3 Ways to Think Better Under Pressure

How to think better under pressure

There is a lot of pressure right now. You’ll find yourself in situations with a lot of pressure more often than not, despite pandemics. Life is a series of decisions and decisions are impacted by how much pressure you’re put under. Living a better life comes down to making better decisions. So, how do you think better under pressure?

To put it in a sentence: to think better under pressure, you must remain organized and disciplined.

That will be the theme that repeats itself in the following points:

  • Slow Down
    • Address problems upstream
    • Orient
    • Recognize the Subtleties

To think better under pressure, recognize that with the right conditions anyone’s thinking will suffer. The best way to think better under pressure is to be proactive by controlling what you can control, knowing what you can’t, and knowing the difference.

Slow Down

Rushing increases your heart rate and breathing rate, these both lead to higher levels of stress. Higher stress causes an emotional response in the brain. A higher emotional response in the brain leads to less logical ability in the brain. There is no need to think about how to prepare for an upcoming exam if a tiger is jumping out at you.

The tiger may come in the form of an urgent deadline. The key lies in your ability to remain in a predominately logical state when under pressure. The natural response will not be slowing down, but instead, to fight or flee. Therefore, it requires practice to think better under pressure.

Just like training for game-day requires practices that mimic game-day scenarios as best as possible, so too does thinking well under pressure require practicing having to think under pressure.

But, if a fire is hot enough, it can distract anyone away from a logical state of mind. So here are a few ways to reduce how hot that fire is.

Think Better Under Pressure By Addressing Problems Upstream

think better under pressure

Problems get worse as they go downstream.

Be proactive to think better under pressure.

Avoid downstream efforts. Focus on upstream efforts.

When a fire is in our face, we will focus intently on putting that fire out. We will not be thinking about what we should grab from the store for dinner this weekend. This is thanks to the emphasis of survival by the brain.

If you’re at the point where a problem needs immediate addressing, then you failed to address the problem upstream. Downstream problems are immediate, they are what require a “hero” to solve. Downstream actions are reactive, while upstream actions are proactive.

Get ahead of the problem by:

  • Recognizing Patterns: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
    • Failure is expected and even encouraged. But repeated failure is a sign of not taking the time to reflect and learn.
  • Planing: “Not having a plan, is planning to fail.”
    • Allocate 10 minutes to do nothing other than think, preferably with a pen and paper.

Addressing problems upstream will prevent fires from occurring. The fewer fires you have to worry about, the more you can focus on them when they arise. You then have more time to reflect on the occasional fire and therefore learn what went wrong to prevent the next fire.

Get ahead of the problem. Fires will still come up, but less frequently. You will think better under pressure when you don’t have constant fires to put out. Each new fire will be able to get your full attention and there will be time to put in prevention measures.

Think Better Under Pressure By Orienting

Orienting means to remove distraction. Set up your environment for success. The more you can organize your environment for success, the more you will think better under pressure.

  • Remove your phone
  • Do your most important thinking in a sacred location
    • This should be somewhere where you don’t eat at, watch TV, or play video games. It should be a relaxing place devoted to the single activity of thinking. This primes the brain, via the environment, for deep thinking. Mixing food or other activities in here will have a subtle, but large impact on your ability to concentrate.
  • Clear your mind
    • Take 5 minutes to focus on your breath and releasing whatever tension is in your body. A clear mind can handle pressure better.
  • Raise questions
    • Consider other point of views. Challenge your assumptions. Think about your thinking processes (meta-think). Reflect.
      • These are all keys to better questions. Questions drive attention and taps into the brain’s natural problem solving mode.
    • These questions should include both the “high level” (big picture) and “low level” (details). Start with a high-level question, like the “why” behind the problem (e.g. why is it important to solve?).
    • Iterate over questions. Given the answer of one question, ask another question about that answer.
      • For example: Why was I late to the meeting? Because I left late. Why did I leave late? Because I didn’t prepare my lunch the day before. Why didn’t I prepare my lunch? Because I didn’t have time. Why didn’t I have time? Because I watched an extra episode on Netflix.
      • Drill down to the root cause with these questions.
  • Emphasize principles and properties
    • Abstract as often as you can. This means to recognize patterns, assign names to the patterns, and then using the chunked ideas (via the name) to build larger and more complex ideas. This is like using a rock and a stick to build a “hammer”, to then break down wood, which then can be used to build a house.

Think Better Under Pressure By Recognizing the Subtleties of Your Thinking

Thinking is a subtle process. It doesn’t require a lot of effort. In fact, your best ideas likely have come out of times when you felt as if you weren’t putting any effort in at all. There is a very subtle interplay between focusing and relaxing that goes into thinking better under pressure.

The subconscious part of the mind makes the majority of our thinking processes, it is also the part that evolution has had the most time to work on. You can be lower on the conscious totem pole (e.g. a mouse) and the brain still govern your behavior in an intelligent manner. Breathing is kept regular, healing processes occur, etc.

You tap into your subconscious by quieting your mind. Thoughts in the form of words are very noisy. Meditation is a great way to practice recognizing and quieting this noise. Journaling is great at making you aware of what thoughts might be there but unnoticeable.

A quieter mind leads to the same circumstances that allowed for those big ideas while you were relaxed in the shower.

