Three Keys to Peak Performance

by Sep 17, 2021Entrepreneurship, Peak Performance0 comments

It’s no secret that life and business are becoming more complex than ever before, especially for founders, entrepreneurs, and business leaders.  Looking over your shoulder, you see an endless line of competition, all of which want your share of the market.  In these times of rapid change, a company or product that has the market majority can quickly become obsolete before they’re even aware it’s happening.  Looking ahead you see huge mountains to climb with all the work and uncertainty that entails.

This increased level of complexity and competition brings with it an enormous amount of stress that we are simply not built for.  If you’re a founder, entrepreneur or business leader you don’t need to look further than your own doorstep to find real examples of this.  When it comes down to it, every client I have worked with want’s one thing, to have maximum impact while feeling and performing at their best.  This is the core definition of peak performance and in this article I’ll share with you some tangible and actionable ways to achieve this consistently and sustainably.

What Is Peak Performance Anyway?

For the sake of continuity in this article let’s begin with the best definition of peak performance that I’ve encountered.  This is from Stephen Kotler of the Flow Research Collective and author of three best-selling books about flow and peak performance. 

“Peak performance is an optimal state of consciousness where you feel your best and you perform your best.”

-Stephen Kotler

That’s a good, clear, and concise definition for sure, but in action how do we actually achieve it?  I’ve broken this down into three dimensions.  In order to achieve consistent and sustainable peak performance in our life and business we need to:

  1. Optimize our energy
  2. Optimize our time
  3. Optimize our attention

These three things, energy, time, and attention are your most valuable assets.  Without them, it doesn’t matter how much funding you have, how big your team is, or how brilliant your idea is.  Most founders and leaders are operating at a fraction of their capacity in these three areas and they’re often unaware of it until it’s too late.

This term “optimize” is thrown around all the time, but what does it actually mean?  In terms of peak performance, optimizing your energy, time and attention requires that we do four crucial things: 1) align with our biology, 2) reduce cognitive load, 3) build an adaptive mindset, and 4) eliminate emotional friction.  Let’s look at some examples of this to make it more practical and less abstract.

1. Align with your biology. – We have very specific and necessary biological and physiological needs.  We can deny them for a while, but eventually they’ll always catch up with us.  Take sleep for example.  We can get away with at most one 24-hour period of complete sleeplessness before our brain function begins to show acute, progressive impairment.  After 24 hours of sleeplessness, our brain function mirrors that of someone who’s consumed around 3 alcoholic beverages.  For every hour after that, our brain function continues to decline bringing with it a severe reduction in energy, creativity, insight, emotional and cognitive intelligence.  This is just one of many examples of our need to be in alignment with our biological requirements.  “Performing at your peak means getting your biology to work for you, rather than against you.” -Stephen Kotler.  The problem is that for peak performers, we can easily deny or ignore the physiological impulses we’ve developed over eons of evolution to keep us healthy and to help us survive. We consciously or unconsciously believe that by ignoring these impulses we’ll be able to achieve more stuff  in less time.  In fact, the literature on productivity and peak performance, as well as my personal and professional experience, completely contradict this common practice.  By learning to become aware of and align with our biology, not only are we safeguarding our energy, health and mood, we’re also increasing our productivity, creativity and capacity to perform near or at our peak when we need to. 

Performing at your peak means getting your biology to work for you rather than against you.

-Stephen Kotler

2. Reduce cognitive load. – Today you have to meet with your sales team, outline a presentation to investors, review redesigns of your product with R&D, pick the dog up from the vet, meet with your daughter’s teacher and all the hundreds of other responsibilities that fill your day.  Every action and responsibility we have consists of hundreds or thousands of bits of information and an equal number of decisions to be made.  It’s estimated the average person makes upwards of 5,000-10,000 decisions per day.  For people in high-impact roles, you can easily double that number.  This means that regardless of how smart or driven a person is, at a certain point they’ll reach their maximum. 

This maximum is called peak cognitive load or cognitive saturation.  Beyond this point, if you need to make decisions, three common things can happen: 1) Your nervous system becomes flooded and agitated, and you lash out at people around you. 2) You shut down, fatigued and burned out and need some serious rest before making any more decisions, especially high-value ones.  3) You push through and force your brain to make decisions that feel good at the time but end up delaying progress or even setting you back.  The reason these decisions feel good at the time is actually related to your brain chemistry.  Every time you make a decision and eliminate something from your list of things to decide, you get a little hit of dopamine in the brain which feels good, regardless of how effective that decision actually is. 

In this state, making a decision, even an impaired one, makes you feel better because it falsely relieves your inner tension of having something to decide.  The big problem is that due to the amount of stress hormones (cortisol and norepinephrine) circulating in your brain at the time, you’re unaware of the poor quality of the decision.  Excess cognitive load actually creates a huge blindspot in your ability to reason clearly.  As the adage goes, “every impaired decision creates ten more problems to solve.”  Cognitive load is a productivity killer, especially if it’s chronic.  Don’t worry though, we’ll discuss a way to reduce cognitive load a little later in this article.  

