Have you ever noticed the impact of high stress on your personal productivity, or the productivity of your organization?

Consider this vicious cycle:

  1. The cycle starts with increased stress. An example of this would be encountering a roadblock in a project with a tight deadline.
  2. As the deadline gets closer I start speeding up my work and looking for shortcuts.
  3. Speeding up my work causes me to start making mistakes
  4. Additional effort is now required to make up for those mistakes. Working harder without making progress on a tight deadline further increases my stress, which may cause me to become less diligent in finding the right solutions and more concerned about finding any solution. I may even begin making decisions more emotionally, further contributing to the problem.

All along, if I would just stop, think purposefully and broaden my perspective for a few minutes, I would likely be inspired to solutions that would otherwise be closed off to me.

Maybe I need to talk about the problem with the project stakeholders, or ask a teammate or an expert for help?

Often, stopping my work and taking a few minutes to think leads me to a different course to solve the problem much more quickly than if I would have just kept running.

This isn’t to say all stress is bad

Actually, according to the Yerkes–Dodson law, a little stress will increase your productivity! One might think about the effects of stress on productivity as an inverse parabolic curve.

When stress is very low, productivity is low. When stress increases to an optimal level, so will productivity. As stress continues beyond optimal, productivity decreases and will decrease to zero if the stress becomes extreme.

So how do you stay at the top of the curve?

When you find yourself in a stressful situation, what can you do to keep your productivity at an optimal level?

I think we can save time and energy when we recognize our stress is approaching a level where our performance could be negatively impacted, rather than after we make a mistake.

So, what are the warning signs of bad stress?

The most obvious indicator is that you aren’t able to think clearly.

Over the years I’ve come to learn that my left shoulder becomes sore from tension and I find myself feeling irritated over minor issues. Others notice jaw clenching, eye twitching, or general anxiety. Awareness of your body’s responses to excessive stress will help you to know when it’s time to be more purposeful in certain areas or a change in strategy is needed.

When you recognize one of your responses, here are some ideas on how to bring it back down to a productive level:

  • Stop, clear your mind, look out the window, and think about the problem abstractly for a few minutes.
  • Write (or type) out your thoughts.
  • Purposefully walk in the door with a great attitude.
  • Triple-check where you would normally double-check.
  • Ask for help, even if just to briefly talk through the problem and your current strategy.
  • Review the overarching goal you are trying to accomplish.
  • Review personal and company values. Remind yourself of what is truly important.