There was an interesting test done by Michigan State University where a large group was split into three and taught to play golf. The first group was trained normally, the second group was constantly distracted by noises and words which were played at them while they learned, and the third group was filmed while they practised to put them on edge and make them overly self-aware.
Which group did the best when it came time to demonstrate the skills they’d learnt?
Strangely it was the third group, the ones who had been filmed and put under scrutiny and pressure while training. The theory is that if used correctly – pressure can actually be a good thing.
But Do “Smart” People Fare Worse When Pressured?
There was a study done on this that tested “smart” people with a high working-memory capacity. This capacity is often thought to help those types of people excel. The study found that when put under pressure, these “smart” people did worse than when they were untimed. The opposite was true for those with a low working-memory capacity – they were found to be unaffected by pressure.
“The pressure causes verbal worries, like ‘Oh no, I can’t screw up,'” said Sian Beilock, a university professor of psychology. “These thoughts reside in the working memory,” the idea is that this takes up space that would otherwise work on the task at hand.
So What is a Working Memory?
Is similar to the short-term memory and it holds the information that allows us to focus on very detailed tasks, such as solving complex mathematical problems or translating complex language.
For those who had a high capacity memory and knew it, this study indicated that many of their faculties disappeared when they were told to complete tasks under pressure. This calls into question many of the types of tests that students are subjected to where there is an increase of pressure, such as the HSC or the VCE.
Could Pressure Help Us Work Out What’s Important in a Crisis?
Often when we feel under pressure, we can look at an idea, a concept or a problem and break it down quickly. Imagine you go home and open the front door to find your phone ringing; your faucet on, flooding the kitchen; and your laptop dangling near the edge of the table, about to be knocked into the water by your dog. What do you do?
Because of the pressure of this situation, rather than trying to deal with everything at once, your brain assess the priorities. First you grab your laptop, then you turn off the faucet, then you control your dog and only then do you answer the phone (if it’s still ringing!).
It’s the same at work. Pressure is increased on a project and your need to get a proposal to your client in two hours. Normally a proposal of this kind could take you two weeks. Rather than trying to write it as you normally would, you simply summarise all the information and give your client a bullet-pointed document, explaining that the full proposal will come later in the week. Your client is so impressed by your time management skills that you win the contract and you spend the next three days with your team members rushing to complete the final proposal.
What Are the Steps to Coping Under Pressure?
Here is your five point plan for coping under pressure.
First up, take some time to quickly assess the situation and draft up a quick plan of action in your head or on paper. Decide how much time you have to solve your problem, and spend a suitable amount of time to draft the plan. If you’ve got 20 hours to solve a problem, you may want to spend an hour drafting up a plan of action. If you’ve only got 20 minutes, you may want to spend the first few minutes assessing. Don’t panic.
Don’t lose it. You need to maintain your personal equilibrium. Pressuring situations can make us feel nervous, anxious and depressed. Often people panic and make the situation worse. Tell yourself that whatever happens you will cope with it and endow yourself with the confidence to work with what you’ve got. Believe in yourself.
3. Break Down
Now that you have your plan, break your problem up into major chunks. Do you have a staffing issue? Does something need to be re-written? Do you need a particular document or piece of equipment? Do you need to call/email and get more team numbers on side? Don’t go into much detail here, try to separate the problem into four or five major sections of engagement.
Now you move into the detail of your plan. Assess these four or five larger issues and go into the detail where it’s needed. This is where you delegate and get people on board to help you out. Even if you don’t usually ask for help, learning to gather good help in a time of crisis is a valuable management skill. Use it.
5. Execute Plan
Take a deep breath – it’s all nearly over! This is where you put your plan into action. The most important thing here is to maintain your equilibrium and calm the whole way through the process. The worst thing you can do is to drop the ball just as you’re about to cross the finish line.
Don’t Sweat It! Life’s Too Short
Remember that there is no problem that cannot be solved or resolved. Life throws us curveballs on occasion and more often than not, what we worry about is not even that important in the long term.
There is an old saying which is relevant here: “Pressure makes diamonds.” Truly great achievements can happen when you’re under pressure, that is, if you learn how to make pressure your friend not your foe.