Your manager walks to your desk and says you'll be giving a presentation to the CEO in two weeks. A rush of excitement and fear runs through you, because you've just been recognized by your boss and given a challenging responsibility outside of your comfort zone.
What started off as a slow day is suddenly full of energy and excitement. Why? It's because you are in a state of optimal anxiety, also called productive discomfort.
You might think that being calm and collected is the ideal state of productivity, but research finds this isn't necessarily true. When people are too relaxed, they lose motivation and interest. When they're under too much pressure, they're unable to accomplish tasks or goals.
As a human behavior scientist, I study what causes some to lead successful and fulfilling lives. Consistently, I've noticed that it is related to comfort.
Putting myself just outside of my comfort zone, whether I'm working or traveling with friends, pushed me to learn and grow. However, after getting kicked by a bull during the Running of the Bulls, I learned that there's a limit to how far you should go outside of your comfort zone and anxiety level.
According to a century-old study by Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson, a little bit of anxiety can increase motivation and performance. In 1908, Yerkes and Dodson ran an experiment in which a group of mice were presented with two doorways to walk through, black or white.
To see how quickly they could teach the mice to go into the white doorway, Yerkes and Dodson used varying strengths of electric shocks to guide their way. They discovered that the performance of the mice increased as the stimulus increased, but only until a certain point. When the stimulus increased too much, performance suffered.
Their research suggests that people perform best when they are slightly out of their comfort zone, in a state of optimal anxiety. More recently, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that people enter a state of peak human performance, or flow state, when they are doing something just outside of their comfort zone. He discussed this in a 2004 TED talk:
Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues interviewed people around the world, from Olympic athletes to accomplished poets and writers. They found that even though cultures and professions differed, they all enjoyed and excelled at their work when it presented a challenge.
If your boss told you to give a presentation to the CEO that same day, you would likely be too anxious and perform poorly. It is all about finding that happy medium of your state of optimal anxiety.
It needs to be just outside your comfort zone where things are fun and exciting but not crippling. In this state, people find themselves productive and engaged in their work.
If you find yourself bored at work, it may be that you're not tackling problems that challenge you. If you want to get the most out of your employees, the key is to give them tasks that push them. That might mean tight deadlines or new projects that require them to learn and expand their skills.
Remember to find the sweet spot of optimal anxiety. If there's too much pressure, they will become worried and distracted.