Performance Improvement: Using Stress Productively

” No one reaches peak performance without being stressed, whether an athlete, an office worker, or a manager.” — Robert Ostermann, American psychologist

“We need to reframe how we look at anxiety. It’s not something to run away from, but something that can be used as productive energy. Fear is the body’s way of preparing for action.” — Robert Rosen, Ph.D., author of Just Enough Anxiety: The Hidden Driver of Business Success

You may think you know what stress is…but do you really?

In the medical sense, stress is your body’s response to any kind of demand or constraint, good or bad. Put that way, it’s obvious that some stressors can be positive and adaptive; that is, they may help you stay healthy, provide a sense of good feeling, or both. Some researchers call such stressors “eustress .”

A good example of eustress is exercise. Though it stresses the body, it ultimately makes you healthier and generates good feelings because of that. Getting a promotion, riding a rollercoaster, having a good cry, or experiencing childbirth can all be forms of eustress.

Distress is any stress deriving from negative situations or implications. But think about it: even distress isn’t always a bad thing. For example: fear of failure, which is definitely a negative stressor, can drive you to study hard for your exams or put in the time necessary to make your next presentation a memorable one. Similarly, fear of being late for work can help you get moving on a slow morning.

In other words, stress and productivity aren’t necessarily enemies. Stress can and does drive productivity; indeed, to some extent stress is necessary for productivity. You’ll never achieve SuperCompetence in the workplace if you don’t think big and set solid deadlines, for example. Working to achieve these things is inevitably stressful. How can it be otherwise, when you’re stretching yourself beyond your old boundaries?

In this sense, stress is your friend. Unless you want to end up just another unremarkable Joe or Jane, you need to put the pressure on and shoulder those responsibilities that drive you toward success. The key is not to let the associated stress overwhelm you, and to disengage (at least for a while) when you see the signs that it’s beginning to.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law
Like it or not, stress is an intrinsic part of the work environment, and a critical element of achievement. Fortunately, it can be harnessed, if you keep in mind that productivity and stress share an inverted “U” shaped relationship. That is, as stress increases, so does productivity…to a certain point. If stress builds beyond that point, the level of productivity drops precipitously. This is known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law, after the psychologists who initially described it back in 1908. (They put it in terms of arousal vs. performance, but the same principle applies.)

So let stress drive you, but don’t let it drive you into the ground. If you can, save your worst stressors for those times of day when your energy level is highest, so you’ll be able to face them head on and face them down. If you ever reach the point where stress has you up against the wall and you can’t take anymore, then you must be willing to stop and take a step sideways.

This is true even if it seems that there’s no time to stop. If you don’t, you’re likely to skate up over the top of that Yerkes-Dodson curve and then down the other side, straight into incompetence and lack of productivity. Isn’t it better to push the reset button on your stress, so that your productivity can reset along with it?

So take at least a little time off and do something soothing, whatever that means to you. Some of us like to visit an art museum, or work in the garden, or cook, or watch mindless television; whatever it takes to recharge your batteries and blow off steam, as long as the recreation itself isn’t stressing. To the body (and to some extent, the mind), all stressors are the same, and they’re cumulative. Therefore, I’d recommend that you avoid drinking, playing violent video games, doing tough puzzles, or any other physical or mental stressor—even if those things are normally relaxing to you.

When you’ve ridden the stressmobile as far as it’ll take you productively, get out and slide back down that curve to the bottom. Enjoy life. Don’t think too hard. Go with the flow for a while…and then, when you’re ready to go back to the grind, you’ll be fresh and open and sparkling with optimism and new ideas.



  1. Great article on the Yerkes-Dodson Law! This explains why thinking about writing a whole novel paralyzes me, but thinking about writing a scene is motivating. 🙂

    It also explains why kaizen works.

    The Kaizen Plan

  2. Great collection of ideas on stress. I see too many people blame stress when really they are lazy or unmotiviated. I think it why so many people fail to work on their skills after a few years. I certainly know I see that working with my business clients on improving their effective communication skills and their “nerd-to-English” awareness! All the Best! G


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