With workplace stress costing American employers an estimated $200 billion per year in decreased productivity and other stress-related factors, it’s safe to say that the old adage “Pressure creates diamonds” could use some qualifications.
While early 20th century psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson discovered that some level of psychological arousal improves performance, we have to understand how stress works psychologically so we can do our best work. Only then can we learn how to work with, rather than against, our biologically-influenced energy rhythms.
What is stress?
Experts don’t agree on a single definition of “stress,” but the term can be generally understood here as “the psychological perception of pressure, on the one hand, and the body’s response to it, on the other.”
In the office, this might mean racing to meet a deadline, and feeling your stomach flip when you wonder if you’ll be able to finish. It could look like wondering whether a passing glance from a team member means something unfavorable, and feeling a rush of fear.
We’re all familiar with stress, but its impact might be more pervasive than we consciously acknowledge.
Reduce high stress, but stay on your toes
Contrary to the common belief that high stress makes us perform better, it actually hinders performance, particularly with challenging tasks. For example, if you’ve ever been under pressure to finish a project and felt stressed to the point of drawing a blank, you’ve experienced high levels of stress impeding your memory.
We’re more efficient when we focus our mental energy on one and only one idea at a time.
A 2014 study surveying 22,347 employees in 12 countries also found that stress dashes productivity. The research revealed that high stress levels resulted in higher rates of workplace disengagement, absenteeism, and decreased productivity. In other words, high stress dampens our ability to excel at our work.
Elevated, prolonged stress also takes a massive toll on our bodies and minds, contributing to conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety, and depression.
Luckily, there’s a lot we can do to alleviate stress and facilitate peak performance.
- Organize your day for less stress and peak productivity
We need to understand how our mental energy works if we want to minimize our own stress. Here are five ways to work with your brain and its functions.
Focus on one task at a time. It’s well-established that multitasking is impossible because the mind can only focus on one task at a time. Toggling between tasks burns mental energy. When we get overwhelmed and stressed, we often want to tackle multiple problems at once. Studies show that instead of making us more productive, task switching costs us time. Despite facing a long to-do list or large project, we’re more efficient when we focus our mental energy on one and only one idea at a time.
- Work in 45-minute blocks
Many of us believe that we should be focused all of the time. However, research shows that the human mind can only intently focus for a limited amount of time before we get distracted. Instead of charging ourselves with working straight through to wrap up projects or meet tight deadlines, we can break our work into smaller chunks. This ensures that we’re maximizing productivity and not burning ourselves out by trying to push past our physiological limits.
- Take 15-minute mind-wandering breaks
A wide body of research on “the default mode network,” or the “resting” mind, reveals that mental downtime heightens creativity, aids memory consolidation, and even improves decision-making. Allowing ourselves to daydream in sustained chunks throughout the day helps us recharge, make sense of the day’s work, and keep stamina.
- Identify your “power hour”
Did you know that we all have times of day when we’re most and least productive, influenced by our circadian rhythms? For example, most people reach peak productivity between 9:00 am and 11:00 am, dipping in focus around 2:30 pm. Others are “night owls.” By identifying when we’re most productive, we can schedule our challenging tasks for when we have maximum alertness and brain power. If you’re looking at a packed day at work, and feel stressed about having to get it all done, consider moving the big rocks during your power hour(s).
- Eat nourishing, energizing foods
The food we eat directly influences our mental capabilities. For example, if our blood sugar is low, we’ll have a hard time concentrating. If we eat simple carbohydrates like pasta or sugary treats, we’ll experience an energy and productivity crash. Psychologist Ron Friedman suggests that to maximize productivity, we should make food decisions before we’re hungry, snack throughout the day, and make healthy, high-protein foods just as convenient as unhealthy ones.
Work with the tide
In attuning ourselves to our brain’s capacities and circadian rhythms, our work days may not feel conventional or span as many hours as before. But by understanding our human rhythms, we become maximally efficient, eliminate excess stress, and potentially get exponentially more productive at whatever matters most to us.