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18 Ways to Perform Effectively Under Pressure

Pressure-at-work 300pStress and pressure are two different things. While some level of stress may be good for you, any level of pressure is usually harmful. It is extremely important to recognize and differentiate between these two feelings so that you can apply the correct solution techniques.

Most of us are familiar with two types of stress. Positive stress, called eustress, is usually good for you. It motivates, focuses energy, feels exciting, and improves performance. It is short-term and gives us the sense that we can cope with the situation. On the other hand, negative stress, called distress, is consistently harmful to your health and your performance. It causes anxiety, feels unpleasant and decreases your performance. It can be short-term or long-term, and makes us feel unable to handle the situation.

In his book “Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters”, Dr. Hendrie Weisinger defines negative stress as a mismatch between the demands that you face and your resources to respond. For instance, imagine that tomorrow you have to take your kids to school, drive to work with heavy traffic for 30 minutes, attend a meeting at 8:00 AM, make a couple of important phone calls, follow up on a couple of projects, write a monthly report, and interview three job candidates. This negative stress makes you feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the demands of your environment.

You can do the following things to cope with distress:

  • Relax. E.g., take a deep breath.

  • Delegate.

  • Prioritize.

  • Under-promise.

  • Schedule breaks in between meetings and tasks, so you can relax and re-energize.

  • Be assertive.

  • Say “No” more often.

  • Take a nap if you are tired.

  • Take a vacation.


You may perform better under some level of “positive” stress. However, if you think you achieve more under pressure, you are delusional. Dr. Weisinger points out that pressure never helps. It occurs in situations when you have something at stake, and the outcome depends on your individual performance. For example, you may feel pressure when you take an important test, or have a job interview. Pressure puts high importance on the situation and gives you feelings of anxiety, fear, embarrassment, huge responsibility, and uncertainty of the outcome. There is only one acceptable way to respond; to be effective. 

Pressure adversely impacts our cognitive capabilities, makes you bend your ethics, ruins productivity, attacks your physiology (heart rate, blood pressure, adrenaline levels), creates distressful feelings, distracts your attention, downgrades your behavioral skills, makes you think that people are watching you and talking about your poor performance, makes you choke, and creates high employee turnover.

Pressure also makes you have destructive thoughts, such as:

  • This is the only big opportunity I am going to have.

  • I will never have an opportunity like this again.

  • If I do not do well, my career is over.


Parents and managers unwittingly put pressure on their kids and employees respectively, when they say things like these:

  • This exam is very important.

  • This task is very important.

  • Don’t mess up.

  • This is a really important presentation.

  • This is a really important client.

  • The bar is set high. Let’s see what you can do.

  • Make me proud.


Last-Minute Solutions to Pressure

To cope with pressure, you need to apply techniques that help you minimize distressful feelings, avoid distracting thoughts, focus your thoughts, calm down, and appropriately guide your behavior. You can do the following things right at the moment when you feel pressure to increase your chances of success.

  • Focus on the task, rather than the importance of the task.

  • Trust yourself.

  • Commit to doing your best.

    • Even if you are not good enough, just do your best. That is all you can do.

  • See the situation as an opportunity, rather than a threat.

    • If your kid is taking a test, tell him this is an opportunity for him to show what he has learned in the course.

  • Minimize the importance of the situation and realize that you will have more opportunities.

    • E.g., the worst that can happen is you take the course again.

    • E.g., you will get another job interview.

  • Affirm your self-worth.

    • Even if I do a poor job, that does not have anything to do with your being a good person.

    • When your kids are under pressure, remind them that you love them unconditionally.

  • Squeeze a ball with your left hand.

    • Right-handed people can trick their brain by clenching their left fist. According to Dr. Weisinger, this simple action interrupts destructive thinking in the language area of the brain. It primes the right side of the brain, which is responsible for things that we do automatically, such as things that we have rehearsed. Please note that this technique does not work for left-handed people.

  • Say a special word that summarizes how you want to feel.

    • E.g., Relax, Peaceful, Calmed, or Cool

  • Go first.

    • If your boss asks an important question to the group in a meeting, be the first to respond. Studies have found that people who go first are most successful. Answering first allows you to focus on your prepared answer, rather than to change your response based on what others say.


Short-term Solutions to Pressure

You can do the following things a few days before the day you need to perform to increase your chances of success.

  • Every morning tell yourself optimistic affirmations.

    • E.g., today I am going to complete my monthly report.

    • E.g., today is going to be a great day!

  • Prepare for your performance, and set an environment with similar pressure to the real event.

    • E.g., if you need to complete a presentation in 30 minutes, rehearse finishing it in 25 minutes or less.

    • If you need to complete a test in one hour, practice completing it in 50 minutes or less.

  • Rehearse for interviews and presentations.

  • Anticipate and prepare for mishaps.

    • E.g., if you think the test will have only multiple-choice questions, still get ready for essay questions.

    • E.g., when you prepare for your presentation, anticipate objections and prepare appropriate responses.

    • E.g., take a hard-copy of your presentation, so you can use it in case you have technical difficulties during your presentation.

  • Write down your feelings.

    • Write down your feelings, concerns, and anxieties the night before.

    • Get it out of your system.

  • Share your feelings.

    • Share your pressure feelings with your partner and best friends.


Long-term Solutions to Pressure

In the long term, you can work on building your confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm. 1) To build your confidence, remember that you are a worthy person, regardless of the outcome. 2) To gain optimism, be positive every single day by replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. Then you will start looking for good things to happen, and you will start finding good things. 3) To build tenacity, commit to your best. In every pressure moment, the only thing you can control is your effort. 4) To be enthusiastic, celebrate all your successes, even small and intermediate successes. For instance, if the interview was good, that is a success, regardless of whether you get the job. The more good interviews you have, the more chances you have of getting a job offer. Do not focus too much on the outcome. Think of the process and do your best.


As you can see, it is very important to differentiate between stress and pressure so that you can apply the correct solution. With the techniques I listed above, you will be able to perform effectively under pressure. What other techniques have worked for you? Please write a comment below.

Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most



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