Growing up, my mum always used to tell me that stress is bad, but pressure is good.

I was a pretty anxious child, (Type-A over-achiever, needed to get all the grades etc.), and this perspective helped me a lot.

Whilst I don’t remember her reasoning for this idea, I think I can offer one; stress is overwhelming, toxic and unproductive. Pressure suggests the discomfort of preparation for a future event, performance or competition.

We all face stress in life, but how can we keep it from getting the better of us?

Step 1 — Understand (get context)

Graham Duncan is the co-founder of East Rock Capital, a multi-family office investment firm that manages $2 billion for a small number of families and their charitable foundations. He has an amazing quote:

“Everyone’s genius is right next to their dysfunction”

I have the privilege to work with teams and individuals who want to excel and lift those around them at the same time.

Their genius (and likely yours since you’re reading this) is that they want to have an impact in their world. They have talent, they have ambition, and they take responsibility for their own success; they strive for perfection.

Their dysfunction is that they shoulder their worlds problems and set a standard of ‘perfect’ for themselves.

A natural and understandable (but unhelpful) byproduct of that unachievable desire is a lot of additional stress.

Step 2— Regain control (get clarity)

In my opinion, most stress is caused by a feeling of overwhelm, or put another way, feeling out of control. Therefore, our second step to embracing and harnessing pressure is in regaining control over the situation (to such an extent as is possible), and the best way I know to regain control is to first regain clarity over the challenge and situation we face.

Those of you who have read previous articles will know that my favourite book is Legacy: 15 Lessons in Leadership by James Kerr. It follows the All Blacks ‘behind the scenes’ to discover how they have built their high-performance culture. In it, Gilbert Enoka, the team’s mental skills coach, says:

“Pressure is expectation, scrutiny and consequence”

When I first read this it had a profound effect on me, and I use this idea a lot with the teams and individuals I coach. We draw this idea out (see diagram at the top) and consider the following question — where does most of your pressure come from; Expectation, Scrutiny or Consequence?

Before we move on, here are a few ways to think about these three elements:

  • Expectation — A set standard for a future outcome that qualifies that outcome as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. An important point here is that expectations are both internal and external. With most of the people I work with, the expectations of self (internal) far exceed the expectations of others (external).

  • Scrutiny — This is about your performance being observed critically by other people. Thus it is an external source of pressure, and focused on past events (even if that event was moments ago). A friend of mine and I have this debate often, but I argue that the feeling of scrutiny can be continual, and therefore an ongoing or present-focused source of pressure, not just past-focused.

  • Consequence — I see this as pressure coming from the imagined effect of hitting or missing the mark. Do not misunderstand me — the consequences of missing a mortgage payment are very real, but the consequences of missing the mark of ‘Perfect’ to my chances in life are…what?

Perhaps you’re feeling some pressure right now. From where does the majority of your pressure come from — Expectation, Scrutiny or Consequence?

Step 3 — Tackle the cause (get moving)

Part of regaining control is moving from the victim mindset of “this is happening to me” to a more empowering mindset of “this is happening to me so I will choose to do this”.

Getting proactive puts you back in the drivers seat of your life and turns stress into pressure to use for fuel to get to where you want to be.

Once you have identified where specifically your pressure comes from (expectation, scrutiny or consequence) it’s time to think about what choices you have.

As an example, I’ll use the first one, since for most of the people I work with, (and myself), the main cause of pressure is Internal Expectation. We demand ‘Perfect’ from ourselves in everything we do.

If this is true for you, I offer you three questions to refer to. Asking these questions of myself when in a state of overwhelm can help to move from stressed and a victim, to in-control and embracing the pressure:

  • “What am I doing this for?” — Reconnecting to your larger purpose reminds you why this current discomfort is worth it will bring a greater sense of calm and perspective. (For more on purpose, check out this article).

  • “Is 80% okay?” — A friend and mentor of mine says this to me when he sees my perfectionist tendencies creeping through. There are times when our very best and most detailed work is required (brain surgeons and mechanics should ignore this question, or at the very least answer with an emphatic “No”). Most of the time though, 80% of our best is more than enough to get the job done, and with this realisation comes a reduction in the stress and anxiety caused by trying to hit the bullseye on everything. Not only that, but “Perfect” is usually a subjective concept — so what you’re doing by trying for it is taking responsibility for everyone else’s expectations as well as your own.

  • “(For right now) what will I choose to do badly?” — A rather uncomfortable question for us A-Types. In Jon Acuff’s book Finish he suggests the idea that in times when a lot is going on, the desire to keep doing everything well is unsustainable and impractical. As an example, you might decide that you are going to do badly at socialising or exercising for the next two weeks while you smash the proposal for a big contract you need to prepare and present. (Note that this isn’t a choice to never see friends or workout ever again, but it allows you to focus your mental and emotional energies to the most important task at hand temporarily).

A final thought

None of the above will help you be rid of stress forever more. That’ not realistic, nor would it be ideal. The way we grow and develop resilience is by moving through obstacles and challenges, not around them. What is more, if you’re trying to achieve something great you will have testing times.

But a good deal of this stress, I have found, comes from trying to exert control over the uncontrollable. My stress-coping abilities have risen hand in hand with my ability to let go of the need to control situations that are beyond my capacities.

That, and always keeping my mother’s lesson in mind — stress is bad, but pressure is good.