When the pressure is on, we tend to panic — about the situation, its consequences, and what others will think of us — and as a result we apply too much cognitive horsepower to what we are doing. We start overthinking something that usually comes naturally to us.
How we can avoid panicking in these types of situations, such as a crucial job interview? Beilock argues that we need to shift our thinking to other tasks in ways that use up some of our cognitive horsepower. That prevents us from overthinking the challenge at hand. She explains:
If you notice that you are starting to overthink, try singing a song, repeating a one-word mantra, or focusing on the three key points you want to get across to your audience. These approaches use up that cognitive horsepower that could otherwise be used against you.. Let’s say you’re preparing for a job interview. You know your resume inside and out, and in normal circumstances, you can easily recount your strengths and accomplishments. But when you sit down in the interview chair, you freeze up. If you take time beforehand to occupy your prefrontal cortex with unrelated activities, you’re less likely to overthink in the moment and more likely to be able to communicate your message effectively.
For more on Beilock's work on coping with pressure, see her great book, "Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To."