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  • Cynthia Harrington, CFA

Anxiety Doesn't Hurt Performance! Except When...

The fact that high anxiety can mean failure despite being well prepared is a well-known fact, and of keen interest especially among high performance people. Every person who pushes to achieve has had the experience of being totally ready and prepared yet failed to deliver on the desired task.

Finding the reasons behind that condition and ways to keep it from happening is of interest to researchers. Simplistic solutions like “do calming exercises” don’t always address the specific causes. Empirical evidence that seeks to pinpoint the causes and impact of anxiety on performance can be the basis for solutions that work.

That’s what a recent study did for students with high anxiety. Researchers found that being anxious did not hurt academic performance. Except under certain conditions.

The Economic and Social Research Council funded a study that sought to understand the cost of anxiety on academic performance. The study was designed to observe subjects performing a variety of tasks while working on a computer, when reading a story, or when asked to solve simple math problems.

The experimenters observed eye movements and tested comprehension of subjects in the anxious state. The readers had to deal with words stuck into the stories that didn’t fit there; subjects were instructed to alternate or switch between multiplication or division problems. The anxious group and the calm control group were given the same tasks.

Anxious students completed the tasks just as well and non-anxious students.

The researchers were surprised by some of the findings and this is where empirical research is so important in devising improvements to habits of any kind. What we think might be better, from experiential or anecdotal evidence, turns out not to have enough data points as to be broadly applicable.

By carefully studying the anxious students the researchers found one big difference. Anxiety costs time. Anxious students took longer to perform the tasks.

In this experiment, anxiety levels did not appear to affect the number of correct answers given but anxious participants took longer to complete the task, particularly when they had to keep switching from one type of mathematical calculation to another. The difference was called “attentional control”. Anxious students looked away from computers and up from their books when distracted; students took far longer to switch from one task to the next in the math problems, and longer to complete each new request.

What this informs us is that anxiety itself is not an inhibitor of good performance. Time is. With enough time you can be anxious and do just as well as your calm colleagues.

You only need to worry about two things. The one is that you will spend more of your life accomplishing the tasks behind your achievements. The other is that you’ll not do as well on timed tests since you’ll need longer to complete the exam.

Since you are preparing for what has been called the hardest exam in the world, and that test is administered in two timed sessions, you increase your chances of succeeding if you keep at low anxiety.

Tips to optimize performance:

  • Keep aware of your level of distraction and how much effort you expend trying to keep focused -- measure your anxiety levels with assessment questionnaires like the WHO-5

  • Lower your anxiety level by a method that works (assess before and after activity); meditation, exercise, and listening to meditative music are methods that work for various people

  • High anxiety means that 300 hours of study will not be enough. For every band of anxious you are, add 50 hours to your overall study time.

Source: Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). "Anxiety’s Hidden Cost in Academic Performance." ScienceDaily. (accessed July 26, 2017).

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