We don’t do our best work under stress. Except when we do.
Last week, I made the assertion that we rarely do our best work under stress. When we are tense, frustrated, anxious or angry, we aren’t going to engage well with just about any task (even if that is just trying to send a coherent email). Our attention is distracted and derailed. Our cognitive capacity is reduced or more to the point, focused on the source of the stress, not the work at hand. We are not going to do our best work.
I specifically took on the use of stretch goals, which have been a personal pet peeve of mine for decades. Arbitrary deadlines established capriciously for no other reason then “faster, better, cheaper” is the unthinking mantra of the blissfully ignorant executive. Stretch goals don’t work. Very early on in my career, for example, I was given the objective of building a “war room” for a project by Christmas Eve. The essence of the request was simple: commandeer a boardroom, outfit it with laptops, whiteboards and power distribution, and ensure all is in readiness for a horde of consultants to undertake a ridiculously involved and complex analysis of the organization’s entire code base—which was probably in the hundreds of millions of lines.
Deconstructing this request yields the following insights: It would involve taking over a boardroom when meeting rooms were already scarce. It required getting something ready for Christmas Eve, for it promptly not to be used for at least three weeks over the holidays. It necessitated ordering 15 laptops on a rush basis. There was no team assembled to populate said “war room,” and that likely wouldn’t happen until early February, at the absolutely earliest. Most importantly, none of the work was actually going to happen in that meeting room, because all of the required data resided in far flung data centres across two provinces.
Following through on this request would have involved wasting tens of thousands of dollars, robbing already cranky staff of a valued meeting room and producing no value whatsoever. The only thing that taking action on the request would have accomplished is to allow a vice president to make an irrelevent promise to the rest of the senior executive team and then tick the box to say the work was complete. In what would not be my last display of conscious and reasoned disobedience—and further proof that I am a far better consultant than an employee—I let the boardroom remain unmolested for the holidays and deferred the laptop purchase until there were eager hands greedily waiting to use them. While I endured a brief tirade from said vice president in the new year, I don’t recall it reflecting horribly on my subsequent performance evaluation.
I could have stressed about following through. I might have allowed the request to occupy my Christmas holidays (it certainly wouldn’t be the last time a holiday season got commandeered by work). It would certainly have been possible to rush heedlessly into the stress and pressure of coordinating the impossible on an unreasonable timeframe in order to do the unnecessary. While this may be an obvious example of where the goal was unreasonable, it is by no means an isolated instance. It happens all the time, and most of us are the worse for wear because of that fact.
Stretch goals are stressful precisely because they are imposed on us from the outside. We have absolutely no control over them, and very often our protestations about their unreasonableness and unattainability falls on deaf ears. We are expected to do the impossible in far less time and with far fewer resources than is required, with the default response to any objection a dismissively airy “make it so.” We know we are being set up for failure, and yet we have very little recourse. The consequence is that what work does get done will be what we can manage under the circumstances, rather than what we might optimally produce given time, space and the ability to explore and consider the results that we need to deliver.
While I (clearly) disparage and discourage the use of stretch goals as being largely ineffective and unnecessarily cruel, there are other forms of stress that are far more insidious. That stress might be work related, or it might be personal. It can be the low grade tension that results from living in a pandemic for too long, of sharing a roof with too many people, and not having enough personal time or space to focus (which was ultimately the point of my column last week). It might also be the fear of our economic status; if we are anxious for our job, that is going to negatively impact our ability to confidently deliver work (exactly when our employment might depend most upon being able to demonstrate our value). Interpersonal disagreements can also play a factor, as can uncertainty about our work or challenges about how to deliver it.
The stress might be as simple as having a bad day. Whether we didn’t sleep well, we are feeling under the weather, we are having a personal conflict or we just woke up on the wrong side of the bed, there are days when our fuses our shorter and our nerves are rawer. None of these situations are optimal in terms of doing quality work. These are far more likely to be the days that we get distracted by the endless rabbit hole of the internet, mindlessly try to distract ourselves or do less demanding, low priority work because that is all that we have the capacity to deliver.
It would be easy to presume that stress is just a bad thing altogether, and should be avoided wherever possible. In particular, we might infer that the only way to do our best work would be to have infinite freedom, flexibility, time and space. Except that would be wrong.
