How healthy pressure fuels your performance

growth stress work/life balance

Happy Tuesday!  This is coming to you Tuesday morning (rather than the usual Monday morning jumpstart to your week) since yesterday was Labor Day, and I hoped you were offline enjoying time with family and friends during the long weekend.

My family hit the Minnesota State Fair as we do each year, and my stomach and feet are still recovering (over 22 foods tried as a family and over 20,000 steps on my tracker - phew!).

As I got to thinking about it, I never really knew the history of Labor Day, so I did a little bit of research because I thought you might be in the same boat.

Labor Day was declared a national holiday in 1894 and is observed on the first Monday in September. According to the Department of Labor

“Observed the first Monday in September, Labor Day is an annual celebration of the social and economic achievements of American workers. The holiday is rooted in the late nineteenth century, when labor activists pushed for a federal holiday to recognize the many contributions workers have made to America’s strength, prosperity, and well-being.” 

(If you’d like to learn a little more about Labor Day, check out this interesting and brief history by the History Channel.)

This all got me thinking about work and, as always, about you.

 For many of us, work is consuming, sometimes a bit too all-consuming. 

The hours are long. The work is intense. The to-do list feels neverending. The pressure is high. The client demands don’t stop. It’s all a lot. 

Overwork, overwhelm, and eventual burnout are never the goal nor should we continue to tolerate the glorification of a crushing workload and lack of meaningful work/life integration in the legal profession.

But, when right-sized in our life, work can bring meaning and value.

Work gives us a way to use the skills we have in ways that serve others and/or our organizations and that we enjoy as well.

We are “knowledge workers” - our labor is what we “create” and problems we solve with our minds. For most of us, we love an intellectual challenge. We don’t want to feel bored. We want to be in “flow” or (as I teach in a program by the same name) “eustress” - just the right balance of pressure and competence. 

Without a little pressure, our performance suffers. We are bored. We are underwhelmed. We aren’t engaged. 

The Yerkes-Dodson Law was developed by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908. In a nutshell, the Yerkes-Dodson Law or “Curve” suggests that performance increases with stress/pressure/mental arousal, but only up to a point. When the level of stress is too low or too high, an individual’s performance suffers. (Take a look at the graphic for a representation of this.) 

Yes – when pressure is too low or too high. Having too much pressure or stress isn’t the only problem; having too little pressure can also lead to underperformance and under-engagement.

We need some pressure to get into the “zone” or into “flow.” 

Think of a time when you’ve been bored at work or not engaged by a project, and you’ll remember what it feels like to not be at your best because you weren’t really motivated or intellectually engaged. You didn’t give your best effort or create your best work product.

So with Labor Day in the rearview mirror, remember that some pressure in our work is a good thing. We want to be at our best, firing on all cylinders, and using the capabilities and competence we have - and that takes some pressure, some work, some labor.

Every time we enter that “growth zone” outside of our “comfort zone,” we learn, grow, and develop new mental and emotional “muscles” - and that’s a positive. The people I encounter in my work enjoy striving toward new goals, knowledge, and skills - that’s one of the many things I love about working with lawyers and legal professionals. 

So long as we can keep that striving and that workload in check so that it's not overwhelming or pushes us toward burnout, there is nothing wrong with some healthy pressure and some good, solid, engaging work. 

Use that pressure you feel in service of your work product and your professional development. Enjoy the time you get to spend in “flow” or in “the zone.” That’s the place that will yield your best work, and it takes some healthy pressure to make that happen.

Wishing you just the right amount of pressure to bring out your best!