Pressure vs Performance: A delicate balancing act
As emotions go, stress has had some pretty bad press over the years – the state of ‘being stressed’ has been labelled a weakness, a fault and even a sign of incompetence, and is definitely not a good thing to admit to if you want to gain respect as a great leader.
This means most of us spend a lot of time trying to pretend (to ourselves and others) that we’re not actually stressed, while unconsciously continuing to subject ourselves to stressful situations which, unsurprisingly, make us feel stressed. We leave things to the last minute, overload our to do lists and overwhelm ourselves with demands on our time, all the while pushing down that rising feeling of guilt about the stress we’re experiencing, which then lurks in the back of our minds as something to beat ourselves up about.
So what’s going on? Why do we do this to ourselves even though we know it’s bad for us? Well the truth is, stress has been given a bad rap – it’s actually not all bad! There is in fact a positive side to stress: pressure. Without pressure we wouldn’t achieve anything, and this is why we unconsciously inject it into our lives - pressure is the invisible boot that kicks us in the pants when we need to get things done!
Have you ever left something to the last possible minute and then been amazed at the results you were actually able to produce with the deadline breathing down your neck? I’m even doing this today, writing this blog post on the morning I want to send it out! Sure, there are times when doing this produces dreadful results, but there are also times when it feels like the pressure of the deadline creates a magical reaction, bringing out our inner superpowers, such as intensity of focus, clarity of vision and decisive actions that see us perform at our absolute best.
We are unconsciously drawn to the need to add pressure in our lives, but because we’re not aware of this we sometimes create too much and the pressure turns into unproductive stress. The trick is to maintain enough pressure to produce the magic, without allowing it to tip us over the edge into unproductivity.
In this diagram you can see the delicate relationship between pressure and performance.
As you can see at the left hand side of the scale, when there is not enough pressure on us to do something, there is little incentive for us to focus our energy and attention on it. There may be other more urgent or interesting tasks competing for our attention, or if there is absolutely no pressure anywhere we may just lapse into a state of bored apathy where we can’t really be bothered to do anything at all.
So if pressure doesn’t come from an external source we apply it to ourselves – either through procrastination (leaving things to the last minute) or by attaching great importance to the task. As the pressure increases, we move into the magical “area of best performance”. Here, we are able to focus on the task and perform well – there is enough pressure on us to focus our attention but not so much that it disrupts our performance.
The problem is that at a certain point, pressure can tip us over the edge from super-productive to stressed, anxious and overwhelmed. This is because we only have the capacity to manage a limited number of thoughts at one time – and if those thoughts all become negative (as happens when the dark side of stress begins to rear its ugly head) we lose our ability to clearly focus on the task at hand.
In this state, decision making and creativity begin to be impaired and performance begins to suffer. Tests have proven that highly stressed people are unable to process additional information and this is why they sometimes continue on a path or course even if it is clearly flawed. I’m sure you, like me, have witnessed this before in your own leaders and I have certainly been guilty of it myself, blindly blundering on in a flap instead of stopping, taking stock and reassessing the situation.
The solution, as with all matters of self management, is to gain deeper awareness of your own relationship with stress, in order to find your perfect pressure levels for optimum performance. Take a step back and look at the stress in your current life. Where is it producing productive amount of pressure and where is it actually holding you back? Which of it is self imposed and what adjustments could you make, to move back into the ‘optimum performance zone’? Ultimately the only person who can control your own stress levels is you – and learning to find this equilibrium is an essential skill to develop if you want to become highly effective in everything you do.
View original article here
Alison Rentoul is ex yacht crew with 15 years of yachting experience, and a professionally trained personal development coach working with crew worldwide, helping them realise their highest potential at every level. See www.thecrewcoach.com for more information.