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The Secret To Performing Effectively In Pressure Situations

Two close friends of mine make a rather long commute to work every day. At a gathering one night the conversation somehow landed on the topic of their daily battle with congested traffic. As someone who fights the same traffic patterns from time to time, I asked how they deal with it. That’s when they revealed their little secret to avoiding gridlock on our local highway. They always drive in the far-right lane.

Their approach makes no sense. It is counterintuitive. When you want to drive fast, shouldn’t you use the fast lane?

The very next week I had an appointment downtown, which required me to join the mass of commuters on our local highway. Within a few minutes I became frustrated with my lack of progress and remembered the advice I was given about which lane was truly the fastest. So, I gave it a try.

I navigated my car through three lanes of exasperated drivers to my destination—the far right-hand lane. It seemed like a bad idea because there were cars entering and exiting the highway through that lane, causing complete pandemonium and vexation. I pegged a few distinctive looking cars in the three left lanes in order to gage my progress. To my surprise, it didn’t take long before they were all in my rear-view mirror. I wasn’t traveling at the speed limit, but I was advancing at a greater rate than the “control” cars in the other lanes—the faster lanes.

During rush hour, the supposed “slow lane” was faster than the “fast lane.”


When under pressure, we are susceptible to influences that can negatively impact our decision making. Stressful situations often trigger momentary lapses of reason, which rely on our autopilot cognitive processor (aka System 1). While autopilot is fast, it is also irrational and prone to mistakes.

How can we avoid relying on our inaccurate autopilot when under pressure?

One of the world’s most elite military special forces units provides the answer. Former Navy SEAL, Joost Janssen, shared one of the SEAL training mantras in an article that ran in the September 2017 edition of Popular Mechanics:

“Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”

This simple phrase is a stroke of genius. As someone who writes and speaks about human behavior, decision making, and influence, I have racked my brain trying to come up with a line that distills my message into one easy-to-remember phrase. This is it.

Our brains are wired to keep us out of danger, real or perceived. When we are under stress or sense a threat, our autopilot kicks in to save us from that threat with quick action. Fight or flight. However, when autopilot is doing the driving, we are not thinking analytically, rationally, or clearly. And that quick action can get us into trouble.

The antidote is to activate our analytical thinking (aka System 2) in order to help us properly examine our options and make a sound decision. Typically, awareness is enough to trigger our analytical cognitive processing, at least to some degree. That is, being aware that we are in a state prone to autopilot thinking.

However, the mere act of being deliberate, intentional, or “slow” in a high stress situation can help to prevent autopilot from fully taking over in the first place, because there are times when neither fight, nor flight are the right answer. Thinking clearly can be more effective than reacting quickly.

Sometimes the slow lane gets you there faster. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.


Thanks to Van Huff for discovering this plutonium hidden in the pages of Popular Mechanics.


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by the Seven Deadly Sins of Decision Making & Influence

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