Did you know there is an ideal level of stress that will make you more productive? And it’s not what you might think. The ideal level of stress is not zero stress! It has to do with how our brains focus on information.
Think back to when you were in high school or college. Did you ever find yourself procrastinating on an assignment for weeks and then at the final hour you found the motivation to write that paper? Part of the reason we procrastinate is that our brain needs to be at the optimum level of anxiety to take action.
The Yerkes-Dodson Law explains how anxiety impacts our performance. Take a look at the graph at the top of this blog. It looks kind of like a hill right? As you move from the bottom to the top of the graph performance improves, and as you move from left to right across the graph stress increases. As you can see there is a peak in the middle of the graph were performance is at the maximum.
We need a certain amount of stress (in psychology what we call mental arousal) to get us to do anything. If we don’t have enough stress/arousal/motivation we don’t act. Go back to that time when you procrastinated on an assignment in school. You didn’t have enough pressure to get started sooner, so you waited until the pressure was high enough to kick your butt in gear. Lack of stress leads to inaction.
On the opposite end of the curve, too much stress can also impact our performance. We know that when we are too stressed or under too much pressure our performance is less efficient, we make more mistakes, and we end up being less productive. It’s probably pretty easy to come up with an example at this end of the curve too. Maybe a time where you were trying to get something done quickly to make a deadline but ended up not giving your best performance.
There is a qualifier in this relationship between stress and productivity. The amount of stress you need to achieve maximum productivity depends on the task you are doing.
If the task is something new, or difficult we need a lower level of stress to perform our best. It takes less stress/pressure/arousal to concentrate on something new because our brain likes new things. The novelty of the task is enough to get us engaged. On the opposite end, too much stress when learning something new can a bad thing as our brains can become quickly overwhelmed when working on a new task.
We need a higher level of stress/arousal to stay focused on simple or tedious tasks. Think of the last time you had to do something boring or repetitive (for me it’s book keeping!), it was probably hard to stay focused right? It takes more stress/pressure to keep focused on less challenging tasks. Sometimes we need to set deadlines for ourselves (like a looming assignment deadline) to keep peek stress and get the task done.
The next time you are trying to get a task done, evaluate your level of stress. Is your stress too low and so you are procrastinating? Try setting a deadline to increase the pressure and your motivation. Is your stress too high and so you are feeling overwhelmed or making mistakes? Setting deadlines and breaking tasks down into more manageable chunks can help bring our brain to the maximum stress level for success.