How Your Efforts to Be Productive Could Have the Opposite Effect


There’s a classic bit of psychology that we refer to often at meQuilibrium: the Yerkes-Dodson Law. In 1908, two researchers (Yerkes and Dodson) discovered that lab mice worked harder and performed better when they were under a certain amount of stress. But when the mice, which the psychologists whimsically referred to as “dancing mice,” experienced too much stress, their performance tanked. (Read more about the Yerkes-Dodson Law.)

I’ve been thinking about these dancing mice as the pace of work, school, and home life all start to ramp up. It’s a time of ambition, hope, and anticipation, when your expectations for yourself can be high and invigorating. The dance here, of course, is that when expectations are so high, they actually may cause you to tip over into an unproductive state.

Think of a big home project you wanted to do—maybe repaint the bathroom. That’s a basically reasonable expectation, but what if you add on a deadline, say, getting it done before the weekend when your in-laws are visiting? And you want to do a trim in a second color. And, oh, why not a tasteful tromp l’oeil of a rose garden surrounding the window? All these expectations can make you feel giddy, but come Friday night, I’m guessing you’ll be one stressed-out mouse with not even a smidge of desire to pick up a paint brush.

(Is your calendar lying to you? Find out.)

Managing expectations often comes down to noticing your symptoms of overwhelm, identifying the expectation that’s causing trouble and then flipping the expectation on its head. The process is a version of Trap It, Map It, Zap It, our go-to tool for handling difficult emotions and thoughts.

(Here’s how you can use it to handle sadness.)


Recognize your signs of oncoming freak-out. The moment that energizing stress topples into overwhelm can be hard to pin down, so it’s good to check in with yourself regularly when you’re shooting for the stars. What’s your breathing like? How does your stomach feel? Are your shoulders up around your ears? Take a look at your thoughts. Are they racing? Are you concentrating on the past or the present? What’s your overriding emotion, and where in your body are you feeling it.

Overwhelm from high expectations looks different for everyone. You may feel like becoming a weepy mess, or you might long to shut down, run away, and watch a lot of television. Some people start wanting to do more, making their expectations more complicated and, well, impossible.

(Find out why those who embrace leisure get more done.)

Examine your expectations. If an expectation is dragging you down, chances are there’s a larger emotional issue inside it. Look hard at what you’re expecting of yourself and others. In the bathroom scenario, perhaps the expectation is that you should have a perfect house… because that will make your in-laws like you. At work, you might expect your team to complete a product redesign under a tight deadline… because that will reflect well on your ability as a leader. You might expect your children to do their chores every afternoon… because they should get that you’re exhausted at that time of day and need to feel some semblance of order.

Take a positive action. You’ve sensed oncoming depletion and you’ve got an idea of what’s making the expectations unmanageable. Now, find a concrete action to counter the downward pull. For example, ask a friend to come help you paint the bathroom, because what you really need is loving connection because your family life is feeling fraught. Having someone else to help out not only feels better, but can give you some of the emotional distance you need. For the work project, take 15 minutes to write down three ways each team member is excelling. This will put you in the mindset of asset, rather than loss, and abundance rather than scarcity.

(Read: How to protect yourself from spectator stress. Yes, it’s a thing.)