A Peak Performance weblog

When there’s deadline pressure, the situation is always somewhat inflexible and intensely charged, like a carbonated beverage that’s been vigorously shaken.  So all the keys to releasing the pressure loosen up this structure in some way.

The Situation You’re Starting With 

Before moving on to the tips for releasing pressure, it’s important to understand exactly what we’re dealing with.  Here’s a description of a typical deadline scenario:

1. Experience of time.         Time is flowing from past to present to future at a constant and uncontrollable rate.  You’re in the present looking toward a distant future deadline.  But the deadline in the future is relentlessly coming closer.  Every time you think about the deadline closing in on you, there’s anxiety and pressure, because you ‘realistically’ might not have enough time to get the work done on time.  You may struggle or race against time, but nothing that you do can slow time down.

2. Well-being.           There’s dissatisfaction or a lack of fulfillment here in the present.  It might feel like you are being squeezed or confined, overwhelmed, or there might even be a sense of impending doom.  Since the feelings are so unpleasant, there’s a tendency for you to look forward to a better time after the deadline.

3. Effort.         The work feels stressful and takes quite a bit of effort.  It’s gradually wearing you down.  You might think that if things continue like this you could get sick.

4. Clock time estimation.   Equal units of clock time seem to hold equal and limited potential for accomplishing things.  Estimating how long it will take to finish the task is based on this idea of equal capacity/unit of time, as well as past experiences of how long it took you to accomplish similar things.  This way of estimating appears somewhat reliable.

The Optimal Work Experience

Now that we’re clear on the problem we’re starting with, let’s see whether we can get an idea for the ideal way that this pressured scenario can change.  From your own experience take a minute to recall three projects during which you worked under a deadline and performed at your best for a while.  What was it like to work optimally?  What were the different qualities of those experiences?

Now see whether your examples fit the following description of peak productivity under a deadline, when the worker is in what might be called ‘the zone’.  This description is a summary of peak performance research.

1. Experience of time.         Only during breaks do you feel time flowing from past to present to future.  During peak work performance you’re so absorbed in what you’re doing that there’s no awareness of time flowing.  If you had to describe your experience of time, most likely (90% probability) you’d say it was timeless.  You might (10% probability) say that time was going very quickly, yet it wasn’t making you anxious with its passing.  Time certainly doesn’t feel out of control, and you’re not trying to race against it.

In general you don’t feel a lack of time—you just concentrate on what you’re doing, which is going very well.  You occasionally plan and think about the deadline, but this thinking doesn’t cause much anxiety or pressure.

2. Well-being.           There’s very little sense of dissatisfaction; in fact you feel invigorated, whole, and happy with the way things are going.  As you work, you might occasionally think of the fact that the task isn’t done, but this is very inconsequential.  You’re not worrying about not being done, nor are  you looking foward to being done because that will be a better time than the present.  The important thing is that you’re really involved in what you’re doing—you’re getting results and having a good time by being engrossed.

3. Effort.         The work may be requiring mental or physical energy, but it doesn’t feel very stressful.  The work might even seem to be effortless in a sense, flowing with a momentum of its own.  You may not feel separate from the activity.  Like being in the eye of a hurricane, there can be a sense of presence and peacefulness even in the midst of quick or physically demanding activity.

4. Clock time estimation.   Time seems very flexible and changeable, even unpredictable.  Occasionally you check your progress and estimate whether you’ll be able to finish on time.  But you don’t take these estimates very seriously, partly because time doesn’t seem very real during this peak experience, and partly because you know these estimates proved inaccurate so many times before.  There’s a sense of everpresent opportunity and possibility:  perhaps, for example, you’ll get some insight on how the work process can be improved.

Nine Tips for Releasing the Pressure

Now you can try the tips to change an inflexible pressured situation into a more flowing and enjoyable experience.  Remember that there’s nothing really fixed about pressure situations.  Pressures aren’t built into certain jobs—we add them to neutral situations.  If the situation seems unchangeable, it’s just because this feeling of unchangeability is still part of the structure.  Do one of the following tips to transform this feeling.

1. Concentrate your energies.  Deadline pressure is actually a sign that we’re resisting what we’re doing rather than getting totally involved.  So see how involved you can get in what you’re doing.  Drop any concern about not having enough time and get absorbed in the work.  By focusing and holding nothing back, identifying completely with what you’re doing so that you’re aware of nothing else, your awareness and energy integrate, work becomes peak performance, and your sense of well-being can soar.

