Chances are, there is some situation at work that puts you under pressure. It might be giving a presentation to a client. It might involve a delicate negotiation for a big sale. You might feel it when the deadline for a big report looms.
Whatever it is, this thing makes your stomach clench, your palms sweat, and your brain feel muddled. Suddenly you don’t feel like you’re functioning at your best. What can you do to make yourself better at handling these sorts of high-pressure situations?
You have to start by understanding what the pressure is, at its root. There are two big facets to pressure, and they lead to some predictable consequences. Research from my lab demonstrates that one thing pressure does is to focus you on all the things that could go wrong in the world. Your mindset shifts away from all of the potential good things around you to the problems.
Work by Sian Beilock and her colleagues points out that the desire to perform at a high level has two significant influences on the brain. One is that it limits the amount of information you can hold in mind at one time (reducing what is called working memory), which can limit the complexity of what you can accomplish mentally.
In addition, pressure can lead you to pay attention to your own performance. This monitoring is particularly difficult when you start paying attention to things you normally do automatically, like making body movements or forming sentences.
Given this, there are three things you can do to get better at dealing with pressure:
Manage your rewards
One reason why your focus of attention narrows under pressure is that most of your world is structured around positive things. So, when you’re feeling like there is a threat, the world seems like it is a poor match for your motivational state.
Lots of research from my lab suggests that people are more creative when there is a match between the rewards in the environment and a person’s overall motivational state. That is, when you’re focused overall on some positive outcome, you are more creative when there are little rewards in your world, rather than little potential losses. However, when you’re focused overall on a negative outcome (as you are under pressure), you’re more creative when there are little losses in your world than when there are little rewards.
To put this into practice, try to set up a system in which you try to avoid losses in order to complete a task. Here’s a simple way to do it: put up a pile of something you like (a treat, or perhaps a stack of $1 bills). You get the entire pile if you succeed at your task. But, every time you do something unrelated to achieving your goal (say checking email rather than writing a report that you have to finish by tomorrow), take something off the stack.
Not only will this strategy help to keep you on task but it will actually make you a bit more creative and expansive in the way you think.
Practice, practice, practice
Performance pressure is unpleasant, and you’re wired to avoid unpleasant things. It should be no surprise that you often put difficult tasks off to the last moment. As a result, you may compound the influence of pressure by being underprepared.
Instead, Sian Beilock’s work suggests that you’re better off practicing in situations that have the pressure you’ll face when you have to perform. That way, you get used to the influence of pressure in a situation in which a poor performance won’t reflect badly on you.
For example, if you find public speaking stressful, practice your talks. First, just do them to the wall of an empty conference room to make sure the words are there before you have to actually give the talk. Then, give the talk again for a group of colleagues, so you get the experience of delivering the talk in front of people. Only then should you give the talk for real.
In addition, find excuses to give other talks to groups, so that you spend a lot of time speaking in front of people. Over time, you will find that this practice in high-pressure situations reduces the influence of pressure in the future. You might even find that you enjoy the thing that used to stress you out.
Focus on the right stuff
When you do practice, you should also practice what you are going to think about when you’re under pressure. Because performance pressure causes you to pay attention to elements of your own performance, you want to train yourself to think about something productive when you experience pressure.
Suppose you find negotiations pressure-filled. You are likely to start paying attention to the way you’re speaking, the tone of your voice, or even your hand gestures. None of that is going to help you to negotiate more successfully, because you are likely to speak most fluently and move most naturally when you are not explicitly paying attention to these aspects of your performance.
Instead, engage in mock negotiations with colleagues to practice your skills. When you do that, keep a page in front of you with the most important elements of the negotiation written down. During your practice sessions, make an effort to look at that list frequently. This way, when you are in an actual negotiation situation, your mind will drift naturally to monitoring the current state of the negotiation (which would be productive) rather than aspects of the way you are speaking (which isn’t).