3. Build an adaptive mindset. – Your chief engineer knocks on your door and comes in, sheepishly telling you the updates to the product you’re supposed to launch in a few weeks are stalled. What’s worse is he’s unable to tell you exactly when it’ll be ready.  This is more than an inconvenient setback because you’re meeting with investors in a few days to discuss series C funding.  On top of this you’re already over-budget, are having problems hiring the right people for your sales team, and are dealing with hundreds of other unexpected inconveniences big and small.  You will need an adaptive mindset to get out of this pickle. 

Some people think of this as optimism but that’s an oversimplification.  In fact, irrational optimism can be even more harmful than pessimism which is why many people intuitively tend to see more negative patterns than positive ones in stressful situations.  In fact, your brain is already wired from birth to pay more attention to the things that threaten you than to your opportunities.  The opposite of an adaptive mindset is a static mindset. 

Static mindsets create a tight-rope for us to traverse with excessive optimism on one side and pessimism or cynicism on the other.  Either way, falling to one side or the other can be harmful.  Even though these are emotional states rather than mental ones, we can use certain cognitive processes in order to transition a static state of mind into a dynamic one.  We’ll discuss this also later in the article.  For now, just know that an adaptive, dynamic mindset combines rational optimism with the capacity to detect and account for our biases and blindspots so we can make decisions with more precision.   

4. Eliminate emotional friction and train your nervous system to thrive under stress. –  You already know about emotional friction, although you may not know it by that name.  Another way to say it is frustration that causes you to act out in regretful ways or that brings your progress to a screeching halt.  We all love the feeling of flow and of momentum, where we lose ourselves in what we’re doing, completely absorbed in the task at hand.  Conversely, we all hate distractions that pull us out of this state of effortless productivity and creativity.  The enemy to flow is friction, and the vast majority of the friction that pulls us out of, or prevents us from flow, comes from our own emotions.  When we learn how to reduce or even eliminate our emotional friction, it’s much easier to access those peak experiences of flow and unhindered momentum.  

We haven’t discussed the neurochemistry of flow much in this article but as a quick side note, flow is one of the most blissful experiences we can have, and it’s also the most expensive in terms of metabolic energy and brain chemistry.  The brain accounts for less than 2-3% of the total mass of the body but uses over 25% of the energetic resources.  Getting into flow uses even more of these resources than the baseline 25%.  Since the prime directive of the body is to conserve energy whenever possible, there are a lot of hurdles to achieving flow that are built into your nervous system already. 

When you’re in flow, the production and utilization of brain chemicals like dopamine, acetylcholine, oxytocin, serotonin, and anandamide, among others, are held in a delicate balance that puts you in an altered state of consciousness where life takes on an intensely vivid quality.  In flow, you’re improvising with life at such a high level that your confidence, creativity and competence multiply tenfold.  It’s this state of consciousness that underlies every major achievement of science, literature, art, and athletics, and your own emotions are the often culprit that prevents you from experiencing it when you need it the most.  This I feel, is one of the tragic ironies of life. 

An Actionable Summary

Please allow me a few minutes to bring this all together for you and expand on these ideas to make them more actionable.  Life and business are becoming increasingly more complex and stressful creating the possibility for severe overwhelm and burnout, especially for entrepreneurs and business leaders.  It’s clear that in order to safeguard our health and performance we need to pursue an intentional improvement to how we perform in life and work.  There’s a lot of discussion these days about peak performance and optimization, but what does that actually mean?  Simply put, peak performance is a state where you feel your best and perform at your best.  In order for this to happen you have to optimize your three key assets which are your energy, time and attention.  There are four ways to do this.  

Biological Alignment

The first is to align your habits and behaviors with the biological / physiological needs of your body.  When you’re out of alignment, it’s almost impossible to perform at your peak.  For example, a deficiency in the depth, duration and quality of sleep will impair your energy, the efficient use of your time and your ability to focus and pay attention.  When you get your biology to work for you rather than against you, you experience an exponential improvement in your energy, time and attention.  Since we’re discussing sleep, I’d like to make a suggestion.  Make it a priority!  Having worked with hundreds of people, I know first hand that all the tips and tricks to improve sleep do not amount to anything if sleep is not a number one priority.  Many people are looking for the right hacks or supplements or drugs to improve their sleep or even reduce their need for sleep.  None of this works, at least not in the long run, until you become aggressive in safeguarding and improving your sleep.