  • Be curious of your inner world.
  • Observe things in nature without needing to label them. Just a “thoughtless observation”.
    • One thought leads to another thought and before you know it, you’re down another rabbit hole,
  • Persist.
    • Even if you don’t feel like you’re making progress, your subconscious may very well be. What you are aware of is in the conscious parts of the mind, but the subconscious makes up the majority of the mind. The progress that it makes won’t be recognized immediately.
  • Recognize your tendencies that promote feelings of haste or impatience.
    • Do you think better under quiet situations where there are no other people around? Don’t assume you know the answer to this, experiment with an open mind and reflect on what you discover.
      • People too often assume they “know themselves” because they have been given feedback by others. This feedback made them feel a certain way and they created a story about themselves with it. But the person who gave that feedback only did so out of a particular observation, from their own personal motives (e.g. they wanted to get something from you), and your interpretation of that feedback will probably not be exactly how the feedback was meant to be received.

You can think better under pressure by paying attention to these subtleties. Thinking should not be forced. The stereotypical “genius” is the one who is relaxed and feels in control, they trust their mind to come up with answers, they don’t add additional pressure on to themselves.


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5 thoughts on “3 Ways to Think Better Under Pressure

    1. Exactly, rushing puts you in a state of haste. Basically, fight or flight, which comes from breathing and heart rate increasing.

      In that state, the bigger picture isn’t worth thinking about, your life could be on the line right now. But the bigger picture (the macro) is exactly what is required to reflect and derive meaning.

      That’s a nice addition, thank you for adding that (:

  1. Something I continue to work on is not being reactive. Finding a way to acknowledge what I need to without letting it infiltrate my mind and be in my thoughts incessantly or take up all my time. I believe part of the reason we work ourselves into a fluster and fixate on problems so much is because we wrongly believe that we are somehow focusing all our energy and efforts into a solve for it. Logically, if you give your all, shouldn’t you be seeing results?

    Their is such a thing as the untamed brain and the tamed brain just as their is the trained and untrained brain. Our minds can be programmed to turn our lives around completely. To flip the narrative and rewrite stories we thought were set in stone, word by word.

    The best part about learning to see the bigger picture and forgoing concentrating on the macro, miniscule parts of life is that you see what truly matters. It’s priceless. It’s perspective. This sort of thinking drives motivation and endurance in seeing things through- maybe you’re working overtime as you know you are being considered for a job promotion. Perhaps you’re waiting out a lonely time in your relationship, going long distance until circumstances allow you and a partner to get together. Maybe you’re putting together a fund for significant life events like retirement.

    1. It does seem logical that putting more effort in should give you more out. This trap is something that falls under a big idea that I’ve been developing, I refer to as “When Consciousness Fails”.

      Any mental disorder qualifies. But they all have similarities: thought alone can dig you in a hole.

      It is compounded by not being able to perceive what the situation would be like if you weren’t to push so hard. So any results you get, however slow, are used as proof that more effort is the answer.

      Less effort feels like a waste of time, it’s akin to meditation. At first, it requires a lot of trust. Often times, a feeling of “nothing else worked, might as well..”. Hitting rock bottom is usually when people find the most success in spiritual pursuits, because the resistance is gone.

      Programming of the mind is basically neural plasticity, I love this topic TO DEATH. It is the field of study that encompasses my whole philosophy 😊

      The great subtlety that I’ve found in life is the balance between things. Too easily overlooked for the outsized impact that proper attention to it can give. Big picture thinking is vital, but so is the micro.

      Through weight lifting, running, learning, problem solving, relationships, etc. There is no one size fits all for anyone, and not even one size fits all for an individual. “The best workout is the one you’re not doing”, “focused thought paired with relaxed/diffused thought”, etc. These all point to the idea of balance.

      I find that I have a tendency of looking for the one thing that I can trust 100% and commit to until I die. But I’m learning now, that variety is really key to true progress. The body adapts to what is constantly thrown at it and the benefits of that workout, or approach to a problem begin to become too efficient to promote adaptations 🤔

      I like your idea of a “tamed” and “untamed” brain. This is like David Goggins’ “callus your mind” phrase. You have more influence over your perception of reality than seems fair.

      Consciousness is a responsibility that requires maturity. I’m developing that maturity through exploration of hardships.

      Narrative is such a big idea and a great way to put the “story” we create. I feel like I could go on and on about the points you’ve brought up. So thought provoking! 😄😄

      1. Everybody wants to make something of themselves and at times, the world can seem such a big and scary place that it’s easier to remain passive.

        Taking charge of your reality, of your past, of what’s to be your future when following a certain path, is important. Our focus must always be on the present though, as that is all we can truly influence.

        Simple cause and affect illustrates this concept well. As with the domino effect, one thought or action will cause a series more, usually in the direction you were already taking. This is why a good starting point is so important. It is much more likely you will have a good day if you wake up believing so, just like you have a better chance of completing a project if you think positively and don’t allow demotivation to creep in.

        I love your thoughts on the one size fits all concept. There really is no such thing- we are all people but that’s about where the similarity stops!

        We are ever evolving beings and so what works for us at one time is not guaranteed to continue doing so, making this theory further inaccurate.

        Everything in moderation- we’ve heard this over and over again but there is simple truth to it. Too much of anything, whether good or bad, rarely gives a desired effect.

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