How stress can benefit your productivity

Earlier this month, the article “Stress and productivity: friends or enemies?” on the site HR Management caught my attention. In it, writer Matt Buttell defines productivity as the equation:

Productivity = outputs / inputs (within a time period, quality considered)

He then goes on to claim that stress — both rational and misplaced — impacts the inputs variable in the equation. Stress can help you to be motivated and creative (Only two more hours to get this done, let’s get working!), but it also can make you freak out about small, irrelevant factors in your work (Who keeps putting the hole punch away? Can’t you see I’m using it!).

Buttell goes on to quote a 1999 study by Robert Ostermann, professor of psychology at FDUU’s Teaneck-Hackensack Campus, on the link between stress and productivity:

No one reaches peak performance without being stressed, whether an athlete, an office worker or a manager.

Looking at your average day, how do you manage stress to let it work to your advantage? How do you use stress to influence your inputs variable?

23 Comments for “How stress can benefit your productivity”

  1. posted by Michelle Traudt on

    I can see how stress could motivate you in a positive way, but I think for me, it usually motivates me in a negative way. If I am stressed, I do get frustrated over the smallest things!

  2. posted by Joe Ganley on

    This begs the question: Is peak performance really your goal? Should it be? Especially if stress is a necessary component in achieving it?

  3. posted by Jonathan Frei on

    Stress is great as long as you know how to turn it off when work time is over.

  4. posted by Dawn F. on

    I think being a mildly stressed helps because it keeps me stay focused and keeps me moving forward. If I don’t have a little stress or a little pressure, I get bored and I slow down with my work. It’s like fuel for my work engine.

    I don’t like the pulling-my-hair-out stress or the Calgon-take-me-away stress, but having some big demands on myself, pressure to reach deadlines and/or challenges to figure out a problem then I just stagnate.

    I do admit, though – sometimes my work-related stress/pressure (that drives me at work) does spill over at home and that’s definitely not a good thing. I try to realize it and talk myself through it and back to a calmer, more relaxed place in my mind so my family isn’t affected because what benefits me at work doesn’t necessarily benefit my family and I at home.

  5. posted by RCcola on

    I’m not sure that stress can be positive in a person with anxiety disorders or related problems. I perform wonderfully when I can relax, but bring on the stress and my productivity suffers due to what I call the “mind-blank panic effect,” distracting nausea, and the occasional trip to go vomit. (TMI).

  6. posted by Anita on

    Good point about stress sometimes being a motivator.

    I’m wondering if the articles mention anything about short-term (acute) stress vs. long-term (chronic) stress. As far as my university psych classes taught me, occasional bouts of stress (such as an urgent request coming up every so often) is more often a motivator, whereas chronic stress (such as a constant overload of work) kills productivity.

    Having experienced both types of stress, I tend to agree. Wondering if anyone else has a different take on this?

  7. posted by Bryce on

    We are too often sold the idea that improved productivity should be a perpetual goal, and part of this paradigm is that stress (even mild)can promote this outcome. This outlook is steeped in industrialised philosophy which sees workers as components that are able to be overworked and replaced when they wear out (in some cases caused by stress). Uncluttered has done itself & its readers a disservice by subscribing to this notion.

  8. posted by duxbellorum on

    I took a moment just now to rest between tasks that I’m under stress to accomplish: The new apartment managers are doing a walk-through later today and, as a clutterer, the place is a mess. Nothing like being forced to show the place to someone who can pass judgement with consequences to get at cleaning that I’ve been putting off.

  9. posted by Magchunk on

    I do sometimes experience that little burst of productivity in those stressful do-or-die moments, but more often than not I get overwhelmed and freeze up. Stress can be so paralyzing that I end up staring at my constantly growing to-do list agonizing over what to tackle. I’m slowly learning that those are good times for me to use the five-minute rule and start accomplishing smaller tasks. Once I feel productive and can cross things off the daunting list, I start to calm down and can focus.

    Thanks for this post!

  10. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Bryce — I LOVE to work, even at the expense of many other aspects of my life — I have few casual relationships, I don’t participate in any community activities, and I took zero days off from work when my son joined our family. Working makes me extremely happy and provides me with an outlet to express my creativity. People are overworked ONLY when they dislike what they are doing and are spinning their wheels while they are at work.

    Most human beings crave industriousness. We like to create things — products, services, ideas — and feel restless when we aren’t making things. Knitting, for example, has become popular over the past decade because so many people miss the tactile experience of creating something tangible. Saying that humans shouldn’t be encouraged to be more productive is like saying that humans shouldn’t be human.

    The goal is to do a job that you love in as productive of a manner as possible and have the rest of your time to pursue your other interests. If any part of your day is spent doing something you hate or don’t want to do better, it is time to find a new career.

  11. posted by L. on


    You may suffer from “hot-cold empathy gap.” When we are hot, we can’t imagine ever feeling under-dressed. When we are cold, we can’t imagine ever feeling overheated. Similarly because you apparently crave increased productivity and output, you may feel that other people also crave it and/or you can’t imagine a time when you won’t feel that way. Yet that time may come and those people may exist. I have spent so many years working so hard that for one time in my life I don’t actually crave more output, more productivity. I just want to squeeze a little more mindful, delightful living into these years.

