The Problem with Pressure, part two (#847)

If you missed part one of this tip, you can read it online here.

Last week, we looked at how pressure is not an inherent part of any job or activity, but rather something we ‘add in’ to the mix with our thinking.  But even though pressure and stress are uncomfortable, if I offer people to wave a magic wand and take it away, many people decline my offer. Because while putting ourselves through the rigors, limitations and even dangers of stress may seem irrational, it’s also purposeful. In other words, we create the feeling of pressure in our lives because at some level we think it’s going to help.

There are certainly times where it feels like nothing gets done until the pressure is on. But it’s not the pressure that’s doing it. The reason pressure seems to help us get things done is because of two independent but seemingly linked variables – focused attention and thought recognition.

The word ‘deadline’ dates back to the US Civil War, where an imaginary line was designated about twenty feet around the outside of a prison enclosure. Guards were instructed to shoot anyone who crossed the line. And the way many of us react to deadlines, it seems as though we expect similar punishment for our transgressions if we don’t complete our tasks inside the line.

But ‘deadlines’ can’t create pressure – only thoughts can. And the real benefit of a deadline is that it allows us to organize our activity within a specific and targeted time frame, which in turn serves as a structural aid for mental focus.

Most of us spend our time multi-tasking, with one eye on Facebook, a second on our inbox and a blind hope that our third eye will be able to take care of business. But when we have a deadline, we switch off the distractions, hunker down and focus completely on the task at hand. And there’s no question about it – almost any project you take on will succumb to that kind of focused attention over time.

The real benefit of a deadline comes when we are able to focus our attention without adding in the feelings of pressure and stress that come from our habitual ‘deadline thinking’. When you work with focused attention inside a fixed time frame, the lens stays wide and the aperture stays open. You not only maintain a view of the big picture and are less prone to drowning in detail, you also stay connected to the creative flow. It is in this ‘put me in, coach’ state of mind that we are most likely to get the insights and non-linear ideas that lead to innovation and creative breakthroughs in our projects.

The other benefit of this kind of specifically targeted action is that we tend to take our personal thinking less seriously in the context of a clear target or goal. For example, have you ever noticed how productive you are the day before you go on holiday? Somehow, you manage to get everything that needs to be done completed and either triage or dismiss the rest.

But when there isn’t anywhere specific we’re trying to get and it doesn’t matter how long it takes to get there, everything seems of equal importance, including the voice inside our head telling us that ‘I don’t know what to do’ or ‘I can’t do this’. Those thoughts seem meaningful somehow – important information for us to take into account.

When those same thoughts arise inside a relatively quiet mind, we by and large ignore them because we recognize they’re not relevant to the task at hand.  Maybe we even get really frustrated and throw our hands up in despair and our papers down onto the desk. But when we’re done with our tantrum, we get back up and we readdress the problem and we move forward as if nothing happened.

And the truth is you don’t need pressure to do any of that – you need understanding. So while pressure is how many of us were introduced to our incredible potential for achievement and creation, it is a counter-productive way of continuing forward. It’s parallel to the notion that we need to be frightened to know not to cross the road against traffic. When you’re a little, little kid and you genuinely don’t understand the concept of traffic, it makes a certain kind of sense for your parents to scare you into not crossing the street. But you don’t need the inner pressure of fear to keep you safe. Once you understand how traffic works, you have everything you need.

Similarly, once you understand that you have a potential inside you to far exceed what you think are the edges of your possibility, that you have the capacity inside you to solve problems that right now look unsolvable, to reach goals that right now look unreachable, and to achieve things that you have no idea how on earth you would achieve, once you’ve seen that, you don’t need that pressure anymore. You don’t need to be pushed off the cliff anymore. You jump because you recognize that it’s only once we jump that we abandon our personal thinking in favor of the wider resource of Mind.

There is a poem I have always loved by Guillaume Apollinaire which speaks to this point:

‘Come to the cliff’, he said.
They said ‘We are afraid.’
‘Come to the cliff’, he said.
They came. He pushed them. And they flew.

Have fun, learn heaps, and may all your success be fun. No pressure!

With all my love,

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The Problem with Pressure, part one (#846)

Have you ever had the experience of being about to walk away from a project, and just at the point where you give up on it, suddenly something happened that made the whole thing fall into place?

More often than not, what happens in those moments is that you’ve taken the pressure off of yourself. And suddenly when the pressure is off, everything starts to move. This is 180 degrees counter to the way that most of us have learned to think about pressure. We’ve been taught to think that we need a certain amount of pressure in order to succeed…

No Pressure

But what if pressure really isn’t essential for high performance? Taking it even further, what if it’s actually counter-productive, as it takes our attention out of the moment and onto ourselves?