Press release: The principles of peak performance

Is it possible to achieve great levels of performance and sustain it throughout our life?

We all know someone who has experienced burnout, or maybe you are going through it now. The most prevalent feeling in the workplace is that of being overwhelmed. With the pressures that life offers, we all need to face the reality that burnout is real. The sad part is, that if we manage to get through this life-changing event, then all the pressures are right there waiting for us after our recovery. The bar for human performance is higher than ever and we live in a culture where performance must be attained at any cost. The big question then becomes, is it really possible to achieve great levels of performance and sustain it throughout our life without breaking apart?

This article explores, in summary, the great work done by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness to answer this question in their book: Peak Performance.

As Brad and Steve put it: Nuts is the new normal! We all feel the pressure, and yet somehow certain individuals manage to rise above the stress and achieve great results in their sport or profession consistently. Are they superhuman, or is there a recipe we can follow to emulate some of the characteristics that would enable consistent performance? The short answer is: Yes, we can! There is, as it turns out, a scientific cycle behind growth and development that does not lead to overworking or overtraining. This is what Brad and Steve call the Growth Equation:

Stress + Rest = Growth
The big risk here is that if you cannot figure out the right balance in this equation, you either get hurt or burn out. Those that do perform throughout their life, irrespective of what it is that they are trying to grow. In general, we all have the stress side of the equation well in hand and thus the big revelation about figuring out this balance is how we rest. The best athletes in the world all have varied programs and routines, but they all agree: their biggest growth has come from learning how to recover well. It is the things that athletes do while they are not training that allows them to do what they do when they are.

This equation does not only hold true for athletes but also for other fields. Research done with great intellectuals and creative performers found a similar cycle of fostering sustained growth:

  • Immersion – total engagement in work with deep focus.
  • Incubation – a period of recovery where they do not even think about work.
  • Insight – the occurrence of eureka moments with the emergence of new ideas.

This leads to two great insights:

1. For your most important pursuits, you need to alternate between cycles of stress and rest.

2. Strategically timed off days and holidays to follow periods of heavy stress.

Another discovery that is shared in their book is the research around willpower. The research clearly shows, that as humans, we have a single reservoir of brainpower for all acts that require self-control or mental exertion, even if those acts are unrelated. Further to this, it has also become clear that our physical abilities are hampered if we experience mental fatigue, even if our bodies are fresh. The good news, however, is that we can strengthen our mind just as we can our bodies, by exertion and rest cycles. This leads us to our next insights:

3. Stress is stress and builds on one another, even if the activities causing the exertion are unrelated.

4. Our capacity for mental stress can be increased, just as the muscles in our bodies can be trained: by starting with smaller challenges and building from there.

This brings us to very crucial learning in the study of stress and rest, which is that stress is actually good for you, and not all bad as we might think. Stress can serve as an important stimulus for growth and adaptation or it can be incredibly harmful. The difference depends entirely upon the amount of stress applied. The point of stress where perceived failure occurs is the stimulus that causes growth. This is called productive failure and is where the most profound growth or learning is achieved. In other words, the best learning occurs when we really have to work for it.

5. To practise productive failure, we must take on just-manageable challenges. This occurs when we take on a task that makes us feel just a little out of control, but not quite anxious.

What sets top performers apart from their peers is not the amount of experience that they have, but the amount of deliberate practice that they put in. This does not mean just putting in the hours, it means putting the right type of hours in. As Brad and Steve put it: “Practise doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” You might ask what is perfect practice? Perfect practice is when you set just-manageable tasks for yourself during training. The key is the focus. Applying deep concentration whilst attempting tasks that are almost just out of reach is the key to perfect practice. One of the biggest risks to complete focus is multi-tasking. It has been proven time and time again that concentrating on one thing at a time creates a sense of focus that produces great results. MRI scans have proven that it is impossible for our brains to multitask. Instead our brain switches between different tasks, which wastes time and energy. In this process, we can lose up to 40% of our productive time. The answer to great focus is simple:

6. Define a purpose with concrete objectives for each training/practise session and then do only one thing at a time.

Time blocking has been used successfully by many top performers and science has backed up this view. Apart from one or two exceptional examples, the average person cannot sustain intense work or deep concentration for more than 2 hours at a time. It is thus not surprising that great performers work in average chunks of 60 to 90 minutes.

