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The Lever #028: The Yerkes-Dodson Law

Read Time: 5.1 minutes

Welcome to issue No. 28 of The Lever

A certain level of stress can be a healthy motivator - up to a point.

Keep reading to discover Why, and learn how to harness this for peak performance.


But first:

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Personal Motivation and Performance

You say that you can't quit smoking, or clean your room, or lose weight.

But what if someone held your dog over a balcony and threatened to let go if you didn't do it immediately? Would you do it then?

You've heard the analogy before and its apparent that there is a link between your level of stress, motivation, and the speed at which you create a new habit.

Keep reading to discover the science behind this and how you can apply this for a rapid increase in your productivity.

Motivational Studies

In the early 1900's, John Dillingham Dodson was the director of personnel research for the Western Electric Company.

With a background in personnel management and industrial relations, Dodson was forever seeking insights that could be applied to improve work performance within the organization. This knowledge could have practical implications for enhancing productivity, improving training methods, and optimizing the work environment.

While not a psychologist himself, Dodson knew someone who could help.

Robert M. Yerkes earned his Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard in 1902, under the supervision of famed psychologist Hugo Münsterberg (author of the seminal work "On the Witness Stand").

Yerkes played a crucial role in advancing the field of comparative psychology and behavioral research. He established the Harvard Psychological Laboratory for Comparative Psychology, which was one of the first centers dedicated to studying animal behavior.

The two paired up and, using mice and electricity with details we won't go into, discovered….

Stress vs. Performance

The Inverted U Hypothesis describes the relationship between stress and performance.

It suggests that there is an optimal level of pressure for individuals when it comes to performing tasks.

According to the Yerkes-Dodson law, low levels of arousal or stress lead to lower levels of performance. When individuals are not stimulated or challenged enough, their performance suffers.

But as stress levels increase performance improve - up to a point.

Moderate levels of stress are associated with enhanced focus, attention, and motivation, leading to better performance. This level varies depending on the person and the nature of the task. More complex or demanding tassk may require a higher level of stress to reach optimal performance.

However, once stress levels increase beyond the optimal point, performance starts to decline. High levels can lead to anxiety, stress, or overload, which negatively affect concentration, decision-making, and fine motor skills.

Performance becomes impaired.

Increase Your Personal Performance

Understanding and optimizing your ideal stress level in relation to specific tasks will help you get into the zone.

1. Identify your optimal level

Different tasks require different levels for optimal performance.

Assess your own tendencies and understand the level you tend to perform best for different types of tasks. Some tasks may require higher levels of pressure, while others may benefit from a more relaxed state.

2. Adjust the level of challenge

To reach your optimal level adjust the difficulty or challenge of the task.

If a task is too easy there may not be enough urgency, causing performance to suffer. On the other hand, if a task is overly difficult and overwhelming, it can lead to excessive stress and impaired performance.

3. Manage stress and anxiety

Recognize signs of excessive stress or anxiety and develop strategies to manage them.

Techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, regular physical exercise, and time management can help regulate arousal levels and maintain optimal performance.

4. Use relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques can help bring your stress levels down to the optimal range. Progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and taking short breaks can help reduce stress and promote a calmer state of mind.

5. Practice self-awareness

Develop self-awareness of your performance patterns.

Pay attention to how different factors, such as time of day, environment, or personal factors, impact your performance. By becoming more aware of your own reactions and adjusting accordingly, you can optimize your performance.

6. Seek feedback and reflect

Regularly seek feedback from others on your performance to gain insights into your strengths and areas for improvement.

Reflect on your own performance and assess how different levels of arousal or stress influenced your outcomes. Use this information to refine your approach and make adjustments for future tasks.

By matching your level of stress or situational pressure to the task at hand you can help ensure your best performance.

Increasing Stress (On Purpose!)

The techniques above show you how to understand your stress levels, and bring them down when they get too high.

But what about if you want to bring them up?

Boring tasks often don't get done well because there is not enough pressure. Fortunately there is a foolproof way to turn it up.

Reduce the time available.

You've felt the increase in pressure as a deadline approaches. And you probably got the work done (and did a pretty good job of it) thanks to that pressure.

Your level of stress was optimized.

When you need to get through something boring, or don't feel urgency to complete a job because the deadline is so far away, the answer is simple:

Give yourself a false deadline.

Your brain can't tell the difference between false or real deadlines.

Turn up the pressure a little until you are within your optimal range of performance.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Stress is a tricky subject.

You need enough to perform optimally, but not so much that you suffer mentally.

Becoming aware of your personal physiology is a great first step. The body shows the effects before the mind does.

Then, using the techniques above to raise or lower the amount of perceived pressure for the task. This becomes a powerful technique to enhance your performance.


Yerkes, R. M., & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18(5), 459-482.

Author(s): Münsterberg, H. Year: 1908 Title: On the Witness Stand: Essays on Psychology and Crime Publisher: Clark University Press Location: Worcester, MA


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