Everyone’s been here before. It’s 3pm on a Monday and you’re in deadline hell. Three of your assignments need to be finalised by 5pm, and there’s absolutely no chance of getting another extension. Now what?
Pressure, pressure, pressure. It’s all about giving it 120% these days, and there just never seems to be enough time to get anything done, never mind getting it done right. At any given time we’re under pressure in our professional and personal lives in one way or the other, and it’s not getting any easier. The scariest thing about being put under sudden pressure is how the concept of all that time simply disappearing. All the time you took for granted a few minutes ago is now a very, very rare commodity. This is, of course, an illusion. You still have time available to you.
We get a better idea of what pressure does if we put ourselves in the shoes of a professional in the world of sport. If you’ve never heard of Robert Horry, join the club. I have never been a fan of any American sports, so any research done on the subject is always lazy. I was only interested enough to find out that he was one of only two players in American basketball to have won NBA championships with three different teams (woohoo). I did however come across something he said that did interest me:
“Pressure can burst a pipe, or pressure can make a diamond.”
Follow these steps to deal with pressure effectively:
- First you need to understand exactly why you’re feeling pressure. When you’re under pressure to perform, and you know that within the next few minutes you’re either going to taste sweet success or bitter failure, your brain does something very interesting – it either goes into a Challenge State or a Threat State. Deciding whether something is a challenge or a threat starts with your brain creating a mental checklist, summarising whether you’re emotionally or physically equipped to actually handle what is being put in front of you. Based on this subconscious inventory list, we either accept the pressure put on us as a Challenge, or accept it as a Threat.
- The trick is to stop and take a breath. Waiting, even for just a moment, is the technique behind the success of many people. It is a particularly worthwhile technique when under pressure because each level of complexity in the decision requires more time.
- Force your brain to accept the pressure as a challenge. Those who are able to get into a challenge state when under pressure show high levels of self-confidence, a perception of controlled performance and focus on what can be gained rather than lost. Most importantly, they are able to harness mental skills such as visualization, pre-performance routines and goal setting to increase their resources whenever they wish to.
- The ability to see pressure as a challenge rather than a threat is a quality we see in the most successful people in the world. This is not an inherent trait, it’s something you learn to do. As any athlete, soccer player or ballerina would know, the secret to performing under pressure is getting your body and mind into an effective state for performance. A good athlete will practice his start for countless hours to know for a fact that he will not freeze up when he hears the gun at the start line. A soccer player will practice his kick with endless persistence until he believes he will not hit the goal post, and a ballerina will most likely do something equally gruelling and dramatic that I don’t really know about, until she knows she will be perfect when it matters.
- Now that you’ve successfully managed a pressured situation, you’ll be better equipped the next time it happens. Preparing yourself for pressure is about increasing your personal resources to face demands. The key resources are self-confidence (your belief in your own ability), perceived control (how much of your performance is under your control), and approach focus (whether you aim to do your best, or avoid doing your worst).
The everyday suit and tie guy is in the same ball game as the sport professional when it comes to pressure, even though it may not seem as exciting. His blood vessels will constrict and his heart will pump blood to his brain and muscles at a slower pace when he finds himself in a panic. His body and mind will not perform as well if he’s not trained well enough. Start training yourself to handle pressure and you’ll be amazed at the difference it makes in your everyday life.