Pressure can sabotage your thinking. By pressure, I mean an issue weighing on your mind as you try to concentrate on something else. Perhaps it’s an imminent deadline or a desperate desire to do a fantastic job. Maybe it’s a highly-charged emotional situation you haven’t had time to resolve. Or maybe it’s just that other project you’re working on. To keep the issue from distracting you, you heighten your vigilance, redouble your effort, and try to plug ahead anyway.
Unfortunately, this well-intentioned strategy is sabotaged from the start. To hold an issue at bay takes up valuable mental attention. You must split your mental resources, with only part focused on the task at hand. The rest is devoted to holding the weighty issue in the limbo of peripheral awareness.
There are very few thinking tasks that need only part of your brain. You need to clear that pressing issue off your mind so you can use your full intelligence on the other topic.
How do you do that? One way or another, there is always some step you can take to address the issue for now, so you are free to drop it from your mind.
For example, suppose an undone chore is pressing on your mind. Write down a reminder to yourself — that’s usually enough to clear it off your mind.
If a more complicated task is distracting you, you can get it off your mind by thinking it through to the next physical action (as David Allen teaches), and then putting that item on your to-do list.
Here are some other ways to address an issue that is weighing on you:
- If you are worrying about something that might happen: Make a contingency plan for how you will handle it.
- If there is a decision that needs to be made: Identify the information you need to make the decision. If you don’t have enough information, plan how you’ll get it, then let go for now. If you have all the information, make a list of pros and cons, and give yourself the instruction to percolate in the background on the decision for now.
- If you feel deadline pressure: Identify the kernel that you can complete in half the available time and focus on that. (I teach this as “Planned Evolution,” an approach that also helps with pressure from perfectionism.)
- If you are feeling an intense emotion: Introspect it. Ask, “What do I feel?” and “Why do I feel it?” This calms the emotion and puts you back in control. (I teach this as “Introspection 101.”)
- If you have a problem that you need to solve, plan precisely when and how you will devote time to address it, and explain to yourself why you are right to put it off until then.
The key in each case is to use just a few minutes of targeted thinking to address the weighty issue. Maybe you can settle it in a few minutes. Or, maybe you will use those minutes to figure out how you’ll deal with it later. In either case, you resolve the issue for the time being. You eliminate the urgency to think about it more right now — which means you can devote your full attention to whatever you were trying to concentrate on in the first place.
It helps to know specific tools to quickly address each type of issue. A large number of my classes in the Thinking Lab concern such tools (including the ones mentioned above). But common-sense logic will get you rather far. Just keep in mind that the goal is to clear the load off your mind in a short time.
Pressure is an important warning signal. When you feel pressure, clear the load; free up your mental resources so you can concentrate 100% on your main task. There is no better use of your mind at that moment.