“Pushing on through” is a phrase we hear often from people. It seems to be a common theme that many of us notice signs of fatigue, or indicators that our performance is dropping. Often we ignore these signs and carry on with work or study anyway without taking time to properly recover.
“Pushing on through” is understandable given the number of things we might be working on at once, or the pressing deadline of an exam or assignment. Is it a smart strategy though?
You may have seen this graph before:
Figure 1: The Yerkes Dodson Curve demonstrating the relationship between arousal (i.e. stress) and performance.
Image Source: Wikipedia.
What the graph shows is the relationship between level of arousal or stress and performance. We all need a bit of arousal to get us moving and focused; when stress levels are really low, we tend to under-perform. But when that stress gets too much, our performance also suffers.
Assignments and the pressure of looming deadlines
Take the example of an assignment. When you first get the details of the assignment, perhaps 3 or 4 weeks before it’s due, your stress level is likely relatively low about getting it done. As a result, if you sit down to work on it at that time you might find yourself easily distracted or procrastinating.
However, as that deadline looms closer, you likely find yourself feeling a bit more pressure, and therefore focusing more concentrated time and energy on the work.
This changes if you leave yourself too little time; lets say it’s due in 6 hours and you’ve barely started! At this stage it’s likely that the stress you feel becomes counter productive.
Your apprehension about not completing it on time might make your mind race, impairing your concentration. You might find yourself so distracted and upset by thoughts of failing the paper or your whole degree that the work you create is not the quality you want.
Every one is different. Some people find them selves in ‘peak performance’ a week before the due date, while others hit their peak a day or two before it is due. However, everyone has this point where stress starts to negatively affect their performance, and it’s important to manage stress accordingly.
The other important thing to realise is that we also tend to go down the slope of impaired performance if the stress goes on for too long. For example, during exam period you may have noticed that after a couple of weeks of studying all day everyday, your brain just doesn’t seem to work as well and can’t retain as much information.
So what can I do to recover from stress?
First you need to notice where your stress levels are at – is that stress helping you to perform at your peak, or is it leading to impaired performance?
Second, it’s important to structure your study habits to prevent having to work under too much pressure. Try not to leave the assignment so late that you are completing it under high stress, as this will cost you in terms of your own wellbeing and the quality of your work.
And third, we all need to take breaks to be able to recover when stress is high so that we can bring our stress back down to helpful levels. Practically, this means having enough time built in to our study or work plan that we can fit in some breaks. It also helps to remind ourselves in that moment of stress, that we will ultimately be more productive if we take a break.
Too much stress negatively impacts our concentration, memory, ability to think rationally and problem solve, ability to think creatively, and our ability to tune out distractions.
Wow! Given that list, we can’t afford not to take time to recover. These recovery breaks don’t need to be long, just enough to reset.
Strategies for brief recovery can include:
Do something active or some form of relaxation. Stop to stretch, have something nutritious to eat, go for a walk or get some fresh air.
If you’ve got a little bit more time, fit in a run or a visit to the gym – whatever is your preferred exercise.
Switch the type of task. This might be as simple as switching from writing the assignment to doing a search for articles or resources online. It could be switching to discussing the task with a classmate or colleague.
Even better, get away from the computer and listen to some music and let your mind wander.
Doing something fun or pleasurable will provide a positive emotion boost, which has been shown to assist recovery from stress.
Watch one or two silly videos on YouTube which will make you laugh (keep it to one or two so you don’t get pulled in for hours!), or plan something fun to do when you finish the assignment.
How will taking breaks mean I get more done?
Feeling skeptical? A common response to these suggestions is, ‘how will taking breaks mean I get more done?’ The research is very clear that it does (For more click through to an HBR article). But in order to find out how it works for you, give it a go!
You may want to have a day or a week where you work as you usually would and push on through signs of tiredness or building stress. Then try a day or a week where you take brief recovery times instead.
What do you notice? Which style of working is more productive for you? How do you feel at the end of a day/week where you have taken recovery time vs. the times you haven’t? Let us know in the comments!
Read more about mental health and how to cope with stressful periods here.