  12. posted by Patty on

    I have ‘good’ stress and ‘bad’ stress. The good stress helps get me focused and betters my concentration. The bad stress immobilizes me, gets me scattered.

    I welcome good stress any day. When the bad stress gets a foot hold, i take a long deep breath, jot down those items bothering me, ask for more help to accomplish those items that are creating this stress.

    As the ‘stress’ goes, I remind myself to breath and KNOW it will all be just fine.

  13. posted by Bryan on

    Stress when not taken to the extreme, turns ordinary into extraordinry both mental and physical stress. It also clears your mind so that you can focus on the essential.

    Simple Experiment: Tell some1 they only have 3 days to do something that would normally take a week!

  14. posted by Another Deb on

    I have loved teaching for the past 22 years, but the stresses I have felt every single day of those years have never abated, have never lessened and have not improved my productivity.

    I wouldn’t tolerate this if I had not already been in several other careers before this and not found anything close to the satisfaction I get from teaching. It’s still a killer.

  15. posted by Irulan on

    The whole stress/performance thing is actually an inverted U-shaped curve (See “Yerkes-Dodson Law”). The above comments about the negative effects of chronic stress are right on the money, as well. I won’t muddle into the productivity debate, though.

  16. posted by ami on

    I’m with the camp that believes in good and bad stress. When I took a public speaking class, the teacher advised us that the trick was not to avoid the butterflies but to get the butterflies to fly in formation. His point being that a little bit of stress does lend your performance focus, energy and intensity – but a lot of stress can hurt your performance. So with life, a little stress can help you peak, a lot can be debilitating.

    Erin – I think your point about loving your work illustrates this. I would argue that your work is an example of a manageable stress (therefore “good” stress).

  17. posted by Erin Doland on

    L. — Read any study about depression in nursing homes and one of the leading factors is that people feel they are no longer “needed” or “useful.” The elderly often want to help with the dishes in the kitchen or run the vacuum cleaner simply to have a purpose. If you don’t believe me about the human desire to be industrious, please visit a nursing home and talk to the people who work there.

  18. posted by Anita on

    Erin — The desire to be industrious in order to have a sense of purpose (e.g. in a nursing homw where there is often very little to do), and the desire to maximize one’s productivity at the expense of all else (such as in your example of preferring to work and having little social activity) are two very, very different things.

    Of course most human beings want to have some sort of productive activity in order to feel useful. But not everyone wants to be at peak productivity all the time. You love your work and need a sustained productivity rhythm. Fine. Others prefer to work at a slower pace and have more time for leisure, hobbies, introspection, etc. There is no need to jump to extremes, or make value judgements about either work style. I second L.’s point re: “hot-cold empathy gap”.

  19. posted by Anita on

    Eek, that should read “home” instead of “homw”. Sorry!

  20. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Anita — No value judgments at all. I’m just saying that humans crave being industrious. Even in our leisure time, we do things like woodworking, fixing up antiques, knitting, crocheting, and other production activities.

    I agree that there are “good” forms and “bad” types of stress and the purpose of this article is to have people find ways to use “good” stress to improve their productivity.

  21. posted by Gina on

    I think the problem is that I’m not convinced doing woodworking, knitting, crochet, etc. is always a “production activity” — that is why people are saying you have a “hot-cold empathy gap”. The motive MIGHT be to produce lots of mittens, to be the optimal mitten-maker ever — or it might be just a form of relaxation or pleasure-seeking.

    Unless you’ve taken up knitting to sell your wares, why even think of it in terms of production value? You aren’t really working on your productivity — you’re kanoodling around with yarn. I’m having an issue with calling that a production activity.

    Why are we equating activities done for pleasure with activities where what you produce matters? On the job, productivity matters. Things you do for money — productivity matters. Other things you do to avoid negative consequences — I’m thinking laundry or cooking supper for your kids — productivity matters.

    Things you do because it’s Thursday night and you’re bored out of your skull — not so much.

    Ultimately, I think we’re overly obsessed with productivity in our culture. I aim to have quality down time, where I don’t have to worry about producing anything of consequence at all. And a lot of it.

    For the interested, I recommend Thorstein Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class”.

  22. posted by chacha1 on

    Interesting discussion! Productivity doesn’t necessarily mean you’re producing on demand. It just means you’re not (according to *your own* definition) wasting your time/talent/money.

    I think good stress/bad stress is a valid distinction but it might be helpful if we train ourselves to use different terms. E.g., good stress = stimulus/incentive/inspiration, bad stress = pressure/demand/judgement.

    Good stress is when I have a costume project with a deadline. I have an incentive (to look good in the costume) and a stimulus (the deadline) and an inspiration (what I want to create). Bad stress is when I have two equal and opposite demands on my time, no choice about when the demands must be satisfied, no reward for the outcome (i.e. it’s my job to do it), and usually the cherry on top of an equipment failure. 🙂

  23. posted by Linkblog Slimmer Werken – 30 okt 2009 « Arjan Zuidhof on

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