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Boosting Decision Making and Performance Under Pressure

How to excel under pressure conditions

The ability to perform well under pressure and stress conditions is one of the best skills we can develop. Those individuals who excel under these conditions often report that it gives them an advantage over those who crumble in heated conditions. As important as this is today, few executives, leaders, or students receive training in this essential skill. Instead, most learn about performing under pressure from childhood experiences, such as oral reports, sports, exams or standardized tests given under time constraints. Yet for a large segment of the population, these early experiences have not prepared them to thrive under pressure, but rather to unravel under pressure.

It is true that a smaller percentage of individuals come into the world wired to perform well under pressure. In fact, for some of these individuals, they actually do their best work under these intense conditions. Unfortunately, the majority of us are ill prepared to perform under pressure, leaving us to suffer a number of disappointments or frustrations related to pressure conditions. The good news is that it is possible to groom ourselves to flourish under pressure circumstances.

The Problem

Let’s take a look at the problem. Decision making involves the higher order processing region of the brain called the cerebral cortex. This is the region that is responsible for problem solving, such as inductive, deductive, abstract, and logical thinking. An older region of the brain, called the limbic system, is responsible for assessing danger in the world, in other words, keeping us safe.

When it senses danger, it activates our survival instinct or the fear response in the brain and body, shutting off the power to the higher order processing region of the brain. Without fuel in this part of the brain, there is little juice left to run the problem solving machinery. Central to the limbic system’s fear response, is that pressure, which is uncomfortable, can often be misperceived as a threat by this part of the brain. The limbic brain is particularly sensitive to pressure and discomfort if past experiences of being under pressure have resulted in poor outcomes, such as failure, embarrassment, judgment, or rejection.

The Solution

The solution lies in training the limbic system to experience pressure and discomfort in either a positive or a neutral manner, as opposed to a threat. Stated differently, we are interested in training ourselves to be resilient in uncomfortable conditions. In a course I teach at UCLA, students are conditioned to welcome pressure related discomfort, rather than to fear and avoid it. I will outline several important strategies from this course that can make a significant difference in performing well under pressure.

Accept that pressure related discomfort is normal. The goal is not to banish it. If we seek to exterminate it, we only make our fear of pressure greater. Practice being more accepting of pressure related discomfort.

Welcome and embrace pressure related discomfort. Learn to love pressure. Use the power of relabeling which teaches the brain to interpret pressure in a new way. Even tell yourself that you can’t wait to feel pressure, and that you love how it makes you feel.

Practice under pressure conditions. Too often we practice our skills in non-pressure situations. It is far better to devote some of your practice time under pressure conditions. Initially, the goal isn’t to get it right, but instead to become acclimated and more comfortable with pressure related to discomfort.

Practice under imperfect conditions. The world seldom lines up perfectly. It is far better to practice in imperfect conditions where there are distractions, annoyances, and interruptions. With practice, these imperfections are neutralized, and can in many cases, become facilitative of performance.

Build up your discomfort muscle. Since the limbic system’s fear response is related to perceiving discomfort as a threat, it is important to strengthen its reaction to discomfort. Learn to feel more at ease in other discomfort conditions, such as fatigue, hunger, or uncomfortable temperatures. Building your discomfort muscle in other contexts strengthens your tolerance of discomfort and your resilience under pressure conditions.


In summary, there is much we can do to improve our decision making and performance under pressure conditions. If we operate under a dated notion that discomfort is something to avoid, then pressure will continue to feel daunting. But if we learn to welcome and retrain our brain’s reaction to pressure, discomfort, and imperfect conditions, then we can significantly alter our fear response to pressure. Experimenting with the above strategies, as well as, other performance enhancing tools I have described previously, can make a profound difference in shrinking the oversensitivity of the survival instinct and the brain’s fear center’s reaction to pressure. Become a “Discomfort Master.”

Copyright 2013 Marc Schoen, Ph.D.