How Excessive Pressure Steals Your Productivity (and How to Take it Back)

This is the fourth post in our series on productivity thieves, those habits and distractions preventing you from achieving your full potential. Check out our previous posts on ‘fractured focus,’ ‘decision fatigue,’ and ‘toxic habits.’

If sticking with your same old routines is a walk in the park, then developing better routines is a journey into Mordor—at least, it can feel that way.

Maybe increasing demands at work have shrunk your daily hour of distraction-free time to a mere twenty minutes. Or maybe you’d been hitting the gym regularly for months, until a stressful situation caused you to skip a few days—or weeks. 

In previous posts, we’ve suggested actions you can take to help boost your productivity. We’ve also offered ways to make these actions habitual, so you’re able to do them almost automatically.

But what about when you have a good habit going—then life happens and it feels impossible to continue? 

What breaks your good habits?

New routines are fragile. They might work fine at first, but under stress you tend to fall back into your old ways. If this has happened to you, go easy on yourself. It also happens to some of the most high-performing people in the world. 

Take the 2000 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Head coach Tony Dungy brought the team from perpetual losing streaks to within one game of the Super Bowl. He did this by altering their habits, so they responded to familiar situations with new (and better) routine behaviors. 

Why didn’t the Bucs make it all the way to the Super Bowl?

Charles Duhigg, whose book “The Power of Habit” we’ve looked at before, points out that the players reverted to their old routines in the heat of high-stakes situations. 

In the book, Tony explains, “…we’d get to a big game and it was like the training disappeared. Afterward, my players would say, ‘Well, it was a critical play and I went back to what I knew.’…What they were really saying was that they trusted our system most of the time, but when everything was on the line, that belief broke down.”

According to Charles Duhigg, belief is the key word here. He stresses the importance of trusting that your new routines will work even when there’s a lot riding on your performance. Of course, this is far more easily said than done—but there’s hope. 

How do you believe in your good habits?

In short, join a like-minded community and think beyond yourself. 

Charles Duhigg points to research showing that group support helps people stick to new routines. One UC Berkeley study looked at group dynamics in Alcoholics Anonymous. Psychologist and researcher Lee Ann Kaskutas says, “People might be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief.”

Community can also shift your focus to something outside of yourself, which can help you to stick to more productive routines. We said earlier that coach Tony Dungy never won the Super Bowl, at least, not with the Buccaneers. He won in 2007 with the Indianapolis Colts. 

The victory followed a devastating tragedy in Tony’s personal life: the loss of his son in 2005. In response, the players shifted focus from their individual self interest to their coach’s wellbeing and their team’s cohesion.

One of the players explained, “I had spent a lot of previous seasons worrying about my contract and salary…When Coach came back, after the funeral, I wanted to give him everything I could…I kind of gave myself to the team.” 

Putting community ahead of self fostered trust among the team and, eventually, led to their success. This experience points to a crucial aspect of habitual behavior: Shifting your focus to a purpose beyond self interest helps you ingrain new routines. 

How do you make your productive habits more durable?

Building belief in yourself and your new routines will help strengthen your willpower so that when high-pressure situations arrive (and they will), it’ll be easier for you to stick with your good habits. Here are some ways to do this:

  1. Talk to yourself

    This is not as strange as it might sound. You probably do it already—the “you idiot” under your breath when you spill a drink, the “I suck at life” when you’re rushing late to a meeting. Why not flip the script and say something different?

    According to University of Pennsylvania psychologist David Sarwer, addressing yourself with neutral language can improve self image. Using your name—rather than “I”—has been shown to help people see themselves more positively. And by getting away from negative self-talk, you can help reduce some of the pressure you put on yourself.

    So instead of saying, “I feel worthless because I’m too lazy to go to the gym” you might say, “[your name] is skipping the gym because she’s focusing on work today. The sky won’t fall if she goes tomorrow.” This might help you maintain belief in yourself when times get tough—and it’s no weirder than calling yourself a moron for dropping a cup of coffee.

  2. Avoid naysayers

    It turns out that beyond simply disliking other people’s negative behavior, you might be adopting it.

    Research from psychologists Elaine Hatfield and John Cacioppo suggests that people often mimic the body language, facial expressions, and word choices of others. The latter is especially true when the word choice is negatively charged.

    To protect your newly formed habits of productivity, avoid letting the bad habits of others rub off on you.

    It isn’t always practical to sever all negative relationships, but you might be able to minimize exposure to chronic naysayers. This is especially important if they tend to put down one of your new routines when you’re already feeling stressed.

  3. Sync up with others

    If your new productive routine is reading daily to foster a clearer mind, consider joining a book club. If you’re trying to quit smoking, find others who want to kick the habit with you.

    Participating in a community with like-minded individuals who share similar goals and experiences is one of the best things you can do to make a delicate new routine more automatic, and thus, easier to sustain in the face of unexpected challenges.

    As Lee Ann Kaskutas puts it, “There’s something really powerful about groups and shared experiences…A community creates belief.”

  4. Think beyond yourself

    Consider productive routines you might like to adopt. Want to avoid procrastination? Trying to improve focus or eat healthier meals?

    You’re probably not the only one who’ll benefit from a better you. What about your kids, or your partner? What about the people whose lives your work will change? When life throws you a curveball that makes it hard to stick with your new routine, think about them.

    In Charles Duhigg’s observation of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), the smallest personal sacrifices sometimes sparked life-long change. One reformed alcoholic mentions a pivotal moment at an AA meeting: “…someone asked for volunteers to help put away the chairs…I raised my hand. It wasn’t a big thing, it took like five minutes, but it felt good to do something that wasn’t all about me. I think that started me on a different path.”

We’d like to come back to a thought we introduced at the beginning of this series: Act on what you know. You’re aware of the challenges you’re facing, and now you have new ideas and suggestions to help integrate more productive routines into your life. Set the wheels in motion and enjoy putting the best version of yourself in charge.

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