Your competitive instinct is a force that compels you to be better, faster, stronger. Here’s the strategic way to tap into its performance-boosting power.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

IT’S WIN-WIN Even if you place second, you’ll gain benefits from competing. 

Nothing motivates like competition, new studies show. it drives you to push yourself harder in the moment, and it also fuels you to consistently put in the work that will make you healthier and happier in the long term, says Brynne Dimenichi, ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist who has researched competition at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “If I'm training for the same half-marathon as my friend, I won’t skip as many runs, and I'll train harder,” Dimenichi says. “I'll have that extra motivation to stay on track so I can beat him.”

“Competitors are important because they give you a reference point,” says Ashley Merryman, a coauthor of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. “I could run on my own, but I don’t know how well I'm doing unless I see a person in front of or behind me.”

That same instinct takes hold at work. Regardless of whether you’re preparing for an interview, gunning for a promotion, or scrambling to meet a sales quota, your enthusiasm to get the job done goes to the next level if you’re competing against someone.

But being competitive in a good way requires some finesse. If it gets out of control, it can be superstressful and actually work you, experts say. Follow these science-backed guidelines to stay on the winning side.

These three tips let you tap into the power of competition without feeling the stress. 

Keep your focus laser sharp

Competition is most powerful when you have a specific goal, like a race or a presentation.

“Feeling competitive is great for building the initial motivation you need to prep and train, but it won’t sustain your drive forever,” Dimenichi says. If an event is too far in the future, you’ll exhaust yourself if you try to be competitive all the time, resulting in burnout. Instead, break up the time into shorter cycles: If you want a promotion but won’t be eligible for another year or more, focus on intermediary steps like nailing your six-month performance review or meeting your monthly deadlines or quotas.

But know yourself and your tolerance for competition, Merryman says. Some people thrive off being competitive in every area of their lives, while others find too much overwhelming. “Competition should be used to bring out your best,” she says. “If you feel it’s affecting you negatively rather than motivating you, making you productive, or helping you have fun, it’s fine to step back or use it a little less.”

Fight fair

Whenever possible, line yourself up to compete with rivals whose skills are just a little better or worse than your own. If they’re slightly better, you’ll feel inspired to try to keep up; if they’re a tad worse, you’ll be compelled to push forward to keep that gap, Merryman says.

With this technique, even losing a competition can be motivating, she adds. “When researchers looked at the physiological responses to winning and losing, they discovered that people who almost won got a spike of testosterone, a hormone closely tied to motivation. It’s that sense of ‘I almost had it – I want a rematch!’” Merryman says. When you’re totally outclassed, though, testosterone drops, leaving you feeling disheartened.

Pitting yourself against just one or two competitors is most effective, Dimenichi adds. In a study in the journal Psychological Science, students were told that if they scored in the top 20 percent in a short quiz, they would get $5. Those who thought they were competing against 10 other students performed better than those who thought they were up against 100. That’s because too big a pool is discouraging – we assume there are plenty of people who can outperform us. Focusing on fewer competitors gives us more hope. 

Measure your growth

There are two goals of competition. There’s the surface goal, of course, which is to win. But there’s a secondary goal – to improve your performance. “For some people, that’s the entire reason they compete,” Dimenichi says. “They know that going toe to toe against a rival makes them work harder and betters their skills.” Even if you find the prospect of winning more exciting than the idea of personal growth, factoring in the improvement in your results can add another layer of motivation the next time you compete.