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Pressure gets a bad rap. Too much can lead submarines to implode, cookers to burst, and otherwise level-headed professionals to sob in office bathroom stalls. Given these potential negative side effects, it’s not surprising that much of the writing on the topic deals with how to cope with pressure when it comes your way, or eliminate it from your life completely.
But pressure on its own, in reasonable doses, is not inherently bad. The difference between someone who crumbles under its weight and someone who thrives isn’t necessarily about the amount of pressure they’re under, but how they handle it.
With Purpose Comes Pressure
What are the most exciting careers you can think of? Film director? Pro football player? President of a country?
What each of these have in common is that they all come with an enormous amount of pressure, with huge audiences watching and waiting to criticize every misstep. As psychologist and author of Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most Hendrie Weisinger contends, pressure stems from those situations where you feel something at stake is dependent on your performance. In other words, what you’re doing can matter, or it can be free from pressure, but it can’t be both.
Knowing this, however, can be a powerful motivator, both for yourself and your team. As Liane Davey writes at Harvard Business Review, pressure around the office should stay at a low simmer—enough to be motivating without being crippling. Making sure employees know how their jobs affect the bigger picture is one way to do this. If performance starts to lag, make sure the employee understands that it’s having a ripple effect on larger company operations. The same goes for recognizing a job well done—their diligence is directly contributing to the organization’s success.
If pressure is a product of something being dependent on your performance, stress is what happens when there are too many demands but not enough resources to handle them, Weisinger argues.
To differentiate between them, Weisinger suggests asking yourself whether you feel overwhelmed by the demands upon you, or whether you feel you have to produce a specific result. The former is stress, which can have a hazardous effect on your performance in the long run.
But assuming you have the necessary resources, a lot of pressure situations are actually exciting—with the right perspective.
One helpful tactic for converting anxiety into a more productive response is by practicing deep breathing. Our bodies’ reactions to stress are trapped far in the past, when it was necessary to fight or flee to avoid danger. Practicing deep breathing techniques encourages full oxygen exchange, which slows the heartbeat and stabilizes blood pressure. Once you’re calm, it becomes much easier to focus on what you have to do.
Drop the Dwelling
Another theory is that pressure tends to turn to stress when it’s combined with rumination. Rumination leads to catastrophizing, and once you’ve gone down that rabbit hole, it’s incredibly difficult to get out of.
Writing for HBR, Nicholas Petrie recommends three techniques to keep rumination at bay: Contrasting (comparing a past stress to the current one, i.e., a major illness versus a missed sale), questioning (asking yourself how much this will matter in three years, or even a week), and reframing (looking for an opportunity you might not have considered yet).
Think about all the setbacks and difficulties you’ve resolved in your life thus far, or better yet, write them down. Seeing all those challenges you’ve overcome can be a major confidence booster: You’ve handled pressure many times before, and you can do it again.
Commit the Right Amount
As Weisinger says: Pressure turns to stress when we don’t have enough resources, like time or money, to meet demands. For entrepreneurs, it’s a slippery slope between thriving under several projects and getting crushed by them.
For many of us in the startup world, it’s tempting to want to rush to do several things at once. But building a company doesn’t mean taking on a dozen different projects out of the gate—it means focusing on doing one thing well. That’s the philosophy I used to build my company, Jotform. Even though I’ve had plenty of other ideas in the 15 years since its launch, I’ve focused on building forms. Why? Because dividing my attention among other projects would distract me from successfully creating the product I set out to make.
Learning to say no becomes easier when you learn your limitations. There’s a sweet spot between taking on enough responsibilities to feel productive pressure and taking on so many that you panic. Finding your limits requires some trial and error, but once you do, accept them. If you feel guilty about turning an opportunity down—say, for instance, a valued client asks you for something on a week when you just don’t have the bandwidth—explain the situation and propose an alternate timeline. Oftentimes, saying “no” simply means “that exact timeframe won’t work for me, but another one will.”
Accept that you can’t control everything
No one likes to hear this—maybe entrepreneurs least of all—but you can’t control everything. There are steps you can take to manage your environment—delegating, setting boundaries and creating small habits being just a few examples.
But startup life comes with a certain amount of chaos that is impossible to contain. Learning to accept this is easier said than done. Petrie suggests asking yourself what you’ve learned from a given experience, so your brain can feel satisfied that something was accomplished and quit the cycle of rumination. Alternatively, if there’s an action that can be taken, take it.
If you’re doing something you care about, it’s inevitable that you’re going to feel the heat from time to time. That’s okay. With the right tools, you can make pressure work for you, rather than against you.