How the Yerkes-Dodson Curve Helps You Balance Stress and Peak Performance



“Cry in training, laugh on the battlefield.” — Samurai maxim

Are you working harder but producing less?

While stress can initially help your personal performance, sustained stress at too high a level can  decrease your performance.

As you try to compensate for your decreasing performance, this creates more stress, further decreasing your performance.

It’s a vicious cycle.

In The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter, Michael Watkins writes about the Yerkes-Dodson Human Performance Curve and how it explains the relationship of levels of stress to your performance.

The Yerkes-Dodson Human Performance Curve

Here’s an example of the Yerkes-Dodson Human Performance Curve:

Yerkes-Dodson Human Performance Curve

Don’t Work Harder to Achieve Less

While stress can improve your performance in the beginning, at some point, too much stress will start to hurt your performance.

Watkins writes:

“Whether self-generated or externally imposed, you need some stress (often in the form of positive incentives or consequences from inaction) to be productive.

Without it, not much happens – you stay in bed munching chocolates.

As you begin to experience pressure, your performance improves, at least at first. Eventually you reach a point (which varies from person to person) at which further demands, in the form of too many balls to juggle or too heavy an emotional load, start to undermine performance.

This dynamic creates more stress, further reducing your performance and creating a vicious cycle as yo go over the top of your stress curve.

Rarely, outright exhaustion stress in and the new leader burns out. Much more common is chronic underperformance. You work harder and achieve less.”

Key Takeaways

As with so many things, balance is the key.  If you don’t have any stress, you won’t get your best performance.  On the other hand, if you sustain too much stress, you’ll start to degrade your performance.  Here’s my key take aways:

  • Distinguish between good stress and bad stress.  Some stress improves your performance.  At some point, your performance is negatively impacted.  You need to identify when you’re spinning your wheels.
  • Distinguish between types of tasks.  For some physical tasks, a higher-level of stress will help motivate you and sustain your performance.  For difficult, complex or highly cognitive tasks (such as requiring a high-degree of concentration), stress can reduce your performance faster.
  • Distinguish between stress and anxiety.  Stress is your body’s physical reaction, while anxiety is your cognitive association.  For example, you might feel anxious and associate your anxiety with stressful scenarios.
  • Avoid sustaining high-levels of stress beyond your capacity.   As you can see from the curve, performance rapidly diminishes once you are beyond your stress threshold.
  • Don’t stress about stress.  Part of why your performance can deteriorate so quickly is because you notice your performance is deteriorating and this creates more stress, further diminishing your performance.
  • Reduce your stress through checklists.  It works for the air force.  See How To Avoid Task Saturation.
  • Know your own stress patterns.  You’re your best gauge if you pay attention to your performance.  You’ll know when your concentration is off, or your motivation is off, … etc.  You know how you react to various scenarios and whether the stress works for you or against you.  Simply increasing awareness of situations and your performance and levels of stress is a great start.  You can then either tailor situations to suit you, or you can find ways to adapt to certain situations, or you can avoid situations all-together.

While it’s better to burn out, than to fade away, it’s much better to perform in a more sustainable way.

Know your curve.

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