7. To get the most out of our planned work, we need to alternate between blocks of hard work followed by short breaks. This in turn will reduce fatigue as well.

Brad and Steve also credit the great work done by Carol Dweck on the Growth Mindset model as a clear pre-requisite for sustained performance in any career. At its core, the Growth Mindset model shows that our way of thinking about and seeing the world has a profound impact on how we perform and what we do in this world. The main premise is that skills come from struggle, and if we see our failures as learning on the way to success, then we are more likely to expose ourselves to the good type of stress that promotes our growth. At the opposite end are people who see themselves as a failure when they fail as a task and thus avoid struggles altogether and thus never grow. Our culture has developed into a state where we are taught that stress is mainly a destructive force. This has caused us not only to develop an unhealthy relationship with stress, but it can even cause us to live shorter lives.

8. Challenge yourself to view stress productively and to start welcoming it as a way to prepare for a challenge that will help you to improve.

In an interesting twist, Brad and Steve’s research have concluded that the second part of the growth equation is the more difficult part for us to accept and adopt. It seems that we find the concept of proper rest management much more difficult than dealing with our stress healthily. A big part of rest actually occurs during our stress activity and it starts with ‘mindfulness’. Mindfulness refers to your ability to maintain a calm state of mind during stress periods instead of panicking during stress periods. Instead of worrying about a task, you are then able to have a calm internal conversation where you see the stress and your body’s reaction to it as normal and as a way for your body to actually provide you with additional energy to complete the task. By doing this you will also be able to more easily switch off stress and start resting after the activity.

9. The best way to grow your mindfulness muscle is by practising mindfulness meditation. Meditation is a well-known practise with proven results and it is up to you to find the type of meditation that suits your routine. It is just important to note that with meditation, frequency trumps duration.

Some of our most profound ideas often come when our brain is at rest. It is thus clear that if we do not learn to incorporate rest into our life, then we will miss out on a lot of this magic. David Goss is a ground-breaking mathematician that articulates this concept well: “It’s almost like the sole reason you do the work is to set the stage for what happens when you step away.” In a society that glorifies the people who can push things to the extreme, it takes guts to rest. To reap the benefits of stress, you, unfortunately, have to rest. Rest can have many forms and we should never underestimate the small thing we can do to generate great benefits. A great example can be found in the Stanford study called “Give your ideas some legs”. In this study, they tasked groups of students with creative tasks. One grouped remained at a desk and another took a brief 6-minute walk outside before starting the activity. In the group that took the walk, creativity increased by just over 60%. This is just one of many examples of how short breaks can make a big impact.

10. When you hit a wall during a strenuous mental exercise, stop working, step away and perform an activity that demands little effortful thinking. Take a walk, get into nature, meditate or just hang out with some friends.

11. Remember the most important type of rest – sleep. Aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep. A lot of the benefits of hard periods of stressful work or training is lost if you do not get enough sleep.

12. Take off days and vacations from time to time, especially after stressful periods. The size of the break must be in line with the intensity of the stress before the break. Unwind physically and mentally during your break with activities that you find relaxing and restorative.

These points represent the main principles of Peak Performance and offer great insight into the elusive world of consistent top performers. There are a few important additional pointers and principles shared in this book that will enable you to better incorporate these ideas into your life:

  • Priming practises – getting your mind and body ready for high performance.
  • Environment – the importance of your surroundings to enable high performance.
  • Conditioning – how a consistent routine enhances performance.
  • Decision fatigue – understanding the limits of our ability to consistently make good decisions.
  • Understanding your chronotype – know your natural rhythms and design your day accordingly
  • Intentional friendships – learning to recognize the power of the people who surround you.
  • The Power of Purpose – developing a self-transcending purpose to break through our self-imposed limits.
  • Learning to give back – help avoid burnout by giving back in the areas you have achieved success.

If you are serious about achieving great results whilst not running the risk of burnout, then we suggest you get a copy of Peak Performance and dive into these additional topics to personalize your growth plan.