Feeling stressed lately? Chances are you're not alone. We carry varying degrees of stress around with us all the time—sometimes more, sometimes less. Does that pressure make us more productive or less? As with so many aspects of human psychology, the answer is: It depends. But what it depends on is something called the Yerkes-Dodson curve, a theory that dates back to 1908. Here's how understanding it can help you channel the stress you may be feeling into energy to get things done.
The Yerkes-Dodson curve relates the amount of motivational energy, called "arousal," a person may possess to how well they'll perform at a given task. The basic idea is that at low levels of arousal, people don't perform particularly well. In this state, people aren't all that motivated to get much done. That helps explain why being totally stress-free can breed laziness or complacency, and also why some of your most productive days are those when the clock is ticking for you to wrap up a big project.
So as arousal increases, performance tends to get better—up to a point. When arousal levels get too high, performance starts to drop. Essentially, when you have too much energy, you can’t focus. The stress is overpowering. You flit from task-to-task without being able to concentrate.
The thing about this curve is that it doesn't fit everyone precisely the same way. We all have different resting levels of arousal. In other words, some people are generally near the peak of their curve without any special circumstances going on in their lives—they don't need many stressors to feel energized. These are people who work productively even when they're weeks away from a deadline.
Other people are naturally pretty low-arousal folks. These are the ones who need a small thermonuclear device detonated beneath their desks before they can even think about getting anything accomplished.
The arousal that comes with stress will affect each of these types of people differently. The high-arousal folks will quickly be pushed past their "sweet spot" on the Yerkes-Dodson curve. Stress will make it hard for them to get much done effectively until their arousal levels drop. Low-arousal people, on the other hand, will generally benefit from stress. As the stress piles on, they'll rise close to that sweet spot and find themselves feeling energized to get things done. It takes more to push them past it and feel overwhelmed.
Since you can't really change where your own sweet spot falls, you simply need to get to know yourself: Are you able to get a lot done without much prompting, or do you need lots of help to energize yourself before getting down to work?
It's okay if you aren't quite sure. All stressors are a little bit different, and few of us pause to try and analyze them dispassionately. So just play around a bit—not when you're already feeling unusually stressed but in the course of an ordinary workweek. If you know that you tend to procrastinate, try working on a project way before a deadline. If you can still get a lot done when you start early, you may have a decent level of arousal without needing external pressures to give you more. If not, then you might just be a low-arousal person.
When people are stressed, they tend to focus mostly on the way it makes them feel—stress is no fun. But this can cloud your evaluation. So as an exercise, keep a list of what you got done each day and rate yourself on a scale of 1–10 for the amount of stress you experienced that day. Over a period of a few weeks, you may notice a trend in the relationship between your productivity and your stress.
If stress puts you in the zone to work, don't hesitate to ride that wave. Channel the energy into tasks that will help you to achieve the long-term goals you care about the most. But if stress pushes you over the edge, that's fine too! You haven't failed—you've simply learned where your baseline is, and now you just need to find ways to dampen the arousal so you can be your most productive.
Take a lot of walks. Do a few mindfulness exercises. Whatever you do, try not to let your lack of productivity stress you out even more. Give yourself a break and work on things that don’t require your best self. Over time, your energy will come back to its normal level, and you’ll resume your normal productivity.
Finally, remember there are also positive ways to create arousal. If you need a little extra energy to get into your sweet spot, then spend a little time engaging in what psychologists call "mental contrasting": Think about your ideal future, then compare that vision with where you are now. Focusing on that gap can help create a firmer sense of what you need to accomplish. It will also give you the energy to follow through on it—without creating more stress than you can handle.