4 Lessons from Peak Performance

In Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, authors Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness share the science on what makes successful performers, whether they be winning the New York marathon, writing a best selling book, oil painting, or corporate consulting. Their insights comes from research and interviewing high performers from the realm of athletics, creative work, and business. Below are 4 of my key lessons from Peak Performance.

1. Stress + Rest = Growth

The central message of the book is “stress + rest = growth.” Athletically, we call this balancing of stress with recovery “periodization training.” This kind of cycle of intense focus and stress matched with recovery not only leads to muscle and cardiovascular growth, is also what leads to creativity, productivity, innovation, and problem solving. So many of us fall into what Stulberg and Magness call a “grey zone” where we aren’t rested enough to put in intense effort and we aren’t stressed enough to utilize our rest for growth. We just fall into a cycle of always being tired and not being able to give our best.

The brightest minds spent their time either pursing an activity with ferocious intensity or engaging in complete restoration and recovery.

This came at a good time for me as I had just finished lots of travel for work and was trying to focus on recovery and rest to fuel more creativity and innovation. I was using the analogy of a singer/songwriter. There is a time to tour and there is a time to write new music. I’ve been having lots of conversations about the difference between manager time and maker time. I often have a hard time resting and feel constant “shoulds” about not “being lazy” or “sleeping my life away” and needing to work harder, more, and to just keep grinding away. Not only is this not sustainable, it isn’t a great way to cultivate good thinking, creative ideas, and clear problem solving. Working smarter does not always mean working harder. But we live in a culture that translates more hours as more commitment, suffering as dedication, and rest as lazy and selfish.

2. Intensify Your Focus

Stress is necessary to challenge us and push us toward growth. Especially, when we frame “stress” with a growth mindset as a sign of a challenge and an opportunity to grow and learn. Amateur athletes and performers are overwhelmed by stress and it inhibits their ability to perform. Elite performers aren’t beyond stress, rather they recognize it and use it to fuel their performance. This reminded me of how I wrestled with managing the intense opportunity and pressure as I was preparing to give my TEDx Talk. As the authors in Peak Performance mention, “skills come from struggle.” They also call on us to cultivate “productive failure.” This is not just lazily or mindlessly failing but thoughtfully pursing our best and realizing when, where, and how we fall short to cultivate learning and problem solving. This kind of intense energy, focus, and effort is what Cal Newport discussed in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

I especially needed to hear their urging to avoid multitasking, pointing out that for all but 1% of the human population multitasking is neurologically impossible. The rest of us are just shifting focus quickly from one thing to another to another, and undermining ourselves in the process. The book urged me to focus on one thing at a time, practice mindfulness in my work, give up on checking my phone mindlessly, and to enjoy missing out. I do suffer from Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) and it isn’t working for me. Instead, I’ve decided to try and indulge and practice the Joy of Missing Out (JOMO).

3. Prioritize Quality Rest, Recharge, and Rejuvenation

Peak Performance helped me give myself a little bit more permission to rest. It’s helpful for me to reframe rest not as laziness, but as necessary to rejuvenate or recharge my batteries or position me to be at my best for others. I love the analogy of the oxygen masks on airplanes. We’re always told to put our own mask on first so that we can best help others. But in real life many of us feel like we should or pride ourselves on putting everyone else’s needs ahead of our own. That’s a great way to make sure you aren’t really able to be there for anyone else. It also builds suffering and resentment.

Rest not only prevents burnout and fatigue but it also is necessary for creativity and innovation. 

The authors of Peak Performance share a study of a consulting firm in Boston, where pressure is high and working around the clock is the encouraged norm. In the study, some workers were required to not work for one entire day per week AND to reframe from work after 6pm another day each week. These simple limitations may seem absurd to some or like an unjustifiable luxury to others. But the lesson of the study is that those who scaled back did not suffer compared to their harder working peers. In fact, those who had limitations put on their work hours were 20% more productive. This made me wonder how pushing myself to keep grinding could actually be undermining what I am able to contribute for others.

Not only is rest key for productivity but it also key for creativity, insight, and innovation. Our aware or conscious brain can only handle so much sustained focus, but our subconscious brain is always on processing information below our level of awareness. Rest helps us quiet the conscious brain and allows us to realize the insight or ideas from our subconscious processing. This is why many of us have great ideas in the shower, on a run, in dreams, washing the dishes, on vacation, or as soon as we stop thinking about our challenge.

4. Get Some Rest

If you are convinced to add more rest, here are a few ways to get quality rest.

  • Nature – Spending time in nature pulls you away from your problems and can help you get perspective. This can be a walk in the woods or as simple as looking out a window.
  • Sleep & Naps – More than half of US citizens don’t get enough sleep. Getting enough sleep allows not only for our bodies to recover but also for our brains to organize our experiences, make meaning, and foster learning. Storing this information helps clear space for new thinking. Taking short naps, 26 minutes according to NASA, can be a great way to give your body and your brain the rest they need to return to full capacity.
  • Mindfulness – Being fully present in the moment can be a way for us to rest and avoid worrying about the future and ruminating about the past.
  • Meditation is the practice of being mindful. It can give us space and openness and train us to focus where we want and to let go.
  • Walking – Walking can be a way to step away and get a new perspective (literally) and give our minds a break. The physical movement also engages our bodies differently which also engages the brain.
  • Silence – Just sitting in silence can be hard for many of us. We are so used to filling silence with others, music, noise, or our own thoughts. Yet, just being in silence can be rejuvenating and foster new ideas.
  • Exercise can be a break for the mental, social, or productive work we are doing and the ways we engage our bodies can fuel our brains with endorphins (natures painkillers and anti-depressants) which can often clear our brains and spark new ideas.

I enjoyed Peak Performance for its no nonsense science based recommendations. The performance practices throughout the book are also helpful clear directives on how to put this science into action. It’s helpful without being overly prescriptive. I also have found both authors, Brad Stulberg (more cognitive focus) and Steve Magness (more athletic focus) to be solid Twitter follows.

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