You can be in peak form when the deadline’s weeks away and nobody’s breathing down your neck. But faced with mounting stress and an impending deadline, how do you keep working without sacrificing quality? Can you work well under pressure?
Workplace stress has increased by nearly 20% in the past three decades, and pressure breeds stress. Foremost is boss pressure, such as tight deadlines, high workload, and micromanaging. But not all pressure is bad. With the right amount, you can thrive and even excel.
The right amount of stress keeps you alert and helps you adapt to whatever happens next, says one neuroscientist. This “just right” level’s called eustress, or the opposite of distress, which is when pressure overcomes you. There are proven ways to turn distress into eustress, boosting your performance.
Establish your own pre-performance ritual
Olympic athletes, competitors have their own routines to focus themselves, pump themselves up, or calm themselves before their event.
Swimming legend Michael Phelps listened to Eminem before races.
Gold medalist sprinter Usain Bolt started off his races by pointing to the sky, or another of his trademark poses.
Other athletes have more elaborate rituals like tennis star Rafael Nadal whose numerous on-court rituals include crossing lines using his right foot, taking off his jacket while jumping, scanning the crowd to find his family, and sipping his energy drink and water always in the same order.
Copywriters can take a page from legendary ad man David Ogilvy who drank rum and played Handel on the gramophone before writing. If you have a presentation, consider jumping up and down or bouncing on a trampoline before going on stage like the ubiquitous guru Tony Robbins.
These pre-game rituals may seem quirky to you, but this technique’s backed by science. Daniel McGinn, senior editor of the Harvard Business Review, in an interview with CNBC says there’s a growing body of research showing that adopting a pre-performance routine helps you perform better under pressure. Those little routines help your mind focus and primed for performance.
Deciding on a pre-performance ritual really depends on your needs. If you’re preparing for a pitch, listening to highly charged music like Phelps can help pump you up.
But if you need to stay focused on a tedious task like report writing, you can keep your mind sharp by organizing the pens based on color or brand. Maybe typing a motivational phrase or sentence on a blank page can help get you started on a positive note.
Turn anxiety into excitement
In high-pressure or stressful situations, activating an optimistic outlook can do wonders. A Harvard Business School study found that when you begin seeing a nerve-racking situation as an opportunity and not a threat, you’ll perform better.
Instead of focusing your attention on your anxiety and trying to calm down, reappraising this nervous energy as excitement will bolster your performance, whether it’s for public speaking or talking to your boss.
Saying, “I’m excited” before you go on stage or to meet a client can help you influence your own emotions. Researchers tested the effect of positive self-statements (pdf link) by asking a group of people to say “I feel anxious,” “I feel calm,” or “I feel excited” before performing various nerve-racking situations like public speaking and taking an IQ test.
The people who said they felt excited ended up feeling more confident and performing better as opposed to those who said, “I feel anxious.”
Creating an optimistic self-statement like “I’m excited” or “I can do this” can change the narrative in your head and improve your performance. Instead of coming from a place of fear, you start off viewing the daunting task as an opportunity to excel.
Remember your past triumphs
Think of the times you succeeded, such as that time you closed a deal, got the job, or aced an exam. Simply remembering triumphant times will give you more confidence because you know you managed to do it in the past.
Social psychologists found that job applicants who were told to recall a time when they felt powerful prior to the interview were much more likely (pdf link) to get a job offer. When you put yourself in this mindset, you will start to think that this current challenge is not so bad considering all the other challenges you managed to overcome in the past.
Placing trophies and awards in your office or desk can also remind you of past achievements. Looking at them, you’ll recall the difficulties you met along the way and how you managed to succeed. This reaffirms your sense of self-worth and keeps you motivated. It helps to have these mental techniques and reminders whenever you’re feeling unsure.
Focus on the task instead of fretting about the outcome
Pressure often results from worrying about things you can’t control. What if I fail? What if I humiliate myself? What if I lose? Those “what if” thoughts are counterproductive. Instead, focus on the things you can control – most likely that’s the work itself.
Our obsession with the outcome is a big deterrent to success. A major difference between normal people and highly successful people is that the latter can focus on the task at hand, even under great pressure. For students, focusing on the task means doing the necessary research. If you’re tasked with doing a presentation, start putting together your PowerPoint deck and practicing, practicing, practicing.
There are many different aspects to your task, so focus on breaking down your assignment into manageable steps and then do the work. This structure keeps you from worrying about outcomes.
Prepare for worst-case scenarios
While noted above, focusing on anxiety isn’t ideal during presentation day or at your deadline. The days before crunch time are safe and productive for digging into your anxiety. Preparation may not be fun, but it lessens anxiety. Athletes practice all the time, so do surgeons.
The best never stop refining their skills and practicing. Before the big day, think of all the things you need to do leading up to it. Make sure you cover everything.
After putting structure to your goal by breaking it down into manageable tasks, consider other extraneous factors that can affect your performance.
Go over the scenarios in your head and create solutions.
If you get stuck in a traffic jam, leave earlier than usual. If your laptop freezes, save your work in the cloud or save a copy on a flash drive. Have your plan B ready.
You can write down all the things that can go wrong during your presentation and find solutions for each one. This is t why high-powered individuals have personal assistants who take care of incidentals and inconveniences. We can’t all afford this luxury, but we’re probably better off doing it ourselves anyway.
Once all these other deterrents are dealt with, you’re free to focus on the main task that’s central in your pressure.
Stress leads to poor decision-making and mistakes.
Do some breathing exercises and focus on the present to calm yourself. Mindfulness meditation can control anxiety and stress in high-pressure workplaces. In one study, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) reduced the stress level for a group of nurses and increased their quality of life.
But if you’re not into meditation or you have trouble settling your racing thought, then physical exercise may be more your speed. A workout at the gym or going for a jog can help get rid of your excess nervous energy and release endorphins, our happy hormones. This might make it easier for you to recategorize your anxiety for excitement.
Have a cheerleader
Have someone who is supportive and believes in you. This might be your significant other, a colleague, friend, or mentor.
These people know you and are probably aware of your tendency to get anxious before a momentous event, so getting positive encouragement from them will bolster your confidence. They can even remind you about your successes and that what’s ahead is just another opportunity to get better.
Colleagues can sometimes be your best cheerleaders. Your shared experiences make them better equipped to empathize with your situation. Find a few trusted colleagues to form your workplace support system. Social support has been found to be a very helpful factor in managing stress.
Just talking to your colleagues about your difficulties at work can alleviate pressure. After all, you’re in the same environment. Aside from words of encouragement, they can also share their strategies for coping with their own stress.
You may already have your cheerleader in the form of a mentor or coach. The Cheerleader is a specific type of manager who takes a hands-off approach and is generous with positive feedback. Remember that your boss benefits from your good work, so you’ll find the support you need from them especially during crunch time.
Know when to push back
The right amount of pressure can spur you into action and keep you alert. However, when you’re already experiencing excessive pressure and prolonged stress, it’s time to push back. Scientists say that stress is only beneficial when it’s short-lived. Prolonged stress can have adverse effects on your health, such as lower immunity levels, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and mental health issues.
When the pressure becomes unmanageable, tell your boss to set reasonable deadlines and an acceptable workload. Only take on projects you can handle and delegate tasks to others. Finally, don’t shy away from reasonable pressure. As Henry Kissinger said, “A diamond is a chunk of coal that did well under pressure.”