Workplace Topics

January 14, 2011

Strategies for maximizing your performance during stressful situations

Strategies for maximizing your performance during stressful situations


The Associated Press

Everyone has been there at one time or another: blowing a job interview, flubbing a pitch to a client, flunking a test.

During stressful situations, even people who are capable of performing better and have done so in the past have dropped the ball.

Sian Beilock, a University of Chicago psychologist and author of “Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To,” says there is a reason we choke. “Pressure-filled situations can deplete a part of the brain’s processing power known as working memory, which is critical to everyday activities,” she says.

Such memory serves as a mental scratch pad that temporarily stores information relevant to carrying out stressful tasks, Beilock says. When worries creep in, your working memory can become overburdened.

You know what happens next: Your mind goes blank, you become tongue-tied, your heart begins racing and your face turns red.

Here are some tips to avoid such embarrassment:

State your take-home point immediately. That’s particularly useful advice in job interviews and business meetings.

“If I tell you what I’m trying to get across at the beginning, everything else can be hooked onto that,” Beilock says. “Research shows it matters when you give people the take-home point.”

Also, think about what you want to say, not what you don’t want to say. The ability to inhibit unwanted thoughts is compromised during stress, she says.

Meditate. The process can help people let go of negative thoughts and worries that can deplete mental resources that could otherwise be devoted to performing well under stress, Beilock says.

Meditation “has been shown to change the function and the wiring of the brain,” she says. Even 10 minutes of meditation training can improve performance under stress.

Tell yourself you’re good enough and smart enough. Remind yourself of your credentials and the reason you’ve been asked to give a speech, make a presentation or address a weighty matter during a meeting, Beilock says.

Put your worries to paper. Spending as little as 10 minutes writing about your worries — such as, “I’m worried I’ll fail this test and not get my license” — can make performers less likely to fizzle.

Students who do that before a big test perform 15 percent better than students who sit and stew in their worries, Beilock has found.

Pause. While taking a demanding test or trying to solve a difficult problem, pausing can help prevent going down the wrong path or getting distracted by irrelevant details. Even walking away for a few minutes can lead to an “aha!” moment, Beilock says.

Know when to put it on autopilot. People who know a subject or a procedure well, and who should be able to execute it fluidly and flawlessly, can get tripped up if they overthink a well-practiced speech or sales presentation or dwell on it too much to try to control every word or aspect of their performance, Beilock says.

For well-practiced procedures that you’ve done countless times, whistling, singing a song or speeding up can help prevent interfering with movement or processes that should run on autopilot, she says.

Practice making a fool of yourself. Practicing under low levels of stress can help people prepare for the real thing, Beilock says.

Jason Tyler, research operations director for Ariel Investments, recently gave a commencement address in front of about 1,000 people. Before the speech, he read it to himself about 50 times and practiced it in front of others about 10 times.

By the time he took the stage, he felt confident.

“You never feel completely relaxed, because practicing doesn’t perfectly replicate the experience of standing in front of a live audience,” he says. “But you can reduce nervousness by having trained yourself to be in that moment.”

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Moshe Sharon on March 11, 2011 12:23 PM | Reply

The word “Stress” actually relates to wear and tear as when the rubber meets the road on a tire or the brake pads pressing up against the rotor in the wheel. The term as it applies to living organisms was first introduced by Hans Seyle in the 1930’s who defined it as the consequence of the failure of an organism (human or animal) to respond appropriately to emotional or physical threats, whether actual or imagined. Thus stress symptoms are the manifestation of a chronic state of responses to stress triggers that are actually benign. Even a thought can set off the same response mechanism that would be in play while standing in front of a hungry lion. Hence, Seyle’s definition still reaches to the heart of stress management; the idea of the response being inappropriate and engaging in a process of altering ones misperception of pending disaster or imminent danger.

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