…So lately I’ve found myself thinking about what drives people to better themselves. The answer to this question might feel elementary, but the more I live, the more I am finding that developing good habits, earnestly investing in one’s own development, and continually pushing oneself when that which was easy becomes hard is not merely a matter of formulating a trigger, behavior and reward process (as is written about in various academic literature).

In fact, I think the key ingredient to really pushing past limits we all grapple with (such as procrastination, lethargy, fear and frustration) is properly channeling stress.

On the one hand, we shouldn’t let stress rule our lives. Obsessing over an outcome or issue to the extent that you can’t focus on anything else has negative health outcomes that in a worse case scenario can lead you to an early grave. But conversely, stress is our body’s way of saying focus and pay attention. From the Wiki on stress here:

Stress is a body’s method of reacting to a challenge. According to the stressful event, the body’s way to respond to stress is by sympathetic nervous system activation which results in the fight-or-flight response.

^Leveraged properly, stress is a tool that we can all use to help push us into becoming the best versions of ourselves. It’s a vehicle that can help narrow our focus and peel away the blockers that inhibit our ability to give maximum effort. But there is also this:

Because the body cannot keep this state for long periods of time, the parasympathetic system returns the body’s physiological conditions to normal (homeostasis).

^We can’t stay in a stressful state indefinitely. As stated above, doing so will make us ill or worse. And so it’s important to strike a delicate balance between utilizing stress as a source of energy to push us forward without allowing it to burn us out.

…I do my best work when I am stressed, but then ultimately use the fuel of stress until I have nothing left to give. This can lead to wildly uneven performance like this:

Zig Zag

^Where I get a lot done and then drag for a while as I recover. And I’ve seen this same cycle from others in client groups and teams I’ve supported over the years as well! I think this is because – for most people – stress manifests itself in a short-term, destination focused way: One needs to complete a project, report, presentation etc… and then the stress dissipates. Or, conversely, a stressor might manifest itself in the form of a challenge that feels too big… in which case it acts as an anchor until it becomes so heavy that one sinks.

…Maybe the solution is to stop working towards the “reward” of stress relief. And by this I mean that when stressed, the best way to think about stressors is not as a burden to be eased, but as an opportunity to get better. This may sound overly philosophical, but I think the way we each independently deal with stress and channel it (or not) is driven by our value systems. And the best organizations hire talent with attributes that lend themselves to effectively managing stress (see this Southwest article from HBR here).

Of course, cultivating this sort of world view (and approach to stress) is easier said than done.

If you succeed in doing so, tell me how.

Happy Thursday.