Yerkes-Dodson Law Taught Me How to Control Stress
Updated: Sep 10, 2022
I’ve been thinking about stress a lot recently. How to turn lemonade from lemons. Looking at the moments, I felt stressed the most and I tried to understand how I could have optimised my performance.
I did some research and discovered the Yerkes-Dodson Law. A simple model of the relationship between performance and stress.
It was created in 1908 by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, who formulated their conclusions based on the study of Japanese dancing mice. In simple terms, the Yerkes-Dodson Law says that stress and performance are positively correlated, but only up to a certain point, after which more stress reduces performance.
So how do you optimise stress? First, let’s reframe this idea of stress. Low stress = low arousal, optimal stress = optimal arousal and high stress = high arousal. Looking at stress with a different lens helps identify our interest levels in the task.
A low arousal state is necessary for recovery, but it is generally not conducive to performance. Working on important tasks while in this state is not ideal.
Optimal arousal is the "Goldilocks" level—not too hot, not too cold, just right. When you're in this state, you are well-positioned to work on important tasks.
High arousal is typically where we see a biological fight-or-flight response kick in. It may lead to a complete shutdown from system overload. Working on important tasks while in this state is not ideal.
As you think about optimal arousal, mapping your curve is an important first step. As you do day-to-day tasks for the next week, think about how you are feeling about these tasks. During completing these tasks, keep asking yourself if you are creeping over optimal stress. If you are, pause and move to the next topic. Mapping these out and ranking them from high to low helps you learn to wield stress as a weapon in your personal arsenal. It also helps you decide on allocating time and knowing when to stop, start and continue.
Sahil Bloom from the curiosity chronicle has some more in-depth examples of Stress vs Performance, and it's worth a read.