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STARR INSIGHTS: Three tips to staying calm under pressure

By Ian Bailey

Everyone feels under pressure at some point. It could be the pressure of missing a deadline, the pressure of a sales target, or the pressure of taking an injury-time-match-winning penalty in front of 90,000 expectant fans. Pressure can come at us from all angles and it’s all relative to the individual that’s feeling it.

I’ve never taken a penalty in front of 90,000 people, but I have worked in target-driven environments for more than 10 years and have certainly felt my fair share of pressure as month-end looms and the order book is looking bleak.

So how do people deal with it? I’ve done some searching around and found three excellent tips that were easily relatable to the pressures that I’ve felt in the past… from a bomb disposal expert.

#1 Avoid going down the rabbit hole and do a threat assessment.

When you start to panic and your brain starts asking: “What if X happens? What if Y happens? What if? What if? What if?” you’re in trouble. Bomb disposal guys refer to this as “the rabbit hole.” And if you go down it, things are going to get very bad, very fast.

“You need to avoid going down the rabbit hole at all costs and do a simple threat assessment.” That means looking objectively at the situation and asking, “What kind of problem is this?” Then think about a similar situation you’ve been in before that looked like this one. How did you resolve it? What worked? Maybe you’ve never been in a situation exactly like the current one, but that’s OK. You’ve probably dealt with something that was similar or you’ve seen someone else do it.

By using previous experiences, you can get your head around what’s happening now and see it as a problem you’ve overcome before and avoid that rabbit hole at all costs. Next…

#2 Emphasise the positives and focus on the things you can control.

If you can do one little thing to make the situation better, then do that. It might not seem like much in the face of, well, whatever you’re facing, but if you make one seemingly tiny, positive step, then another, then another, you quickly find yourself moving forward and overcoming whatever you were starting to panic about. “You’re looking for cascading positivity and trying to avoid spiralling negativity. You get to know the technical parameters of whatever job you’re doing and then you go, “Is this really an emergency? Yeah, but it’s really only an emergency if I can’t find a solution. What is my next step to make this situation just slightly better?””

Life and death situations (bomb disposal / missing sales targets / penalties) won’t reduce you to panic if you feel optimistic and have some control.

Now, it’s time to act. You need to get in there and solve the problem at hand. How do you keep your cool and stay focused when you’re in the thick of it?


We’re all scared of the unknown, because then your brain turns to speculating, to worrying and that takes you down the rabbit hole. The secret to calm and focus is simply deciding what you need to do next. When you have something to concentrate on, your mind can remain focused no matter what’s happening.

If you were sitting there and had no idea what to do, that would cause panic. When you have the next step in your mind, then that’s what you focus on.

Maybe what’s next is just a baby step. That’ll do. Maybe you are so out of your depth that the next step is “ask for help.” Great! You don’t need to fix everything in one go. You just need to know your next step and you can keep it together.

Avoid negative emotions by focussing on process, not outcomes. And that’s what you want to do. Focus on your next step, and then the next step, and then the next…

Big credit to Eric Barker.

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