, you don’t give a project your best efforts. When you feel too much pressure to perform on a particular project, you’re not able to give your best efforts. Either way, your productivity and success on that project fall off rather sharply.
This leads to a simple rule for maximizing your productivity: manage the pressure to perform, and you manage your performance.
Why Pressure Matters
The psychological mechanisms at work here are fairly simple and intuitive to understand:
Situation 1: You feel too little pressure to perform. In this situation, you’re feeling “under-challenged.” Maybe the task is too easy for you. Maybe you’ve done it too many times before. Maybe you’re bored with it, or temporarily focused on something else in your work or your life that’s more important to you. Maybe no one of importance will be evaluating your results on this task.
For whatever reason, you feel little or no reason to work hard at the task. The result: you’re going to be satisfied with sloppy, slipshod, “quick and dirty,” or otherwise inadequate results.
Situation 2: You feel too much pressure to perform. In this situation, you’re feeling “over-challenged.” Maybe the task is too difficult or complex for you. Maybe you’ve never done it before, and you’re not certain of exactly how to proceed. Maybe you’re scared of it, or so heavily focused on delivering “perfection” that nothing in your work or your life is more important to you. Maybe someone of extreme importance will be evaluating your results on this task.
For whatever reason, you feel so much pressure to work on the task that you’re nervous, “frozen,” second-guessing or over-thinking your every move. The result: you’re not adequately able to access your existing knowledge, skills, experience, and applicable competencies. You’re not going to be working at your peak capabilities, and your results are going to be far less than you’d deliver if you were more relaxed and comfortable in the situation.
How to Manage the Pressure
In both cases, the way to improve your performance is to adjust the level of pressure you feel so you’re operating more closely to your comfort zone.
There are basically two different factors that influence the level of “pressure to perform” you feel toward a particular task or goal. They are:
- Your Skill Level.
- The Task’s Complexity.
This gives rise to two different “adjustment techniques:”
Adjust Your Skill Level
Although you can’t dial your skill level up and down to meet the demands of each task you take on, you can work to increase your skill level so you’re capable of comfortably handling more and more difficult tasks. As a general rule, working to increase your level of skill is a good thing you ought to pursue – at least until you’re as skillful as you want or hope to be. With a higher level of skill, you can tackle more complex and demanding tasks without getting pulled out of your comfort zone.
At the same time, however, you should stay wary of tasks that are “too easy” for you. Either hand them off to someone else or pay extra attention to your performance on them so you don’t deliver slipshod results through inattention or lack of concern for quality results.
Adjust the Task’s Demands
At whatever level of skill you currently possess, tasks can be too easy for you, just right, or too difficult. When the fit between your skills and the task’s demands is not “just right,” you can sometimes adjust the task’s demand for skills by mixing it with other tasks or by dividing the task into smaller, simpler elements.
Mixing simple tasks with other tasks helps improve your performance because this tends to dial up the need to pay attention, exercise good judgment, and apply higher levels of skill. In addition to mixing in additional tasks, one simple way to increase a task’s complexity is to try to finish it faster than ever before. Another way is to tackle it without some tool or resource you normally apply to the task. The newly complicated task slides closer to your comfort zone.
Dividing demanding tasks helps improve your performance because simpler tasks tend to require less attention, less judgment, and often less skill. You can break the task into its component parts, or do part of it in one sitting, then take a break before doing another part of it. You can also ask for help with the task, or otherwise apply more resources than ever before. Again, the newly simplified task slides closer to your comfort zone.
Using this analysis and these techniques makes it entirely possible to function far more often in that “sweet spot” where work goes better than can be expected, your productivity pins the needle at the top end of the scale, and your success is extremely high (if not “off the charts”) in both your work and your life.
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