Jane spends her life on the road – covering 26,000 miles per year selling technical services products to companies around the UK. With so much ground to cover, she’s always been a rush, driving as fast as she can get away with. Caught in slow traffic? She would “Drive up close behind the car in front, to try and speed it up.”
The result? Her sales figures were good, but she was starting to get “frazzled” by her work, and it was taking her longer and longer to recover at the end of the day.
So she signed up for a mindfulness course. Four weeks in, starting to really see the patterns of stress in her life, she decided to try something new. She tried putting 20% less into her day.
With the extra time between appointments, she started driving at the speed limit. “In fact,” she said, “even when things go wrong (as they always do), I still have plenty of time.” She realised that arriving early wasn’t a waste of time, but a valuable opportunity to catch up with emails and phone calls.
You won’t be surprised to hear that she found herself feeling much fresher at the end of the day.
But you might be surprised to hear that her sales figures actually went up.
How does that work?
It’s hard to know for sure, but I put it down to 3 main factors: priority, relationship and state of mind.
When she was getting stressed, it’s not that Jane was doing everything she intended to. But what got done and what got left was more a matter of chance: the things for which there “simply wasn’t the time” for.
But in order to put 20% less into her diary, she had to think very clearly about what was a priority and what wasn’t. So she was putting more energy into her relationship with her best customers, and that was paying off.
When she was always running late, Jane’s customers would naturally feel that they weren’t her top priority. So why should they make her there’s?
State of Mind
All the time pressure and aggressive driving generated stress in Jane’s brain, putting it into “fight or flight” mode. It was putting everything it could into immediate, rapid survival reflexes – and that means it was taking energy away from her prefrontal cortex (where conscious thinking happens). Stress gives you a lobotomy!
This effect kicks in at surprisingly low stress levels. In a simple maze puzzle experiment, an imaginary owl was enough to halve people’s ability to come up with creative solutions!
So when Jane arrived late at her customers’ offices, her mind wasn’t working at its best. She wasn’t listening and observing her customers well, she wasn’t able to find the most creative solutions to their problems. So she was missing out on sales.
But with her brain in a more mindful mode, she’s now much more able to pay attention and solve problems – generating better relationships and better results.
This effect was predicted back in 1908 by Robert Yerkes and John Dodson (and verified in the 1950s and 60s), and illustrated in a graph that bears their name: the Yerkes-Dodson curve (see above).
When we are facing low levels of demand, our performance is naturally low. As the demand increases, so does our performance.
But beyond a certain point, we start to get overloaded and our performance tails off. If this continues for any length of time, we will burn out, perhaps developing mental health problems such as depression, or perhaps physical symptoms such as chronic fatigue or even a heart attack. (I had a very close friend who died of a heart attack in his mid-thirties, so I know this is real.)
So the ideal is to get back to the peak. Not only does this deliver optimal results and help us preserve good health, it also feels really good! We are “in the zone,” rising to a stimulating challenge, thoroughly engaged and potentially enjoying every moment!
Furthermore, this graph isn’t fixed. The peak moves to the right (we thrive on greater demand) when we spend more time “in the zone.” (We can also extend the zone through mindfulness training – which makes our brains more resilient by creating “space” around stressful experiences and making it harder for people to “press our buttons”).
What does this mean for us?
So, what are the practical lessons we can take away?
I’d suggest the first step is to consider where are you on the Yerkes–Dodson curve.
If you’ve got low levels of demand and stimulation, and that situation is likely to persist, then it’s time to add some fresh new challenge into your work and/or life. If you can put your energies into something that plays to your strengths, that you naturally enjoy, and stretches you a little, you’ll probably find yourself happier and more satisfied.
If you are already frequently “in the zone,” just keep doing whatever you’re doing! It won’t last for ever, so make the most of it while it does.
If, like Jane, you’re in overload a lot of the time, then I think this is something you should take very seriously. Find ways to reduce the load, and you’ll find that you actually achieve more (certainly more than if you were to burn out). Why not try Jane’s tip, and put 20% less in your calendar and on your to-do list?