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Have you felt stressed lately? Chances are you’re not the only one. We all carry different levels of stress constantly – sometimes more, sometimes less. Does that pressure make us more productive or less? As in many aspects of human psychology, the answer is: it depends. But it depends on an almost a century old (1908) theory which is referred to as the Yerkes-Dodson curve. Here’s how understanding this theory can be helpful for you transforming the stress you are feeling into energy to do things more effectively.
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Follow the curve
The Yerkes-Dodson curve refers to the amount of motivating energy, called “enthusiasm” that a person can have in order to perform a given task well. The basic idea is that at low levels of enthusiasm, people do not get particularly good results. In this state, people are not motivated to get anything done. This helps to explain the reason behind being completely stress-free can lead to complacency or laziness, and also why some of your days with the most productivity are those in which the time to finish a big project is near its end.
So as enthusiasm increases, performance tends to improve – up to a point. When levels of enthusiasm are too high, performance begins to decline. Basically, when you have too much energy, you cannot concentrate. The stress is overwhelming. You go from one task to another without being able to give concentration. The problem with this curve is that it does not apply to all people in exactly the same way. We all have different basic levels of enthusiasm. In other words, some people are usually near the maximum point of their curves without special circumstances happening in their lives – they do not need many stressors to feel energetic. These are people who work productively, even when there are several weeks to a deadline. Other people have, by nature, low levels of enthusiasm. These are those that need a small thermonuclear device detonated under their desks, before they can think of carrying out something.
How to find your optimal stress level
The enthusiasm that comes from stress will affect each of these types of people differently. People with a high level of enthusiasm will be pushed beyond their “ideal spot” quickly on the Yerkes-Dodson curve. Stress will turn it into a difficult thing for them to execute tasks effectively until their levels of excitement decrease. On the other hand, people with little enthusiasm will generally benefit from stress. As stress builds up, you will approach that ideal spot and you will feel energized to do things. It takes a lot more to push them beyond that point and make them feel overwhelmed. Since you cannot change the position of your ideal point, you simply need to know yourself:
are you able to perform various tasks without much encouragement or do you need a lot of help to have energy before you start working?
There is no problem if you are not very sure. All the stress factors are a little different and some of us stop to try to analyze them coldly. So experiment a little – not when you’re feeling stressed out over the course of a normal work week. If you know that you tend to postpone things, try to work on a project before a deadline. If you can do a lot of things when you start early, you may have a good level of enthusiasm without the need for more external pressures. If not, then you may be a person with low level of enthusiasm. When people are stressed, they tend to focus primarily on the way stress makes them feel-stress is not fun. However, this may cloud their judgment. So as an exercise, make a list of what you have achieved each day and evaluate on a scale of 1-10 how much stress you experienced that day. Over a period of a few weeks, you could observe a trend in the relationship between your productivity and your stress. If stress allows you to work, do not hesitate to get up to that wave. Transform energy into tasks that will help you achieve the long-term goals that interest you most. But if stress takes you to the limit, it’s good too. You have not failed – you have simply learned where your basic level is and now you only need to find ways to reduce enthusiasm so you can be more productive. Get out a lot to walk. Do some exercises to improve your fitness. Whatever you do, try not to let your lack of productivity stress you further. Take a break and work on things that do not require the best of you. Over time, your energy will return to its normal level and you will get your usual level of productivity.
Finally, remember that there are also positive ways to create enthusiasm. If you need a little extra energy to reach your ideal point, then spend a little time devoting yourself to what psychologists call “mental contrast”: Think about your ideal future, then compare that vision with the moment you are in now. Focusing on that difference can help create a firmer feel for what you need to achieve. It will also give you the energy to continue – without creating more stress than you can handle.