Pressure really blows

by Dr. Anthony Paustian, the author of A Quarter Million Steps: Creativity, Imagination, & Leading Transformative Change

I recently saw the movie "Deepwater Horizon." Since the movie is based on actual events, I’m not spoiling anything by describing how it chronicles the 2010 oil well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico that caused the largest oil spill ever in U.S. waters. What struck me the most was how I could actually feel the gradual, yet massive buildup of pressure ultimately released from the ocean floor more than two and a half miles below the surface—pressure that literally blew apart the entire structure.

It got me thinking about how pressure can also affect our everyday lives. Except in a few scientific and engineering contexts, intense pressure is seldom a good thing. However, people often think they actually perform better under pressure, despite the research showing just the opposite: No one performs better under pressure.

“The idea that people perform better under pressure is a myth,” says psychologist Dr. Tim Pychyl, director of the Procrastination Research Group and author of "Solving the Procrastination Puzzle." To his knowledge, there is not one study that supports the claim that people perform better under pressure. The resulting stress makes it harder for your brain to function, basically overloading it.1

Often, this overload and the subsequent pressure created by it come from either trying to do too many things at once (multitasking) or from putting something off because we have too many things to do (procrastinating). And as with most things, an overload tends to burn out what’s being overloaded.

Our brains are complex organs. The average human brain uses the equivalent of 20 watts of power (enough to power a light bulb), and although the brain only makes up a mere 2 percent of our total body weight, it consumes more than 20 percent of our daily caloric intake—more than any other organ in the human body.2

Research has shown that our mental energy related to decision-making is finite, and once depleted, the quality of our thinking begins to dramatically suffer. As average people, we tend to spend a large percentage of our mental energy on relatively meaningless stuff that really doesn’t have any real impact on our lives, good or bad, like streaming through countless posts on Facebook and watching television. Once our brain has used its energy, we tend to miss the relevant stuff and other important details necessary to be more successful, creative thinkers within the limited time we are given.3

Studies of very efficient people show they rid themselves of distractions and the unnecessary, miscellaneous choices that deplete mental energy. They frequently eat and meet at the same places; they turn off their smartphone app notifications and look at their apps when they’re ready to see them; they stop dwelling on things that occurred in the past and don’t obsess on things that might happen since it’s impossible to actually do things in the past or future; they frequently wear the same clothes (think Steve Jobs); and they remove the clutter that surrounds them.4 This “freed-up” energy allows them to focus on what’s truly important.

Being at our creative best requires gas in the mental tank, gas that will only be available if we aren’t going full throttle every day. Also, as with any machine, the brain, or even an oil well, going full throttle for too long creates intense pressure that will be released, one way or another.

1Gonzalez, Robbie. Why Do We Work Better Under Pressure? (April 11, 2014) Retrieved Oct. 3, 2016, from the io9 website: http://io9.gizmodo.com/why-do-we-work-better-under-pressure-1553149028
2(2015). “Brain 101.” Issue 70, 360 Magazine. Steelcase, Inc.: Grand Rapids, Michigan.
3Vaughan, Michael. Know Your Limits, Your Brain Can Only Take So Much. (Jan. 24, 2014) Retrieved Oct. 28, 2015, from the Entrepreneur website: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/23092
4Bradberry, Travis. How Successful People Make Smart Decisions. (Oct. 7, 2015) Retrieved Oct. 28, 2015, from the Forbes website: http://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2015/10/07/10-tricks-successful-people-use-to-make-smart-decisions
©2016  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianLargeHeadDr. Anthony Paustian is the author of four books including his most recent, A Quarter Million Steps. For more information, please visit his website at www.adpaustian.com

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