As I’ve explored in the past, creativity likes constraints. There are few things more intimidating (on an easel, in a typewriter, or on a metaphorical word processor) than a blank piece of paper. The possibilities of a literal clean sheet are limitless, and that is exactly the problem. Because a page can be anything, it can be everything, which in turn risks it being nothing. The mere act of starting is useful, because you have a point of grounding that you need to move from; it is a constraint unto itself (unless you delete everything and start over).
There are a few other wrinkles in this line of thinking that it are also worth exploring. It’s especially useful to explore the research about how we actually do our best work. I’ve written about the theory of Flow before. Pioneered by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow explores the factors that allow us to perform at peak levels, where we are fully and completely engaged in our work (whether that work is professional or playful). The essential ingredients of exceptional performance is that experiences are most immersive when we are confronted with a task that modestly stretches us, but that is within our abilities to deliver. When we need to work to accomplish a goal, where we will need to dig a little deeper, build our skills or stretch our abilities, we are most likely to enjoy it. In other words, Flow argues that we perform better under a certain amount of stress.
We experience the same challenge when we are learning a new skill or ability. Formative experiences do not always uniformly proceed well. When we set out to learn something new, failure is a necessary part of learning (whether it is a new recipe, a new language or a new technique). We knowingly put ourselves in a position where we don’t know what we are doing, with the expectation of figuring it out. Success in growing our skills is not immediate, and the learning process can be difficult. Not succeeding at something is uncomfortable and frustrating, and we will often regret the experience before we are ultimately rewarded by it. Our brains wrestle with new concepts and ideas until finally they find a foothold in our grey matter.
A similar experience is encountered every time we find ourselves in a space between one state and another. We move through these transitions regularly, whether because we take on a new job, move to a new house or enter into a new relationship. We also experience the liminal at work, as we shift processes, adopt new systems or work with new technology. The simple act of moving from one computer to another, or one smartphone to the next, is a surrender of the familiar for something new. Even though the new technology is conceptually similar, the specifics are often different enough that we struggle until we finally find our way to a new and familiar anchor point.
In other words, we like stress—to a point. Stressful experiences are what engage us, encourage us to grow and allow us to transform to new ways of being and operating. Advancement and development are stressful experiences. So how can stress be disabling in one instance, and the very basis of all progress in another? It is an excellent question, and one that has some nuances that require exploration.
Experiences of flow, learning encountered and periods of transformation are all about change. They all are centred around the idea of creating instances of stressful experience that allow for growth and development. It’s a little like how we grow muscle: workouts stretch our muscles beyond which they have previously been adapted, and the resulting breakdown of muscle fibres causes new muscle to develop. Our brains undergo similar experiences; we stretch and challenge them beyond what we have experienced, and in turn we build new skills and capabilities. The stretch of peak experience—and our ability to overcome the challenge and be successful—results in new capabilities, new competence and new confidence.
There are two essential factors at play here. First, there is a very fine line between challenge and overwhelm, which is arguably what we get wrong about stretch goals. While they are theoretically supposed to incentivize positive performance, they usually wind up being debilitating. Our learning experiences and our liminal transitions all share in common the essential definition of flow: they stretch us, but we are able to rise to the challenge and be successful. We step outside of our comfort zone to do this, but not so far that we find the experience overwhelming or crippling.
The more important factor to acknowledge is the source of the stress. When we dive into a challenging experience, or learn a new skill, that is usually an experience that we have chosen for ourselves. While we are stretching and growing, we are the author and owner of the stress. We determine how far we push ourselves, and the degree of challenge that we take on. While we might have a goal at the outset, we have the opportunity to reframe or recalibrate that goal if necessary.
We are products of the experiences that have shaped us. Those that have been most formative are not the ones where we have simply shown up. We grow more when we have been challenged, and when we have devised the means and methods to work through the challenge and figure out how to emerge out the other side. While the balance between challenge and overwhelm is a delicate one, it’s something that we have chosen for ourselves. No one imposed it, and no one—except ourselves—holds us accountable to meeting the goal. Stress is part of how we grow; we just grow most effectively when we are in control of our own experience.
What are the ways that you have found stress to be a source of growth and development, even if that wasn’t what you intended?