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10 ways to make sure you don't choke under pressure:

Stashed in: Stress, Focus!, Goals!, Productivity, @bakadesuyo, New Yorker, Golf

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The always-interesting Jonah Lehrer has a great blog post up over at The New Yorker explaining why we choke under pressure.

So what we can do to prevent it?

  • Distraction. As Jonah explains, choking is frequently caused by thinking when we shouldn't be thinking. Counting backwards from 100 has been shown to occupy the conscious mind and allow competitors to perform uninterrupted by worries.
  • Adapting to self-awareness. By repeatedly being videotaped while performing, subjects adapted to being watched and no longer found themselves choking. So regular practice in front of an audience (or whatever type of pressure you expect to deal with) can reduce anxiety.
  • Be quick: Don't rush, but prolonging the challenge allows anxiety to build up. Err on the side of being quick to head off the overthinking that can hurt your efforts.
  • Focus on the goal or target, not mechanics: If you're doing something physical, like playing golf, don't get hung up on the intricacies of your swing. That will be your undoing. Concentrate on what you want to achieve.
  • Don't focus on high stakes, think about the big picture: From Annie Murphy Paul: "Reminding yourself of the high stakes makes intuitive sense as a motivational strategy—but it will actually impede your performance. Instead of spurring you to new heights, it’s likely to increase anxiety and undermine your confidence. Research shows that reminding yourself how unimportant the event is in the big scheme of things is a better tactic..."
  • Find something to focus on: Letting your mind wander and jump about isn't a good idea. Focusing on something specific can tame a worried mind.
  • Allow some anxiety in when you practice: Ironically, training with a little worry can prevent you from choking when it counts: "It is concluded that practicing perceptual-motor tasks under mild levels of anxiety can also prevent choking when performing with higher levels of anxiety."

For more on the subject, check out Sian Beilock's book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.

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Focusing on something specific can ease a worried mind.

But what to focus on? Counting down from 100? A specific goal? Something else?

There are common threads through many of these techniques. I think it's worth trying a few different ones to see what works best for you.

Why do people choke? Malfunction in pre frontal cortex.

from a tweet from investingmom

When I'm working a crowd I try to make eye contact and keep a strong posture, I cycle that about once every 3 minutes reminding myself not to slouch and start scanning the crowd, make eye contact with an individual and smile, you can see them react to that and that's how I know I am getting peoples attention.  play off some jokes but they should be very clean and relevant to the discussion you have:

I was speaking in front of about 150 engineers and project managers, all upper and mid management with a few workers in the mix and I was doing a speech on a project coming up in a couple months, there is a very small town north of where I work who has an angry resident who is affected by our project and I joked about how little impact his issue has on anyone other than his ego and the crowd burst laughing.  It was the first and only time anyone more than giggled the entire day. 

Between scanning and posture and smiling I make sure not to go crazy with my hands but to move and speak with a loud but not shouting voice and also think of distractions in my head related to the events of the day:

Where did I park?

What do I want for lunch or dinner?

What do I have to do after work?

I can do this while speaking and listening as this is all just simple mind processes and mental exercise.

Funny, I find it overwhelming just listening to you describe it!

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