When are you most likely to get something done? When you have lots of free time and the need for completion is months down the road? Or are you more likely to cram for that big exam, clean the guest room before your in-laws come to visit, put that proposal together, or write that blog just a few hours before the deadline? People often say they perform better under pressure and, although there is some truth to the motivation of stress, there is also a crucial cost to this strategy for productivity.
In 2015, The Institute for Human Health and Potential completed a seven-year study of over 12000 individuals exploring how people truly perform in high-pressure situations (Weisinger & Pawliw-Fry, 2015). To their surprise, people reported feeling highly creative or productive on deadline or performance day. However, people’s performance and creativity actually waned on these days and continued to be lower for a period of time afterwards. In a similar study (Amabile, Hadley, & Kramer, 2002), it was found this stifled creativity effect lingers for two days after a deadline’s been met or a task has been completed.
Keys to understanding stress:
-High-pressure situations are more than just stressful. The outcome is particularly important, so although settling the stress is key, we also need to finish the task. The significance of the outcome is what adds the “cooker” element to the pressure. Finish that project, or you might lose your job; hit those high notes on your solo, or all your family and friends will see your humiliation; stay composed in that presentation, or you might get passed over for the promotion.
-Stress causes us to tighten up. When our stress response turns on, our bodies, thoughts, and expectations of others tend to narrow and become more rigid. In this state, we lose our capacity to have new ideas, see the connections between things, and have empathy for others or ourselves. When the outcome is important to us, we then become a barrier to ourselves and others to achieve a positive outcome.
-If we are performing something that we are good at and for which we are well-practiced, our implicit, procedural memory will carry us through the task. Our muscles and thoughts follow well-travelled pathways to repeat what we have done before. However, stress tends to waken the worry circuits in our thinking brain. This clutters up our focus, potentially causing us to shift from our well-practiced procedural memory to using our working memory as if we were performing the task for the first time. Stress slows us down and makes our performance clunky and disconnected. When we try too hard to do something well that we already know, we often do worse.
The researchers of the Human Health and Potential study found that when people harnessed their own internal resources to manage their attention and focus, they were able to perform to their own personal best. One way to access these internal resources that we all possess are mindfulness practices.
At their foundation, mindfulness practices are about paying attention to the here and now, without rigidity or judgement, and with openness. Here are three key mindfulness strategies directly related to managing high-pressure situations:
1. Get clear on your intention.
Be well connected to your values and mission in life or business and this will allow you to use that as your anchor to steady your efforts. Continually reset your attention on this to anchor your focus and ward off distractions. If stress mounts with the pressure, remember why this project is important to you and ensure your efforts align with these values. That way you will be more likely to do your best.
2. Get friendly with the present, no matter what it is.
Consistently, the people who perform the best under pressure are able to keep moving forward while being open to what is unfolding in the moment. Holding our awareness to deal with what is right in front of us, rather than getting pulled into the future or ruminating over the past, is what allows us to stay in approach mode. This keeps our creative centre open and able to adapt. Just keep breathing and doing your thing, accepting each moment as it comes.
3. Develop emotional intelligence.
Mindfulness connects us to our bodies and our senses, allowing us to be aware of our emotions and empathize with others. This capacity is crucial for tolerating the waves of stressful emotions that are a part of high-pressure situations, and to be able to soothe or use our emotions rather than have them overwhelm us. It is only when we are connected to our own emotional experience that we can also empathize and connect with others. This capacity is central for eliciting your own best performance, or for bringing out the best in others that you may be leading or collaborating with.
It is almost impossible to avoid the experience of high pressure that can stifle productivity and creativity. If we utilize skills cultivated through mindfulness, we can buffer the negative impacts of pressure, and potentially boost our creativity by combining the motivation of the deadline with the grounded focus of mindful attention.
Amabile, T.M., Hadley, C.N., & Kramer, S. (2002) Creativity under the gun, in Harvard Business Review, 80 ,8, 52-61.
Weisinger, H. & Pawliw-Fry, J.W. (2015). Performing under pressure: The science of doing your best when it matters most. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group.