Periodically see whether some aspect of yourself or something in your awareness is still split off from the activity.  Can you bring the energies together somehow?  If you can, your productivity and sense of integration will improve a bit more.

2. Balance your breathing.  For some immediate relief from anxiety and pressure, practice this kind of breathing:  Relax and breathe through both nose and mouth with the tip of your tongue on the upper palate a couple of inches behind the front teeth.  This technique is used in many martial arts and has been researched in applied kinesiology.  It immediately brings a sense of balance within the energies of pressure and emotion.

As a preventative, practice this way of breathing as often as you can.  After a month or so your whole energy level and sense of balance and relaxation will change.  (See pp. 35-7, Kum Nye Relaxation, Part 1, by Tarthang Tulku (Berkeley:  Dharma Publishing, 1978).

3. Turn time around.  Under a deadline we’re stuck thinking about some future date when the project is due.  Loosen up this habitual perspective once in a while by looking from a time in the future back towards the present and past.  This can be done in different ways.

Try a different way of planning the rest of the project.  Suppose it’s the day after the deadline.  Look back over the past toward what used to be the present, and make a few notes about what happened on the project up till this day after the deadline.  How does looking back after the past events feel?  Does it relieve the pressure and sense of incompletion that you felt before?  Do you get any insight about unexpected directions that the project took?

From the present, look backwards at a previous deadline from some other project.  Find another one farther back in the past.  Another, farther back.  Another.  Etc.  After doing this for a few minutes, notice how you feel.  Is there any relief from the habit of looking foward?  Is there a sense of relaxation, contentment, or presence that wasn’t there before?

4. Find out what emotions are adding intensity.  If you don’t complete the task/project on time, what will happen?  If you do complete things on time, what will be the result?  Why are you motivated?  What feelings are involved?  Would some of your feelings like to push things away or get rid of something?  Would some of your feelings like to get something or draw something closer?  Are you confused about something?  If you hear yourself saying, I’m really looking forward to . . . ,” see whether there’s a negative feeling of some kind that you’re avoiding by anticipating being done with the job.

5. Change the way time is flowing.  Pressure is part of a way of experiencing time flowing moment by moment from past to present to future.  It’s this relentless and uncontrollable flow of time that makes us anxious.  But we don’t need to experience time this way.  We’ve all had many experiences when time slowed down or when we weren’t aware of time passing.  And we all have certain activities or projects or techniques that easily foster such ‘time warps’ or timelessnesses.

Think about what you like to do that normally does away with the feeling of time flowing from moment to moment.  Then do one of those activities until the pressure lightens.  The choice is ours whether we continue to reinforce the restricted and pressured linear flow of time or open it up to some less fixed experience.

6. Relieve your tension.  Either standing or sitting, put your hands close to your shoulders with your palms facing forward.  Breathe through both nose and mouth with the tip of your tongue on the upper palate a couple of inches behind the front teeth.  Now, while imagining that a great force (the pressure of your job?  the deadline?) is pushing against your hands, slowly push the force forward.  There should be strong tension in your arms and shoulders, but your belly and the rest of your body can be relaxed.  It’s as though part of you is balanced and undisturbed within the eye of a tornado while there is strong energy and movement around you.  Keep pushing the force away till your arms are straight out in front.  Then while maintaining the tension slowly move your arms back to the starting position.

Slowly release the tension, letting it melt.  Just keep relaxing for three minutes and attend to the sensations and feelings as they become more subtle.  (This exercise is from pp. 318-19, Kum Nye Relaxation, Part 2.)

7. Exaggerate your current perspective on time.  From your present position in time look forward to the deadline.  What do you see then?  Now look farther ahead into the future until you identify another event.  What do you see then?  Once again look farther ahead into the future for another event.  What do you see?  Continue.  What do you notice?  Is there any outcome of this process?

8. Find gaps between moments.  Our typical linear view of time, with its sequence of continuous and equally spaced moments, is only one view of time, not ‘the realistic view’.  This view can be explored and opened up.

Watch sensitively as one moment slips to another moment.  As you continue, notice whether one moment always follows another in a line.  Are there variations in the flow?  Are there occasional gaps between moments?  Is time more flexible than you normally think it is?

9. Defuse the projection that you don’t have enough time.  Your estimate of ‘how long’ your job will take is probably a projection of your past performance rather than some ‘realistic’ view of time.  Most of us are used to working in a certain fixed way.  So our estimate is really a measure of the past, not the future.  You can either continue to see it as realistic and fix it in your mind even more, or you can drop your belief in its truth and allow the possibility of accomplishing the job in less time.

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