How to Perform at Optimal Levels

May 6, 2007  

In the early 1900s, Robert Yerkes and J. D. Dodson developed the aptly named Yerkes-Dodson Law. The premise is that performance increases relative to motivation (they call it “arousal”) only to a point, after which performance drops. It is typically drawn as an inverted U-shaped curve.

You will notice that I superimposed three “goal” concepts on this graph to give you a sense of how they (roughly) relate.

If you are goal-less, you have no sense of direction and no motivation. Therefore, your performance is low. This is not surprising.

As your motivation increases, your performance increases. Being goal-free – having a sense of direction and purpose, without specific deadlines and limitations – can increase performance…to a point.

Then, as you become goal-driven, performance paradoxically decreases. Goals increase stress and focus you on the future rather than the present.

This phenomenon has been documented in numerous places throughout this blog. Race-car pit crews who increase performance when they are not worried about the stop watch. Students who perform better on exams when they are not as focused on grades. Sales people who sell more when they are not driven by sales targets.

Yerkes and Dodson suggest that different types of tasks require different levels of arousal (to use their word). To improve concentration, intellectually challenging tasks require lower levels of arousal for optimal performance while physically demanding tasks require higher levels. This may explains why professional athletes tend to be more goal-driven. However, even then, goals can limit performance. Listen to my interview with Dr. Doug Gardner, former sports psychology consultant to the Boston Red Sox.

Goal-Free Living is NOT about eliminating your goals. You can have goals and still perform at optimal levels. They key is to have the RIGHT goals (ones that “pull” you forward and don’t create stress) and be PRESENT to what you are doing (being detached from the desired outcomes).

Do you have examples of where you performed at optimal levels by freeing yourself from the stranglehold of rigid goals?

Old Comments

5 Responses to “How to Perform at Optimal Levels”

  1. David Zinger on May 18th, 2007 8:21 am

    Stephen,

    I like to run half-marathons and marathons. I never set a “big goal” time. I pick a time that is well within reach so I have a goal but I am goal free to be easy and healthy on the run.

    If the day is right and my body and mind line up I have set a number of personal records. I do not feel driven by the goal but it gives me a solid baseline to let it fly if all is right.

    I love the diagram. It makes your perspective so much clearer because I think some people feel you are anti-goal and that is not the case.

    Keep up the fine work,
    David Zinger

  2. Stephen Welton on May 27th, 2007 12:14 am

    Great graph to illustrate your point. Working in sales for a wireless communication company I agree with you all the way. So many times I have seen great sales people leave or get fired by the target.

  3. Dominic on May 28th, 2007 3:14 pm

    Hello Stephen,

    I bought your book Goal-free living. In it, I read that you said to engage with authors that right something we find interesting. I am writing to you because I love your approach. I am 18 and for two years I have been reading dozens of goal setting books and personal development books. However, there was always something that didn’t resonate with me, like if the books weren’t perfect. Now I know they gave you the tools to achieve goals, but they didn’t tell you WHY and WHICH goals to achieve!

    You have a fresh view on goals, I love it!

  4. Eric Rozell on February 8th, 2008 5:19 pm

    I love what you have to say in the second to last paragraph (Goal-Free Living…).

    The art of goal making, being able to master when and how to transition from one goal to another without attachment to the desired goal is something I’ve been practicing for sometime. It’s not always easy and I find it takes a lot of commitment and determination. To be able to motivate one self without stressing out takes lots of practice and on occasion guidance. So thanks for the information and guidance.

    Best wishes!!

  5. Antony Woods on February 11th, 2008 5:30 pm

    Hi Steve,

    In 1993 I suddenly quit my corporate career, within weeks of looking to buy a house. I was being set goals by my bosses without any say. I decided to do some voluntary work in order to get my motivation back. I made the right decision.

    Thanks for listening / Antony.

    BTW Paul Graham wrote: “Work like a dog being taken for a walk, instead of an ox being yoked to the plow.”