Taking Care of Number One

Taking Care of Number One: The Yerkes-Dodsons Law

May 15, 2017

The Yerkes-Dodsons law shows that we need moderate levels of stress to motivate us. However, too much stress will impair our ability to perform.

Every year I ask my college students the same bonus question on one of their final exams. The question reads: “Who is number one?” More than half of my students will respond, “You are, Al!” I smile, sit back and say, “Yeah, you know it!”

Have you ever felt guilty when you placed your own needs before the needs of someone else? Well, the reality is you have to take care of yourself.

We live in such a fast-paced world. It can be difficult to take care of ourselves when we feel that we are being pulled in so many different directions. The continuous demands of work, family and relationships can cause significant stress. Many people simply accept high levels of stress as being a normal part of life. This is unfortunate, because while some stress can be positive, too much stress impacts our overall ability to perform.

The Yerkes-Dodsons law

The Yerkes-Dodsons law, developed by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, demonstrates the relationship that exists between stress and performance. This law states that we need moderate levels of stress to motivate us. However, too much stress will impair our ability to perform.

The Yerkes-Dodsons law is illustrated in Figure 1. As stress increases, performance increases, until a person eventually reaches their optimal stress level. Performance peaks under moderate levels of stress, and so long as stress is not prolonged, it is harmless. This moderate level of stress keeps the brain alert while enhancing concentration and focus. This is when people often feel that they are “in the zone.”

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However, if stress levels continue to increase, performance decreases. Once performance begins to decline, an individual typically tries harder, which only increases their stress level and causes performance to decrease even further. This can create feelings of anxiety, frustration and even anger. During this time of distress, an individual’s IQ is significantly impaired.figure 1

Henry L. Thompson, PhD, President & CEO of High Performing Systems studied the effects of stress on people in leadership roles. In the 2007 article, “Research Uncovers Causes of Catastrophic Leadership Failure,” he described how too much stress results in a drop in cognitive ability, including IQ and Emotional Intelligence (a person’s ability to successfully perceive and manage their emotions). Combine this with a heightened emotional state, and it is easy to see how too much stress can impair your ability to make appropriate leadership decisions.

The General Social Survey conducted by Statistics Canada in 2010 reveals that 27% of Canadian workers describe their day-today lives as being “quite a bit” or “extremely” stressful. In other words, nearly four million adult workers experience high levels of stress on a daily basis.

Employers are becoming painfully aware that they are losing productivity in the forms of absenteeism, reduced work output and increased disability claims as a direct result of employee stress.

On which side of the graph do you fall? Do you find that you have the ability to focus at work? Or do you find that you are constantly feeling anxious and overwhelmed? If so, something has to give, or you could be on a fast track to burnout. If you are currently experiencing situations that are causing you to experience high levels of stress you really only have two options: accept it or change it.

I have heard several visionaries express the idea that we are happiest when we are selfless. While I agree that one of the greatest purposes of life can be to give and serve others, the key is to not forget about yourself. It is imperative that you don’t allow yourself to get caught up in everything around you that you forget to take care of your own needs.

And the correct answer to the final exam question? YOU are number one!


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Allan Kehler
Allan Kehler is a highly sought-after speaker who has gained national attention for his engaging style and captivating approach. He has spent years working as an addictions counsellor, clinical case manager and college instructor. His books can be found in classrooms and workplaces across Canada.

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