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Overwhelm Series #9: Your Performance Sweet Spot: Harder isn’t Always Better

If you’ve been following this series on Managing Overwhelm, you’ll know that I don’t believe in pushing through (and if you haven’t, you’re definitely going to discover that Your emotions are Your superpower).

When you’re overwhelmed, everything can feel difficult. In this article I’ll introduce you to a devilishly simple principle that will help you keep moving and keep productive by calibrating the level of challenge you are giving yourself at any given time. If you’re looking after a team or raising kids, this principle will also help you get the best out of them.

I’m confident that this counter-intuitive - but massively effective - approach will benefit everyone. And if you’re in burnout recovery or are looking for ADHD productivity tools, it is a must-read.

Ever had the experience of trying to do a task and either drifting off out of boredom or freezing up in frustration because it feels too hard? Both of these things slow you down, right?

The temptation in either of these scenarios is to assume that you are not good enough. You are not trying hard enough. You are not up to the task.

This is rarely the case. People are generally far more capable than they give themselves credit for.

You can drastically improve your performance in any task from the banal - hulking wood or polishing furniture - to the complex - wrestling a new software or unpacking a difficult project.

The trick isn’t to try harder, push further. It's to calibrate.

Whatever is involved in the task at hand, you can usually find ways to tweak your approach to the task so that it fits you in a very particular way.

The crucial question to ask: how well does this thing I’m trying to do fit my current level of skill and capability?

If it’s too easy, you’re going to get bored.

If it’s too hard, you’re going to get stressed and frustrated.

You’re looking for the sweet spot. The technical term that’s been coined for this is “the Challenge/Skills Balance” - i.e. the balance between how hard something is and how good you are at doing it.

The formula is as follows: You want the job you’re doing to be just a little bit beyond your current skill level - just a meagre 4% harder to be precise. This 4% gap is actually a trigger for flow: the state of hyperfocus and engagement that is at the heart of your best work.

If you can tweak your work to be in the 4% zone, not only will you have less performance anxiety (or boredom), you’ll learn faster, be more productive and be highly-motivated to keep going.

This is a wonderful example of how pulling back can actually yield more results (taking more rest is another counter-intuitive lever).

So if your goal is to write 1,000 words a day and you’re struggling to do that, don’t wait til you’ve got the energy for 1,000 good words, pull back. Try 250 words a day until you get some momentum, then increase it to 500... and so on.

If you’re coming back from illness, don’t aim for an 8-hour day, start with one or two good hours a day.

Likewise, if you have to do something that you find too easy, you can up the challenge/skills balance through gamification: can I do this faster? With less mistakes? Can I do it smiling more of the time?

It’s far more important to keep plugging away than to ace it all in one go. Persistence trumps every time. When you adjust the level of challenge, you make it easier to succeed.

Your task today is to ask yourself: where am I finding this too hard? How can I adjust the challenge level to be only 4% beyond my comfort zone?

Run the experiment and let me know how it goes.


This is part 9 of my Managing Overwhelm Series. If you found this insightful, I recommend a binge-read (within your level of challenge of course!) of the first 8 parts.

If you’re struggling to assess your own challenge levels, this is part of what I can support you to clarify in Your Unlocking Move. Let me guide you on a self-discovery process and we will spend 90 minutes together uncovering the key moves towards the life of your dreams. You will emerge with an action plan of clear, manageable steps - tailored according to your needs, capabilities and situation.

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