One of the most pernicious myths I’ve seen people carry around is the idea that pressure somehow makes us better. Do any of these sound familiar?
“I do my best work under pressure.”
“I can’t focus unless there’s a deadline bearing down on me.”
“I thrive on stressful situations.”
Many people have the idea that stress and/or pressure is necessary to do good work. If you’re in the camp that believes that, I’ve got some bad news for you. Pressure doesn’t make anyone better. And, stress has some inevitable consequences that are almost certainly not what you want.
First, let’s be clear about the difference. I’m following what I understand to be the generally accepted definitions, which are:
Pressure: The feeling that the results in some situation are important, uncertain, and my responsibility (i.e., the results depend on my actions and I will be judged on the outcome).
Stress: The feeling that results from the belief that I don’t have enough resources (time, money, assistance, etc.) or ability (skill, talent, knowledge, etc.) to be successful in some situation.
Now, there’s definitely a relationship between the two. As I believe the situation is more important, the pressure increases. And, as I believe the situation is more important, the more likely I am to mentally raise the bar on success, which then makes stress increase.
So, why is this a problem? There’s a whole package of research around the biological effects of stress hormones on cognition1, but the executive summary is that stress hormones:
- interfere with encoding long-term memory, so if you’re trying to study and remember things under stress, there’s a good probability that you won’t remember it long-term.
- impair short-term memory. Ever been trying to do a bunch of things all at once, walk into the next room to do something, and then forget what it was you were going in there to do? Probably stress hormones at work.
- impair your declarative memory (memory for facts or words). If you’re stressed, your memory of the things that you read or hear will be reduced. (Are you seeing a pattern here?)
- enhance, on the other hand, memory of emotional arousal. When you’re stressed, you’re more likely to remember highly charged events, which is probably not what you want if you’re trying to do better work.
- lead to poorer overall cognitive functioning. If you’re trying to do work that you need to think about, this is … maybe not great?
There’s also a package of research around performance under pressure, which is much easier to summarize:2
The bottom line—pressure is the enemy of success. It undermines performance and helps us fail.
I immediately hear all the sports fans in the audience saying, “But what about clutch players? Aren’t they better under pressure?” Actually, no. When you actually look at the data (the canonical study here is about basketball free throws, but there are others), what you find is that without exception, players are worse under pressure than they are in normal situations. There are, of course, players who are less affected by pressure than others, but everyone is worse under pressure.
And, although people often feel more creative under pressure, studies have shown that their actual output under pressure situations is less creative, not more.
So, what is the key to better performance? Like most things, there is no one simple trick. But, there are a few things that can help:
- Relaxation: One of the root causes of both stress and pressure is our perception of the importance of the situation. By mentally magnifying the importance of the situation, we can increase stress and pressure; by mentally diminishing or de-emphasizing the importance of the situation, we can decrease stress and pressure.
For example, I had the opportunity to give a presentation recently. Over the course of my career, I’ve given probably a couple hundred presentations. Since this one was the first in a while, I found myself feeling stressed about the outcome, and thinking something like “This is my only opportunity to get this right.” But, of course, that’s crazy. There are always more opportunities. As I reminded myself of that, I felt the pressure easing off.
- Supportive Self-Talk: I’ve written elsewhere about supportive self-talk. When feeling stressed or pressured, though, what’s also really helpful is to flashback to our successes (which hopefully you’ve been acknowledging along the way).
Back to the presentation example: As I felt my feelings of stress increase, I reminded myself of all the presentations I’ve given before, in all the different contexts, and how I felt after giving a successful presentation. By talking through my past successes, I increase my feelings of competence, which decreases stress.
- View The Situation as a Challenge: It’s NBA playoff season as I write this, and I’m again struck by the consistency of tone among athletes when interviewed about being in a difficult situation. Almost uniformly, when asked “Your team is down 0-2 in the series, how are you going to handle it?” or “How will you handle facing against one of the best players in the world?”, the response is something like “I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Reframing the situation as a challenge eases the pressure, because the expectation of success is reduced, and it’s easier to transition to the mindset of “what can I learn from this” if things aren’t going well.
- Prepare: Once I’ve done all of the above, my mindset should be appropriately adjusted, and I can start actually doing. No athlete goes into a game without spending endless hours in practice. In my presentation example, although doing practice run-throughs of the presentation had not been part of my routine for a long time, I did four or five complete walkthroughs of the presentation, as well as another couple walkthroughs of some parts that I was finding problematic.
If you find yourself believing that you do your best work under pressure, or if you find yourself under pressure a lot, try experimenting with the above strategies. I bet you’ll find that your performance improves and you have more fun doing it.
- For a good summary, try:
Lupien SJ, Maheu F, Tu M, Fiocco A, Schramek TE. The effects of stress and stress hormones on human cognition: Implications for the field of brain and cognition. Brain Cogn. 2007 Dec;65(3):209-37. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2007.02.007. Epub 2007 Apr 26. PMID: 17466428. ↩
- This quote, and much of the research, comes from the excellent “Performing Under Pressure” by Dr. Hendrie Weisinger and J. P. Pawliw-Fry. ↩