I recently quit my Podcast so that I could have more time for my writing.
After publishing my final episode and sitting down to write, I noticed that there was just one small problem with my plan: the words wouldn’t come to me.
So I did what humans tend to do when we want to be more productive: I put more pressure on myself to be productive.
If you’ve ever been in a similar situation, it probably doesn’t surprise you that this accomplished exactly nothing.
I still couldn’t think of a single thing I wanted to write about. On top of being spectacularly unproductive, I now also felt stressed out about it.
Let’s just say it wasn’t the most successful start to project “spend more time writing.”
Thankfully, I found a way to move out of it that I’d like to share with you.
The Impact Pressure Can Have on Productivity
“Nobody works better under pressure. They just work faster.” ― Brian Tracy
At some point in our lives, most of us have experienced that pressure can make us more productive. For instance, research shows something that many of us have probably witnessed in our own lives: deadlines reduce the likelihood of procrastination.
In other words, the added pressure of a deadline increases our productivity.
However, there’s a “goldilocks zone of pressure.”
While a little pressure can be great for productivity, a lot of pressure is often a recipe for disaster, for instance, when it comes to our creativity.
The Devastating Impact of Too Much Pressure
High pressure can decimate performance and productivity. Take, for instance, penalty shootouts in huge soccer tournaments, such as the World Cup.
As a spectator, I’ve often watched these and wondered how on earth players in international tournaments deal with the intense amount of pressure they find themselves under while participating in a penalty shootout.
As Karl Wiggins describes it:
“It’s as if for just those few seconds a player’s soul is laid bare for the entire world to see. ”
How do soccer players cope with the fact that millions of people are watching and that the hopes of their entire team (and, presumably, their whole nation) rests on them?
That’s a lot of pressure and it turns something that would normally be an easy task for a professional soccer player into one of the most stressful experiences of their entire lives.
Roberto Baggio, a former Italian player who missed a penalty in a World Cup finale, described it this way: “It is the worst moment of my career. I still dream about it. If I could erase a moment, it would be that one.”
And that pressure has a drastic impact on performance.
Research shows that while players score on average 85% of penalties during normal time, that drops to 76% during a shootout. If a player takes a penalty that could win the shootout, that increases to 92%, whereas the success rate drops to under 60% (!!!) if the player has to score or else the shootout is lost.
The only difference between all these scenarios?
The amount of pressure the player has to deal with.
The Vicious Cycle of Pressure
While I’m not a professional (or even amateur) soccer player, I think there’s a lot that we can all learn from the research I just shared about penalty shootouts.
The main thing I’m taking away from it is this:
reducing pressure can increase performance and productivity.
In fact, pressure can turn into a vicious cycle. If we’re under pressure and we don’t perform, we might put ourselves under more pressure…which just makes things even worse.
That vicious cycle of pressure is something people experience in many different situations, from writer’s block all the way to having trouble falling asleep.
Now, how do you break a vicious cycle?
Well, the problem with a vicious cycle is that it tends to be self-reinforcing, making it hard to break. That’s why the main thing that can help you move out of a vicious cycle is a pattern interrupt.
The Power of Pattern Interrupts
At this point, you might wonder what a pattern interrupt looks like and how it reduces pressure.
Let’s use the example of a soccer player who’s under a lot of stress because it’s the World Cup finale, he’s participating in a penalty shootout and he has to score or else his team will lose.
That player is under a lot of pressure. Thinking about the pressure he’s under or trying to calm himself down will probably only make it worse.
But now imagine what would happen if a spectator (dressed up in a yellow duck costume) ran onto the pitch with a ukulele and broke into a terrible, off-key rendition of a Mariah Carey song? And what if this yellow duck then got tackled and dragged off the field by security, all while loudly proclaiming his everlasting admiration for the pressured soccer player?
Presumably, such an incident would crack everyone up — perhaps even the pressured soccer player himself. Everyone would start laughing and the tension would decrease.
As a result, the player might snap out of the vicious cycle of pressure…which would increase his chances of scoring the goal.
In this hypothetical example, the yellow duck is the pattern interrupt. It’s something that’s so antithetical to the vicious cycle of pressure that it breaks the cycle.
How I Overcame My Writer’s Block
Sadly (or thankfully?), the pattern interrupt that helped me to get out of the pressure didn’t involve a yellow duck armed with a ukulele.
In my less high-stake case, all it took to break the pattern was a little self-awareness: at some point, I realized that adding more pressure on myself was counter-productive.
I observed the effects this had on me and noticed that the more I did it, the more I would tense up. I also reminded myself that creativity isn’t about tensing up, it’s about letting go. About playing.
So I gave myself permission to be playful. To experiment and just see what happens. And it worked!
The Lesson I Learned
What I learned from all this is that “more of the same” isn’t always helpful. Sometimes, it’s about doing something that’s radically different.
Of course, ultimately, playfulness isn’t that different from productivity.
After all, when we were kids, we were unstoppable creation-machines. We were productive in aligned, fun, and playful ways.
Now that we’re adults, we can reclaim the power of playfulness. One simple way of doing that is to use the word “play” more often to describe our actions. As Alan Watts suggests:
“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”
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