AnnaMarie Houlis
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Journalist & travel blogger

If you feel like you do your best work when you're under stress, you're probably not wrong. Your productivity and performance when you're on a tight deadline has a lot to do with the Yerkes-Dodson law.

Not sure what the law is? Here's everything you need to know about the Yerkes-Dodson law, how it works and why it's important.

What is the Yerkes-Dodson law?

You're probably wondering, what is the Yerkes-Dodson law? Or, What is the inverted U relationship between arousal and performance (which refers to the law)?

The Yerkes-Dodson law suggests that elevated arousal levels can actually improve performance — at least to a certain capacity. When arousal becomes too excessive, performance decreases. 

So what is arousal and performance? Arousal usually refers to stress or some kind of stimulator that motivates you in some way. Your performance is how well you do (or don't do) the task at hand.

For example, when you're under pressure, you may actually churn out better work. But if you're under too much stress to the point that you're burnt out, it could take a toll on your work.

Take, for example, a time when you were cramming before a test. When studying the night before, knowing that you had the test the very next day, you were more inclined to really sit down and read, research and get to work. But if you were too stressed out, you might go into the test a mess.

"If your anxiety level is at an optimum balance, then you’ll find yourself performing better by remembering right answers to the question," according to Psyche Study. "However, if you’re over-anxious you’ll instead feel nervousness and test anxiety, which would then hamper your ability remember the information you specifically learned for the test."

The same goes for writing papers the night before they're due — when you only have limited time, you tend to churn and burn. But if you wait too long and the stress hits you too hard, you'll probably produce a very poor paper.

The same goes for athletes. When a player is poised to make a move fast, like shoot a hoop, the sense of urgency can actually improve their precision and performance. But if the play gets too stressed out about it, they might "choke" and totally miss the shot.

"A football player hitting a penalty at the last minute of the game can be a nerve-wracking moment for the player — at that instance, if his arousal level is at an ideal level, he will stay composed and scored a goal," according to Psyche Study. "However, if he’s too stressed out in the moment, he might instead hit the ball too slow or might not even hit the frame."

There are tons of day-to-day examples of when the Yerkes-Dodson law comes into play, from finishing tasks as simple as cleaning the house to filing a massive work report.

Where is the origin of the Yerkes-Dodson law?

The Yerkes-Dodson law dates back a century. It was first explored in 1908 when psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson studied the use of mild electrical shocks on rats that they wanted to complete a maze.

When they shocked the rats, the rats ran through the maze, suggesting that a bit of arousal motivated the rats to complete the maze. But when the shocks became too strong, the rats couldn't focus and, instead, they scurried around in a million different directions trying to escape. This suggests that too much stress can lead to a breaking point.

What is the optimal level of arousal for performance?

So what exactly is the optimal level of arousal for performance? Well, that very much depends on the task at hand.

"Research has found, for example, that performance levels decrease earlier for complex tasks than for simple tasks even with the same levels of arousal," writes Kendra Cherry for VeryWellMind. "[So] if you are performing a relatively simple task, you are capable of dealing with a much larger range of arousal levels. Household tasks such as doing laundry or loading the dishwasher are less likely to be affected by either very low or very high arousal levels.

If you are doing a much more complex task like writing a research paper or studying difficult information, however, your performance is much more heavily influenced by your arousal levels, both low and high.

"If your arousal levels are too low, you might find yourself drifting off or even falling asleep before you can even get started on the assignment," Cherry goes on. "Arousal levels that are too high could be just as problematic, making it difficult to concentrate on the information long enough to complete the task."

That all said, there are three levels of arousal, according to Psyche Study:

1. Low Arousal Level

"The initial stage of the inverted U model (the curve) is low arousal level. It’s mainly associated with lack of sleep, lack of motivation, fatigue, lower body temperature and so on. This is the state of our body when we’re not expecting to perform any complex tasks, or we just have low motivation to do anything. Thus, our attentional mechanisms aren’t really active."

2. Optimum Arousal Level

"Optimum arousal level is the condition of perfect balance where the individual isn’t too aroused neither under aroused, and thus the performance is also optimum for both simple and complex tasks. This is the level of peak shown in the curve. The performance level gradually increases as the curve heads towards the optimum level from the low arousal level, as shown in the graph."

3. High Arousal Level

"This is the state when the arousal level of an individual is over the optimum balance. It’s generally associated with panic, anxiety, lower concentration, physically tensing up, inability to make decisions, over-reacting and so on. Our ability to focus on everything happening in our surrounding diminishes as our tension levels rise up, causing the performance to lower. This level of arousal can be related with, 'falling apart under pressure.'"

Why is the Yerkes-Dodson law important?

The Yerkes-Dodson law is important to understand because it can help you to both maximize your potential and also help you from burning yourself out.

If you know that you work best under pressure, you're likely not wrong — and you might want to keep at that. Just make sure that, especially if the task is a complicated one, you don't let your stress levels get too high.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreport and Facebook.