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Freezing Up: How to Get Over Your Work-Related Performance Anxiety

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We all do stupid things at work. Here’s how to weed out the stupid things you’re doing in your new job that are caused specifically by your anxiety.

Some of us are blessed by those touchy-feely creative jobs that allow you to accrue expertise effortlessly over time (stylist, ad salesperson, nuclear physicist). For the rest of us, it’s often really important to learn highly technical processes and procedures. Oftentimes, these things are company-specific or arbitrary and unintuitive. Some of us memorize scripts and our superiors’ names for our first jobs; some of us memorize charge codes and the zillion companies that are low-priority versus high-priority. There are always new priorities and specifics to learn with any new job. It can be a lot of information, and oftentimes the learning curve seems far steeper than seems reasonable.

Whether you’re analyzing 100,000 lines of data or operating a cash register, there are often eyes on you monitoring your performance. Those eyes are judgmental. They’re nerve-wracking. And the added pressure can make it hard to remember what you’re supposed to be doing-even how to execute simple procedures can seem mystifying if enough people are staring at you.

So what do you do with all of that extra adrenaline? How do you respond to your new high-pressure environment with grace– instead of accidentally calling your female manager “Sir” and telling her that profits are down 90,000% for your company?

If you find yourself screwing something up in front of a bunch of people at work:

  1. Take a second. It’s okay to say “Hold on a moment-I need to orient myself.” The extra thirty seconds will be so worth it when you come back knowing exactly what you’re in the middle of doing.
  2. Fight the nervous laugh. It’s OK to make a joke if you’re delaying a presentation or interaction because you can’t remember what you’re doing; but laughing at yourself will only highlight the anxiety of the moment. So don’t do it. Just relax. Whatever’s going wrong is much worse in your head than it is to everyone else in the room.
  3. If things are really going wrong, it’s OK to postpone or hand off your responsibility. If you are a bank teller in the middle of a ten thousand-dollar transaction and realize that you have no idea how to complete it accurately, it’s in everyone’s best interest to take a moment, refocus, and proceed when you know you’re going to be doing the right thing. If you can’t proceed without being sure of what’s going on, check in with someone else. “This is best practice, correct?”

If you have recurring anxiety-inducing moments around the same processes, you need to do some homework.

  1. Practice. There’s no replacement for recursive iteration. If you always screw up the button pattern on the cash register, draw it out from memory at home in your off-time and go over and over the correct patterns to complete a transaction. If you always forget where an Excel command is and it makes you look like a dummy when you’re partnered up with a superior at work, go home and practice the absolute pants off of Pivot Tables and the F4 button.
  2. Visualize before you execute. Use mnemonic devices to remember what you’re supposed to do in the moments you start having panic-attacks. If you’re analyzing large sets of data, always have an idea of what fluctuation patterns would seem normal in the data you’re analyzing. Is it normal for profits to be so volatile? Or did you accidentally forget to type in a 0? Little things make a big difference; so always have a number in mind.
  3. Think big. You might be getting flubbed by your inability to remember certain processes and procedures at work, but you probably still understand the basic underpinnings of your job description and what functionality it has at your company. If you’re a bank teller, your job is to help people deal with their money. You’re, at the base of it, helping customers to feel secure and happy with the way that their bank is handling their money. So your priorities while you’re on-the-job are much less 1) OMG don’t forget where the “authorize” key is! 2) Oh, no! Was it a $1,000 limit or a $10,000 limit? than they are 1) I want to make this customer feel like I respect his or her assets and ability to access them 2) I want to competently execute this transaction.

If you’re a slow learner, you need to practice the things you do every day that cause you to be anxious. If you don’t master them, these little things will end up being the source of your eventual burnout and long-tailed unhappiness in your job. Sometimes what makes you most anxious is performance anxiety over tasks that no one actually observes you performing firsthand. It’s different for everyone.

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