How to make better decisions under pressure

Have you ever noticed how much harder it is to make a good decision when you’re under pressure?

This is a bigger problem than you might think, and it applies to all kinds of situations.

Anyway, that’s what I talk about in this week’s post. It opens with a funny (and embarrassing) story about a rafting trip I took down the Grand Canyon, but it’s a serious topic, especially for people who work in stressful, high-pressure situations.




    • Funny story of my “awesome” Grand Canyon trip.
    • Interesting discussion of the “spectrum of human behavior.”
    • The key to making better decisions under pressure.
    • Listen/read to get the full message.


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    Took a week off. Got wrapped up in the midterms instead. Not recommended. :-)

    Starting: This is Marketing. Seth Godin.

    [ transcript ]
    Hey, it’s David Levin. Author of Raise Your Inner Game, co-author QBQ, the Question Behind the Question, Founder of Raise Your Inner Game Academy.

    Quite a few years ago, before we had kids, Margret and I went on a guided rafting trip down the Grand Canyon. Now, I am about the world’s worst outdoorsman, I really am, but that was an amazing trip. Unbelievably beautiful, thrilling. Memorable. Just one of the coolest things we’ve ever done.
    And, this is an aside, but it reminds me why I get a little fussy about people using the word awesome all the time. Yeah, awesome. Oh that’s awesome. Not really. The Grand Canyon is awesome. It inspires a feeling of Awe. A huge feeling of awe. And that feeling is wonderful and rare and important. It brings perspective and connection and purpose into our lives in a very real way. So I think the word is sort of special and you shouldn’t just toss it around casually like so many people do now.
    If someone does something nice, does a good job, that’s great. I love it. But it’s not awesome. It’s not a rare uplifting event. It’s just good. If I get a coupon for a free ice cream cone, really great. But again, awesome is not the word for it. The grand canyon is awesome. The milky way on a clear night. That’s awesome. Holding your brand new baby. That is awesome. So please, at least for me, if we could be a little more careful with that word, I would really appreciate it.

    So anyway, we’re on a trip in the Grand Canyon. It’s awesome.

    One day, during a lull, we were having a little water fight, one boat against the other. There were two big rafts on the trip. So it was just a friendly competition between crews.

    And by the way, the water in the grand canyon, if you haven’t been there, is insanely cold. It’s funny thing — when you see footage of people shooting the rapids and you hear them screaming, I assumed it’s because it’s so fun and exciting. When I get there I realized they’re actually screaming because the water is so cold. It splashes up on you and it’s so shocking, you scream. Happened to me every time. It’s like heart attack cold. Just crazy.

    So anyway, The battle begins. We’re having fun. people are screaming. Laughing. Splashing.

    But all of a sudden, one of the women from the other raft jumps in the water, swimming toward us. Like she’s a pirate trying to board our ship. And I start sort of freaking out. “Oh my god. We’re under attack.” Like I’m really clicking into a different state.

    So when she gets to our raft, I can still picture her there, she’s got one arm up on the side of raft, got her lifejacket on. Her hair is wet. She’s fairly petite. About my age. Just playing the game. Splashing some water on us. But I am not seeing this at all. I am feeling like we’re under attack. Repel the enemy!

    So, I’ve got this big bucket, and I’m filling it with water, and I’m just slamming the water down onto her, on her head, in her face. She’s sputtering. Trying to get some air. It’s like I’m trying to drown her or something. It was just so outrageous and embarrassing. And dumb. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was taking it way too seriously.

    It’s like that scene in the movie Dumb and Dumber if you’ve seen that. Harry, the Jeff Daniels character is out with Mary. It’s a little complicated, but anyway, they’re out in Aspen, having a fun time, doing various things around town. At one point, she tosses a little snow at him, poof on his jacket, no big thing. But he clicks into angry mode, like she’s attacked him. He winds up, whips a snowball at her full force, right in the face. Tackles her, starts grinding her face into the snow. It’s a hilarious scene. But that was me. It was SO embarrassing.

    So I tell you that story because it illustrates what can happen when we’re under stress or in a high-pressure situation of some kind.

    If you’ve read Raise Your Inner Game you know I talk about us having these four aspects of ourselves, like four levels of a building, going from low to high. Physical, emotional, intellectual and level four. And you can also think of these levels as a scale of human behavior, from low to high.

    Humans have a wide range of potential behavior, from very primitive and animal-like at the low end to beautifully advanced and evolved at the high end.

    Where we are on this scale varies from moment to moment, but when we’re under stress and pressure, we move down the scale. Our thinking and feeling and actions shift to a more primitive state. And the bigger the threat, the more primitive it gets.

    And this doesn’t happen because we’re immature or we’re a jerk or we don’t care or anything like that. Honestly, it’s not our fault at all. It’s just the way our wiring works. We get triggered, we move down the scale.

    The problem is, the farther down we go, the less clearly we’re thinking. And you can hear that in my story. I said, I have no idea what I was thinking. As we move down the scale our thinking gets more and more primitive until we really don’t even recognize ourself in it. It’s like, Who was that? What was I thinking? Right?

    So that’s what happens normally when we’re under stress and pressure. We lose our ability to think clearly and to make good decisions. And the higher the pressure the worse it is.

    Now, in my story with the water fight, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s just a funny embarrassing moment.

    But for someone in a real pressure situation – emergency room doctor, law enforcement, military – this is a very big deal. At precisely the moment when we need to think the most clearly and operate at our highest possible level, every fiber of our being is pulling us in the opposite direction.

    And this applies for the rest of us, too. Leaders, salespeople, parents – goodness. Definitely true for parents.

    Any time we feel we’re under pressure or threat, whether it’s real or imagined, just normal every day stress, we get pulled down to a lower level, and we make bad decisions. We do things that hurt the outcome, that accomplish the opposite what we wanted. And it make us feel bad about ourselves.

    You know, the point of the water fight was to connect with each other and have fun and get to know each other better and to bond. And it did not work out that way. And I felt like an idiot.

    So, this is one of the biggest reasons to raise your inner game. The only way to keep this kind of thing from happening is to learn to break this instinctive link between trigger and response. To keep ourselves from getting pulled down this scale when we’re under pressure of some kind.

    And that takes two things. First, we need to learn to notice it when it’s happening. To notice that downward pull. What it feels like. And ten second, we need to learn to resist it so we can stay fully present and make the best possible choices and decisions.

    The good new is, it’s surprisingly easy to learn, and I say this all the time. But anyone can do it, and it is quicker and easier than you would imagine.

    The bad news is, we will never be our best under pressure until we do. And again, it’s got nothing to do with our intent or our character. It’s just the way our system works. So we need to learn to break that cycle in order to be our best. Make sense?

    So that’s the lesson here, for me. If you are frequently in a high-pressure situation, this is the best way to reduce your stress and make better decisions under pressure. Just learn the skills in Raise Your Inner Game.

    And you can get the book now for free. Go to my site – or to raise your inner Learn more there. The deal is, the book is free. Also comes with our Accelerator online training. You just pay $7 for shipping and handling. It’s a great deal, and you can start learning these powerful skills right away.

    All right, that’s it for this week. If you’d like to get these posts automatically, subscribe to our podcast, The David Levin Show. Join our newsletter list at to hear when these are released and hear about new trainings.

    Otherwise, thank you. keep up the good work. I will talk to you next time.

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