Pressure is inescapable now. We’re still have only so many hours in which we can act, but the demands on our time are endless. One simple distinction that can help us put things in a more helpful light is this: Learning to perform under pressure isn’t the same thing as reducing the pressure we feel during the daily performance.
Time collapsed. Due to the the leveling of borders brought about by always-on connections and electronic tethers, we jam more and more into a finite box measuring 24 hours. We need to sleep, eat, and take care of ourselves and the ones who matter to us as well — sooner or later something’s got to give, and until then it’s our nerves which bear the strain of it all. That’s why the chief pressure point is how to deal with pressure: what can you do to lessen it, to de-pressurize without further harm to yourself or others?
Getting better at doing the job isn’t always the perfect solution, either. Usually, the reward for doing good work is more work.
No, the pressure that we want to alleviate is the one that comes from the heavy weight we look to bear every day, without any seeming relief. It’s like a mad Greek divine tragedy: Atlas was made to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, while Sisyphus was sentenced to roll a boulder up a hill and then watch it go back down, only for him to repeat the cycle again. Every day.
Practicing mindfulness and mastery can help us to perform better under pressure, but we need to learn to concentrate reducing the daily emotional and mental pressure as well. Both skills are needed to make the best use of your powers and time without burning out, breaking down or flying apart.
The Argument Against Pressure
When high-performance athletes are interviewed, they generally show the goal-focused mindset of professional Olympians. They’ve been taught by their trainers and their coaches how to use the pressure, how to channel it, and when to ignore it. This kind of support isn’t readily available to the average civilian, or even regularly to seasoned professionals and executives. What we all have in common though, is the same basic warning system that evolved over hundreds of millennia of evolution to warn us about threats and essentially keep us alive.
Overwhelmed by the daily, unrelenting ‘threats’ it receives every day — it is that overworked warning system that gives us the pressured feeling. We have no saber-toothed tigers rustling in the grass, no sudden sounds of snapping twigs. We have alerts, pings, call, interruptions, sudden emergencies…the list doesn’t stop, and neither does the stimulation, and our ancient alarms buzz all day, every day.
- Even with no real okay-you’re-gonna-DIE threat.
- Even over really innocuous things, like waiting ‘a little too long.’
We worry over things that have no real shape or form or threat — and that very amorphousness, that shapelessness, poses an even bigger threat because it can shift to adapt the form that’s tormenting you in the moment. It can poke you all the time. Saber-tooth tigers have nothing on that.
The Pressure Pandemic
It is this nameless anxiety that eats away at our mental and physical reserves. We lose weight, time, energy, and sleep over it.
The effect snowballs. The threat of actual death-death isn’t there, but the nameless, faceless doom still looms at the corner of our mind’s eye. We have to outrun it, and we do so by trying to cover every angle, get every detail right, do ALL THE THINGS!!1!
Anything that gets in the way of Doing Important Stuff is slowly pushed to the side. Rest is for the weak. Vacations get in the way– you’d just fall behind, that’s not good. A rest break, with all you have going on? Pfft.
Perception gets distorted and the small, vital, necessary things get ignored in favor of Doing Important Stuff– and you won’t notice going off-course. According to the distorted view, you’re doing okay.
But you aren’t. You really aren’t.
What doesn’t help is the hyper-competitiveness brought about by a globalized network of production. There’s always someone smarter, faster, cheaper, younger, etcetera, who could replace you or fill your spot. Not being able to meet certain expectation may not kill you, but it could affect your chances for continued employment, so yes, in the line of producing results and continued employment –that threat is real.
Pressure and stress aren’t the same thing, although they are related. Stress is a reaction (physical and emotional) that happens when the demands on us outweigh our body’s resources and abilities to handle them. Jamming more stuff to do in exactly the same amount of time that everyone gets doesn’t help.
Everyone gets the same 24 hours in a day, but not everyone has the resources (financial, physical, emotional) or the support (a dedicated team, for example) to get their specific workloads done. That’s where pressure comes from.
The demand to do, to produce, day in, day out, doesn’t stop. And for for too many people, they need to work themselves ragged just to be able to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.
Factors affecting us.
Competition is ever present. Globalization is a key factor in upping the pressure in this area, because people from all over the world , and not just locally, can compete for coveted openings. Longevity is also key, with more and more people staying longer at work, the number of jobs available for younger workers graduating every year are reduced. 24/7 connections also make it possible for people to work longer hours, anywhere they are. Electronic tethers can track and keep us available anywhere, anytime.
How to DE-pressurize.
Move away from comparisons.
There will always be people better than you, and people worse than you, at doing certain things. Focusing on improving your skills and increasing your value puts the control in your hands. You can’t do anything about the competition, and focusing on ‘being better than them’ creates an endless treadmill of ‘trying to beat them.’ Focusing on your skills builds experience and confidence.
It’s not putting blinders on, but enforcing a space where all that’s in your head is how you can improve from yesterday’s performance. You, and no on else, gets to occupy your head-space. You can’t affect or control other peoples motivation and performance, but you can sure as hell decide what to do with yours.
Clarify and honor your own values and expectations.
If you’ve ever been a fan of TV, you’ve probably seen shows where people’s decisions to live up to the expectations of others didn’t turn out so good. The drama inherent in these kinds of story-lines makes for exciting escapist viewing, but reality works differently.
The pressure to meet other people’s expectations, perhaps out of a need to look good, to belong, or to be accepted, can make you make choices you wouldn’t have considered otherwise. Being aware of what you believe in and stand for can help reduce the pressure you feel to do things ‘their way’.
Focus on your work, not the prize.
Performance incentives can motivate people, certainly, but they can also take the focus away from the work, and that small shift in perspective can make for some pretty serious changes.
People as a whole are pretty much wired to fear loss more than we are to go for more, and this loss aversion covers things that aren’t even, technically, ‘ours’ yet. Bonuses, a promotion…anything, really –we can aim for generic versions, but once we switch from ‘a promotion’ to ‘my promotion’, that triggers a perspective shift that can add even more pressure to an already intense situation.
When you focus on and develop your skills and mastery in your chosen path, those skills cross-pollinate. and increase your level of expertise, as well as your value. Not only that, it increases the sense of control you have over your own life, which decreases stress. Stress comes from feeling out of control. Deliberate, conscious commitment to choice decreases stress.
Appreciate what you have.
Focus blindness works by blurring the details of what you don’t look at. Making a choice to focus on and appreciate what you do have removes the vacuum of ‘what isn’t there’ — to put it to what is there, promoting gratitude, and an enhanced awareness of the richness in your life that you may have been overlooking.
Use the pressure to channel your thinking.
If the pressure builds up enough to hurt you, you will be motivated to change just to stop hurting. One way of directing that change is to use the pressure to ease off and stop doing things that hurt you. Then you find and use more positive, energy-giving ways that take care of you.
Change is the only constant. With changing times come new technologies, and we know it’s in our own interest to be able to adapt to the demands caused by these changes. Performing well under pressure, in circumstances new and old, is a given, as is feeling pressure. It’s part of being human. The painful pressures we face are ones we unthinkingly place on ourselves, brought about by ancient hardwired biases towards preservation of live and prevention of loss. The good news is that we are capable of learning how to adjust, adapt, learn and overcome it.
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