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?