What Causes Pressure? And What Can I Do About It?

There are three reasons we feel pressure. Managing them can make us more effective at work. And everywhere else
By: 
Dane Jensen
Business under pressure with businesswoman being crushed.

As part of the research for my book, The Power of Pressure: Why Pressure Isn’t the Problem, It’s The Solution, I asked hundreds of people a deceptively simple question over the past five years: “What’s the most pressure you’ve ever been under?”

The stories I heard were incredibly diverse—from the A/V failing in a critical presentation to being caught too far from shore swimming in the ocean. An athlete told me about the pressure of an Olympic rowing final. From someone else, I learned about the twin pressures of caring for a dying parent while holding down a high-stakes job.

As vast as the range of experiences were, what emerged from systematically asking this question is that there are consistent patterns in what creates pressure. In short, regardless of the situation, pressure is a function of three things:

  • The importance of a situation’s outcome;
  • The uncertainty of the outcome;
  • The volume of tasks, decisions and distractions surrounding the situation. 

Crucially, each of these root causes can both help and hurt us. They can give us the energy we need to perform and they can also overwhelm us if not managed. Each root cause represents both an essential input into high performance as well as a potential derailer of performance. They are double agents. 

My research suggests that our ability to thrive through pressure comes down to an ability to navigate the promise and peril of these double agents—to balance the tensions of importance, uncertainty and volume. Let’s take a closer look at all three:

Tension #1: See what is important … without being overwhelmed by what’s at stake 

The more important something is to us, the more likely we are to feel pressure. For example, we feel a lot more pressure for a job interview when we really want the job than when we aren’t as keen on the role. And yet, at the same time, the more important something is to us, the less likely that pressure will feel meaningless. As Simon Sinek and others have shown, understanding the “why” behind what we do is vital to motivation.

And so, when it comes to importance, we must balance two imperatives: We need to see what we are doing as important—and we need to keep the stakes in perspective. Depending on your situation, you may find one side of this tension more challenging. When finding it hard to connect with importance, consider asking yourself the following questions:

  • How is the pressure I’m under helping me to grow? How is it making me better/stronger?
  • How is carrying this pressure contributing to others?
  • How is this pressure bringing me closer to people I care about?

Growth, contribution and connection can invest pressure with meaning and therefore change the way pressure affects us.

Conversely, if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the importance of a situation, try focusing entirely on one crucial question: What’s not at stake here? That is, what important things in my life won’t change regardless of the outcome of this situation? For example, when the moment comes to head into that job interview, it helps to focus firmly on everything not impacted by your performance – the family and friends who will be waiting for you regardless of how it goes, the skills and experience that you’ll possess one way or another.

In peak pressure moments, we naturally fixate on what we might win or lose. Asking what is not at stake can help us see things in balance.

Tension #2: Take direct action to manage uncertainty … while embracing the uncertainty that can’t be tamed

If importance is where pressure starts, it’s the collision of uncertainty and importance that creates intense pressure. And just like importance, there are two competing imperatives in tension with each other when managing uncertainty.

First, we need to identify what we can influence and begin to exert control immediately. When we start to take direct action and make progress, we begin to build certainty and pressure starts to abate.

Olympic beach volleyball player Martin Reader talks about the importance of the serve. It’s the one moment that is entirely within his control. The opponents, the referees, the crowd—none of it matters when Martin is standing behind the service line with the ball. It’s all him. When uncertainty rears its head, consider channelling Martin and ask, “What’s my serve in this situation?”

And yet, if we try to control everything, it simply feeds a feeling of helplessness. This is where the second part of the tension comes into play: our ability to let go and embrace the uncertainty that can’t be tamed.

Embracing, rather than just tolerating, uncertainty requires that we consciously cultivate a belief that things will work out in the end, while remaining open to exactly how they will work out.

Tension #3: Building the physical platform to handle a high-volume life … while eliminating volume that is unproductive

While pressure exists at the intersection of importance and uncertainty, volume is the force multiplier. By volume, I mean the sheer number of tasks we need to execute, decisions we need to make and, crucially, the distractions that pull us away from what’s most important. Over the long haul, it is the relentlessness of volume that can grind us down.

Managing volume is about managing capacity—working to simultaneously expand it, while at the same time ruthlessly eliminating anything that is using it unproductively. Expanding capacity is about three main things: sleep, nutrition and movement. We don’t need to train to win the Boston Marathon, but we do need a stable physical platform that can provide energy when needed.

Eliminating volume is about replacing our attempts to accommodate more and more with a commitment to eliminating the root causes of volume: tasks, decisions and distractions. In particular, our ability to corral distractions through structural decisions like establishing focus time where we put devices into airplane mode, instead of attempting to rely on our willpower alone, can pay real dividends. 

Awareness and action

There you have it: the three tensions of pressure. Balancing all three isn’t always easy. But keeping them in mind while going through periods of high pressure can be helpful.

My advice: Check in with where you are at on each of them periodically. Are you finding it tougher to connect with importance or are you feeling overwhelmed by it? Are you struggling to take direct action or are you finding it hard to accept that you can’t control everything? Are you neglecting the actions that build your capacity or are you trying to accommodate too much?

Once you become aware of the three tensions of pressure, you can begin to manage them—and help to turn pressure from a problem to a solution. 

 

Dane Jensen  is an expert on strategy and leadership. As CEO of Toronto-based  Third Factor, he advises CEOs and senior leaders in both sports and business. He is the author of  The Power of Pressure: Why Pressure Isn’t the Problem, It’s the Solution  (HarperCollins, 2021). Register for the free webinar “How to Thrive Under Pressure” here.

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