Is It Stress Or Is It Pressure? Why You Need To Know

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“I’m so stressed out! Can you help me?”

I get that a lot, particularly when people hear that one of my areas of expertise is helping people produce under pressure. It’s a fair question, but an off-target one. Fair, because stress and pressure are similar. Off-target, because they’re not the same.

Here’s the difference. Stress is a condition. You have a tough job, or an unhappy marriage, or unruly kids. These can all cause stress. Pressure, however, is an event. You have a “make it or break it” presentation to give to an important client on Tuesday at 9am. You have an audition with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the one open cello spot. You’re making the potentially game-winning free throw in the division basketball championship.

#Stress is a condition. #Pressure is an event. #ProducingUnderPressure Click To Tweet

Think of it this way. When you’re under stress, you just want to make it go away (or at least minimize it). In a pressure situation, on the other hand, you either succeed or fail. Win or lose. Crush it or choke.

Being a student is stressful. Taking the SATs is pressure.

Stress is a dimmer switch; pressure is a toggle.

Why is this important? Because in a pressure situation, the stakes are higher — and the solutions are different.

Producing under pressure is, to a large extent, about mind control. Literally. It’s about what you choose to focus on — and, to a sometimes greater extent, what you choose not to focus on.

Put even more simply, it’s about minimizing distractions.

Producing under #pressure is, to a large extent, about minimizing distractions. #ProducingUnderPressure Click To Tweet

But here’s an interesting twist. These distractions vary, depending on the type of pressure event you’re facing — and there are basically two:

  1. There’s the pressure event that primarily involves thinking: taking the SATs, delivering a TED Talk, asking for a raise.
  2. There’s the pressure event that primarily involves muscle memory: sinking the winning putt, playing a Beethoven piano sonata in concert, parallel parking with your in-laws in the car.

For the thinking events, you’ll get better results when you can focus on the task at hand. This means weeding out distractions like room temperature, the fight you had with your significant other this morning, or that weird sound your car is making when you turn left. Those may be valid concerns, but they’re concerns for another time. You need to be able to put them aside and devote all your thinking power to the task in front of you.

For the muscle memory tasks, conversely, you don’t want to think too much about them! Your expertise for these tasks is stored in a different part of your brain, and if you try to bring it to the conscious thinking part (your pre-frontal cortex), you’ll end up overanalyzing it — which leads to choking. This is why a seasoned, professional golfer goes into a slump when she starts thinking too much about, say, the mechanics of her backswing.

Stress is tough, but pressure is critical. By knowing the difference, you’ll be better equipped to tackle each one with the appropriate tools.

Stress is tough, but pressure is critical. By knowing the difference, you’ll be better equipped to tackle each one with the appropriate tools. Click To Tweet

About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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