This is a book worth reading. Pressure is something which faces us all, however, something we all react differently to. If you want to better understand how our mind deals with pressure whilst having simple to use tools to deal with it, then I would highly recommend reading this. This book has a lot of buzz-words and acronyms but even if you don’t read the whole thing, the next time you need to perform, the tips you do get a chance to read will help you not only get through your performance, but thrive through it too!
Get the book here: Perform Under Pressure by Dr Ceri Evans
1. How our minds deal with pressure
The two types of threats we face
We are faced by two threats: Real external dangers which pose a risk to our health (think of being chased by a hungry predator) and internal threats caused by the fight we put ourselves through when facing something we perceive to be a threat (think of a footballer taking the game-deciding penalty in a tournament).
The two mechanisms our brain uses when facing threats
Dr Ceri Evans has devised the “Red-blue” model to help explain how our brain approaches threats and deals with emotional regulation.
The “Red” system specializes in the emotional regulation of our brain and processes social and emotional information to give us split-second reactions; it can be also known as the classic “fight-or-flight” response. Whilst being effective at keeping us safe, it runs on broad images, impressions and feelings, which can make it easy to miss key bits of information. When running on the red system although decisions are made quickly, there is a significant trade-off in terms of the quality of decisions made.
The opposite system is the “Blue” system. This is where higher mental functions like prioritizing; planning; abstract thinking; problem solving and goal setting takes place. When looking to face complex challenges which require logic and reasoning, you must engage your blue system to produce anything worthwhile.
Overthinking and connecting
If you’re a sports star – or anyone who deals with pressure on a day to day basis – then the worst thing you can do is overthink according to Dr Evans. When under pressure you do not want to think too much or too fast. This will hamper performance and stop you from reaching that next level.
What you really want to be aiming for is “connecting” or “being in the zone”. This is the place where you perform at your best, and it’s because you are precisely not thinking at all – you are just doing.
Multi-tasking is a myth
In his best-selling book “An Organised Mind” Daniel Levitin explains how we do not multi-task, but instead quickly switch between tasks, which for the brain is exceptionally draining and inefficient. Dr Evans echoes a similar point suggesting that you should pay attention to the task at hand and don’t get distracted by other unrelated things.
But… You still need to have a dual focus
Now without trying to sound too contradictory, you still need to have a holistic perspective when solving problems. That doesn’t mean you need to understand everything, just the important things going on.
When facing problems, what do you think is more important: Having a laser-like focus on all of the details or keeping a watchful eye on everything going on? The answer to that is both…
When we are working on something, our actions take place within the big-picture of what we are trying to achieve. This requires both a keen eye to detail to ensure good work is completed, but also an attention to context to ensure you aren’t going off-course.
This is important for multiple reasons, but the most prominent examples are aviation disasters – Matthew Syed explains these well in Black Box Thinking – where losing track of the bigger picture when delving into the detail can prove fatal.
You can either go APE or ACT!
This book is packed with tons of useful and easy to remember acronyms and one of them is this. When facing pressure, the negative response fueled by the red part of our brains is APE (Aggression, Passive, Escape). Your initial response is anger at the situation and everything that has caused it, you then try to remove yourself from the problem before escaping it all together.
A more constructive way to approach problems is to use the ACT (Awareness, Clearness, Task) method. This engages our blue mind and looks to first acknowledge and be aware that there is a problem before gaining clarity of what the problem is and then putting actionable steps in place to work around it.
2. Tools we can use to face problems
Step back, step up, step in
Out of all the methods in the book regarding dealing with pressure, this is my favorite. This is a technique which you can use when pressure starts to mount and you start to feel out of control. It aims to slow down your thinking and engage the “blue-minded” critical and careful thinking regions of your brain.
When you feel pressure building, firstly, step-back from the problem and remove yourself from it. Stop what you are working on, take a deep breath and allow yourself a break.
You should then “step-up” and try to gain an overview of the situation. Envision yourself looking down on the problem, visualize the problem as something like a box with all the completed things nicely organized in it, and the outstanding bits not in there. Ask yourself, what needs to be solved instantly? What is pointless noise? And what can be deferred?
