Productive Anxiety

You ever Sheldonwatch The Big Bang Theory? Hilarious sitcom about four nerdy scientists from Cal Tech.

In “The Anxiety Optimization” (Season 8 Episode 13), Dr. Sheldon Cooper has an epiphany after struggling to make a breakthrough in his newly chosen field of Dark Matter.

Sheldon: “The reason I may not be progressing in my research is I’ve created too pleasant an environment for myself. According to a classic psychological study by Yerkes and Dobson, in order to maximize performance, one must create a state of productive anxiety. So, I like to ask you all to do something for me. Keep me on my toes. Throw me off my game. And essentially, go out of your way to make my life miserable.”

Gang: “What’s in it for us? (slight pause) Okay we’ll do it!” Hilarity ensues as his friends torment him for sport.

(Hebbian version of the Yerkes-Dodson law) OriginalYerkesDodson.svg

I think Sheldon is on to something here. As this chart shows, arousal is important in getting things done. Lethargy does not lead to great performance. When it comes to simple tasks, the more arousal the better, but for difficult tasks, too much arousal can impair performance. Having your “life made miserable” might not be the best strategy for complex work. But simply put, a bit of pressure can help you do more and better.

Manic Impressives tend to rely on arousal a bit too much. When we feel flat, we have a hard time focusing. We often succumb to “I don’t feel like it” moods and struggle to perform with consistency.

I experienced this first hand while on the road selling training courses across the country. Every week I had a mountain of unexpected obstacles to overcome: missing luggage, lost sales materials, inept contract workers, and meeting rooms that were too dim, cold, cramped, or noisy. In one hotel a group of clog dancers started banging away in the room above us just as I began my pitch. Another time a construction crew started jack hammering in the space next door. In every case, a great sense of urgency would swell up in me as I pushed to solve the problems, and I closed sales at a record-breaking pace.

Until I got to Syracuse. For once, everything went smoothly. I had a full-time professional assistant, a nice comfy rental car, time to go to dinner, and a comfortable room in a beautiful hotel just two floors up from my meeting room. Finally, I could relax a bit and perform at a higher level without all the usual distractions.

Only I couldn’t. My first three days I couldn’t close a door, let alone a sale. Everything was nice, comfortable and smooth,  and I couldn’t sell squat. My sales manager suggested I had lost my urgency with all that comfort. I suggested he was full of crap, and began to wonder if he had purposely created all the logistic fails just to “keep me on my toes”.

It didn’t take long to test the theory. The next afternoon I showed up for my 1:00 pm sales presentation to find another group in my room. The hotel GM had double-booked the space and asked if I could reschedule. Not a chance, prospects were lining up in the lobby. The adrenaline kicked in, I pushed the GM for an alternate room, and in a sweaty rush we moved out beds, moved in tables and chairs, and crammed the folks into a much too-small space. I launched into my presentation still breathing heavy, but when the dust settled, I closed 70% of the room, a new personal best.

Though I don’t want it to be true, Yerkes Dodson has me convinced. Urgency, or as Sheldon would say, Productive Anxiety, is a powerful, healthy force, that can drive Manic Impressives to greater performance…