First thing’s first – stress is not a bad thing. In fact, it is how we know we’re alive. Stress is anything that shifts your balance. It is the excitement of a crush and it helps get things done when a deadline is looming.
For over a hundred years a simple way to see the relationship between stress and productivity has been the Yerkes Dodson curve (1). Think of an upside down U.
On the left you have low stress and low productivity. On the right you have high stress and low productivity. In the middle, you have what some researchers call “flow”, or the peak productivity. Can you remember a time when you were so completely immersed in something that you lost track of time? Maybe it was working with a group on a interesting art project, playing your favourite video game or programming? That’s the top of the curve. Now, it might be hard to reach the top studying for your next test, but how can you ensure that you are not at either extreme: bored or burned-out?
When I talk with people about stress, I often use the analogy of a bucket with a tap near the bottom. The bucket is your capacity to deal with stress. Your stress is what is filling the bucket and it can never be empty (because the tap isn’t at the very bottom, and if you have no stress, you wouldn’t be alive!).
This is a simple exercise and can be really helpful to look back on when you find your bucket nearing the top…
A- List the things that fill up your bucket. What goes on in your life that adds stress, both good and bad? It may be family, friends, school, extra-curriculars, thinking about the future.
B- Next, list the things that happen when your bucket overflows. When you have “had it up to here”, what do you do, what happens?
C- Lastly, and this is the really important one, what are the things that you do or have done in the past to turn on the tap and empty your bucket? What are the healthy things that you do to relieve stress?
When you write it all down, you might find patterns, like you tend to lose your patience with your sister less on days you have training for your sport. You also might find that you are better able to deal with unexpected stresses when you’ve spent a few hours taking photos.
When it comes to stress, balance is key. It’s important to understand what it is in your life that fills up your bucket, but also what you do, and can do more of, to empty the bucket.
As for FLOW, not many things that fall under "need to do" will get you into that really rockin' space. But if you think about how you work as a relationship between stress and productivity, there are things that you can do to have stress work for you. Boring tasks can be pretty predictable, so the next time you find yourself preparing to work on something you know will put you in the "bored" range, why not add in a little bit of (good) stress? How about:
- giving yourself a positive incentive to work towards once you have finished the task, like a piece of chocolate or 20 minutes of video games.
- give yourself a consequence, like asking your little brother to come in when the timer goes off at the time you expect to be done and throw, I don't know, his dirty socks at you if you are still working on xyz. Ok, maybe that's just gross, but probably a good motivator. And imagine how excited he would be!
- I'm sure you can come up something that would work for you... I would love to hear it in the comments below!
(1) Goleman, Dan. "The Sweet Spot for Achievement." Psychology Today. N.p., 29 Mar. 2012. Web.
(2) Henden, John. "Beating Combat Stress: 101 Techniques for Recovery." Wiley, Jan. 2011.
Stress Quiz from The Greater Good Science Centre: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/quizzes/take_quiz/8