Your Pressure Habits - -Do They Help or Hurt You?

04/10/2015 06:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

The values of forming good habits and breaking poor habits has become a popular topic ---but for sure, not of new importance. Ever since man learned that checking the security of his sleeping quarters ensured that he'd wake up in the morning, the value of good habits has been clear---they provide an evolutionary edge. Good nutritional, exercise, health, driving and study habits give an edge to all that possess them and typically handicap those who don't. Over twenty- five years of study culminating in my new book, Performing Under Pressure: The Science Of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most (Crown, 2015) provides ample evidence that this is also true for those who have good pressure habits and for those who don't.

What are pressure habits? From the standpoint of psychology, a habit is is a more or less fixed way of thinking, behaving, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of experience. Sometimes you need multiple experiences to develop a habit, sometimes only one. A pressure habit then, is a consistent way of responding to the experience of pressure triggered by a pressure moment: a situation in which you have something at stake and the outcome is dependent on your performance.

Considering that the majority of people perform below their capability in a pressure moment, it is fair to assume that most people have bad pressure habits that they either do before a pressure moment or in the middle of one. For example, before giving a presentation, the individual always exaggerates the significance of the event ---"This is the most important presentation of all time." This is a bad pressure habit because the more important you make a situation to be, the more pressure you experience and are apt to perform below your capability.

Another bad pressure habit that millions of individuals have it is to become concerned as to how they are being perceived while performing the task at hand: "I wonder if my boss thinks I am right for the job." Self- consciousness generates worrisome thoughts that make you even more anxious in the moment and distract your focus often causing you to lose your train of thought and/or cause you to "blank" on a particular fact you need to cite.

Perhaps the worst pressure habit and most prevalent is to "automatically" think of the pressure moment as a threatening situation. It's a bad habit to start off anything you want to accomplish with a negative attitude, especially one of self-doubt because it prevents you from approaching the task with the confidence and enthusiasm that help you perform to your best.

Take a minute to be "mindful" of you bad pressure habits --- the ones that prevent you from doing your best and prevent you from advancing yourself. Think about how you typically think and feel before and during your pressure moments. I would suggest writing down your responses and reflecting upon your reasons for why you respond as you habitually do. I've found the process often provides revelations that motivate you to rid yourself of bad pressure habits and establish good pressure habits---ones that can help you do your best when it matters most.

To help you get started, here are three responses to pressure that will serve you well if you habituate them:

1. Befriend the moment. Think of pressure moments as a challenge, opportunity or fun. When he played for the Miami Heat, LeBron James was questioned about how he would handle the pressure of Game 7 of the NBA Finals after blowing the previous game against the Pacers. "There is no pressure. It is going to be fun, a great game, and I look forward to meeting the challenge," James said. On the technical side, perceiving a pressure moment to be a challenge is an inherent performance steroid ---your body is hardwired to physically ready itself to meet the "challenges" it encounters. When a pressure moment is perceived as threatening, characteristic of "Chokers," you are hardwire to avoid the moment. Threats of perception, I learned, are the root cause of choking ---performing below your proven capability when you want to do your best.

2. Think Multiple Opportunities. In a presentation on the topic, a young financial advisor quipped, "How can I reduce the pressure when I call a girl for the first time that I really like? I feel a lot of pressure when I have to make a call like that." Another participant, a few years older, boomed out, "Just tell your self here are plenty of other girls waiting to be called." The class burst out laughing but everyone knew it was true. You can reduce the pressure of the moment by reminding yourself that the presentation or sales call is not the chance of a lifetime, but simply one of many opportunities that come your way. Such thinking relaxes you, and diminishes distracting worrying that if you fail, you will never get another opportunities. Quarterbacks feel less pressure when they have multiple receivers.

3. Anticipate, Anticipate, Anticipate! Individuals who perform their best in pressure moments share the common denominator of preparing for the unexpected. Doing so helps them avoid a power surge -a spiked level of arousal that disturbs our thoughts and actions and throw us off course, sometimes to the point where we can't recover. Anticipating allows you to prepare for and thus be less startled by the unexpected -you remain in control.

How might you make the aforementioned pressure habits so that you use them minutes before your pressure moment? I suggest that you use your feelings of pressure as a reminder that your old pressure habits are at work and it is time to use a new one. Doing so will immediately reduce your pressure feelings. You can also get one of the many books on how to develop good habits, maybe in 4 seconds or less. Good luck...I mean Good Pressure Habits.

Let me know what your good and bad pressure habits are. Thanks!