When you feel ready, step back into the problem with a newly gained insight and tackle the problem systematically.
Reflective listening – ensuring you help others too…
Most of the book focuses on using these tools to benefit yourself; however, the author has provided some insight into using it to help others facing tricky situations too.
When facing others who have a problem, the first bit of advice is to avoid getting into an argument at all costs; just because they have come to you with an issue does not mean it becomes your responsibility and potentially your fault. You should instead stand your ground and help the other person process and understand their emotions.
The purpose of helping others with their emotions is to help activate their blue thinking system. When someone is getting agitated and aggressive (red mind) try to get them to reflect on the situation by providing them a brief description of the problem and how they are currently reacting to it. Then suggest other appropriate alternatives – this is to help them make the transition themselves from red to blue.
This will be a reiterative process, watch the other person, listen to their comments and ask yourself – Are they making the shift from red to blue or not? If they are not, keep making blue reflective statements before progress is made.
You need to create a performance gap!
If we want to improve, we first need to recognize there is a gap between who we are and who we want to be.
- Do you want to get better at what you are doing?
- Have you reached your full potential?
- Do you have a clear picture about what the next level looks like?
If you answer 2 and 3 with “NO” then you are unlikely going to reach your full potential. The stark reality according to the author is that most people plateau in their careers early on before reaching a level of competence they feel comfortable with and stop pushing.
If you want to get better at what you do, acknowledge there is a gap you need to fill and start working! This gap isn’t there to dissuade us, but instead help us identify what we really want and energize us to achieving them.
Stopping trivial matters getting in our way
Many of us – myself included – can get stuck by fixating on things that are outside of our control. Not only does this waste our time, but it can also throw us into the red state of mind, somewhere we do not want to be. Luckily, Dr Evans has created a simple to use tool named “Three circles” to help us take control of what we can control.
You should first take out a blank sheet of paper, and draw a circle on the left with the caption “CANNOT CONTROL”. For a few minutes, make a list inside of the circle of the things that you cannot control if you tried – good examples are things like; the weather; the traffic; sudden emergencies and other peoples reactions.
On the right hand side, draw a circle with the caption “CAN CONTROL” and again for a few minutes, write down things you can control. You might include things like; your emotional reaction; how prepared you are; your response to disasters and how you will deal with criticism.
Now, in the middle of both circles, draw a third circle with the caption “CAN INFLUENCE” and make a list inside the circle of the factors in the “CAN’T CONTROL” list that you can at least influence. You might leave obvious things like the weather, however, for things like the weather you could take a coat and for the traffic you could leave earlier.
For the ones which you can influence cross them off your list in the “CAN’T CONTROL” list and then forget about the “CAN’T CONTROL” list.
3. For Leaders of Today and Tomorrow…
Create a performance culture
The art of leadership is to use pressure wisely. You want to get the best out of others whilst not asking them too much and burning them out. As a leader we need to look at ourselves first and ask: Do we want a culture where others are pushed along or helped pulled forwards?
If we create a culture where performance is expected but not demonstrated by our own actions then it can create a strange dynamic; we instead need to show others what success – or at least trying – looks like by doing it ourselves first.
A performance culture is a simple idea: Being better than you were yesterday. But a proper performance culture does not only apply to the people who need to perform, but also the coaches and leaders too.
Prioritizing is paramount
When leaders tell somebody to ‘prioritize’ a task they usually seem to forget that people are already busy. When asked about what to do with all the other ‘priorities’, leaders might abdicate their responsibility and simply ask for it all to be done. They remove nothing, but instead stack and run.
When adding a new task to somebody’s list, good leaders should subtract something first. There’s a pretty strong correlation between the number of things people are working on and the quality of work they produce.
Learn from our failures, but also our wins too
To end on a final point, recovering is just as important as preparing. When we are serious about performance we need to see tasks completed not as something to forget about and push under the rug until they come to haunt us next year but instead valuable learning opportunities to show us how we can perform better and stronger next time.
Thanks for reading, I hope to see you next time – Stay awesome and I wish you all the best :)!
Get the book here: Perform Under Pressure by Dr Ceri Evans