Cognitive Load

This brings us to the second of our four methods for optimizing your energy, time and attention: reducing cognitive load.  No matter how smart, or driven or good looking you are, your brain will hit a wall at some point during the day, week, month and throughout the length of your career.  There are a lot of methods I use to help my clients reduce cognitive load but one of the most effective ways is to organize your work days to maximize your optimum neurochemical balance which varies throughout the day.  I call this day architecture

For example many people have 3 or at most 4 productivity cycles during the day that last from 90-120 minutes each.  Each of these different productivity cycles is based on the prevalence and concentration of specific neurochemicals like dopamine, acetylcholine, norepinephrine, etc in the brain during certain periods of the day.  During a time of intense focus, creativity, and problem solving we use up our neurochemicals just like we use up fuel in our cars while driving uphill.  This means we need to learn how to refuel and restore the concentration and balance of our neurochemistry before going into the next cycle.  

One of the best ways to do this is to include an active recovery period that lasts between 10-20 minutes in between productivity cycles.  For example, let’s assume you’re naturally an early riser and you start your first productivity block designated for highly technical focus and attention at 7am and continue until 9am.  Your active recovery period could include eating breakfast, taking a walk, doing a breathing practice or mindfulness meditation immediately after your productivity block. 

The key here is to avoid any activities that require you to consume any information or solve any problems, both technical and mundane.  In this period you’re giving your brain an opportunity to restore the delicate neurochemical balance.  Then once you’ve finished your active recovery you can begin your second productivity cycle feeling renewed.  In addition you’ll be able to slip into a deep flow state more easily which will noticeably amplify your productivity and effectiveness during that cycle. 

So, taking a 10-20 minute break just after a period of intense work will actually make you more productive and is a very good use of your time.  This is one of many effective ways of reducing cognitive load which can help optimize your energy, time and attention in both the short and long term.

Adaptive Mindset

Our third principle for optimizing energy, time and attention is to build an adaptive mindset.  As I mentioned above, an adaptive mindset combines rational optimism with the capacity to detect and account for our biases and blindspots so we can make better decisions with more precision.  Something I do with most of my clients is to act as a bias buddy for any major decisions.  The role of a bias buddy is to help you keep things in perspective and to draw attention to your blindspots by asking questions that you may not think to ask about a certain situation.  This applies to both positive and negative situations in your life and business. 

How this works is that when you encounter a high impact challenge or opportunity, and you have taken the time to think through your various scenarios to arrive at your best decision, you write your bias buddy a summary of the situation and your solution / decision.  Their job is to call or write you back within 24 hours to ask you some specific clarifying questions.  Their job is not to offer advice or solve your problem for you, but to become familiar with your decision making style and to provide a different, hopefully beneficial, point of view.  The beautiful thing about this process is that over time, your own decision making style and abilities actually change to become more flexible, precise and effective.  

It’s tempting to designate a business partner or someone already on your team to do this, and sometimes it works out, but it usually doesn’t.  The reason for this is that some of the problems you need to solve and decisions you need to make may be related to that partner or person on your team you designated to provide perspective.  Also, business partners and employees are incapable of being unbiased due to the obvious conflicts of interest related to their own agenda or employment hierarchy. 

My suggestion is to find a trusted ally to act as your confidant and bias buddy.  A mentor, executive coach or peak performance coach can be the perfect person for this role because they are often trained in this method of inquiry and are especially good at asking high-value questions.  Another important benefit is they can be unbiased because they’re only interested in you making the best decisions for you.

Reducing Emotional Friction

This brings us to the last of the four principles for optimizing energy, time and attention: eliminating emotional friction.  As we discussed previously, flow states are extremely advantageous for maximizing our productivity, creativity and mood.  The enemy to flow is friction and our emotional state is one of the most powerful amplifiers of both momentum and friction depending on the emotional state and how we respond to it. 

A bad mood, a negative emotional state, or severe frustration will prevent us from accessing and maintaining flow.  In order to tap into flow regularly and reliably we need to develop the abilities required for developing both emotional resilience and emotional intelligence.  There are so many methods and ways to approach this from the perspectives of performance and cognitive psychology.  The suggestion I’d like to make here is one I often use with most of my clients: Learn to lean into frustration.  

Frustration can be uncomfortable, bordering on outright painful.  Our typical response to frustration is to try and avoid it, or attempt to make it go away as quickly as possible.  This is natural because nobody wants to suffer, and frustration is a particularly brutal form of suffering, especially when it’s frequent and chronic.  The thing to remember about frustration is that it’s just a sensation like cold, heat or muscle soreness.  Learning to lean into frustration is like learning how to progressively tolerate more cold (like ice baths), more heat (like saunas), or muscle soreness (like long-distance running). 

While cold baths, saunas and long-duration exercise can be helpful for improving emotional resilience, they aren’t necessary, but can be useful analogies.  What’s more important is the perception a person has about those activities.  For example if you just woke up out of a dead sleep and felt like you had just run a marathon, you would probably call 911.  That degree of discomfort is acceptable for long-distance running, but not for sleeping.  The same is true for frustration.  When you feel it, lean into the discomfort of it.  Know that it’s a normal part of life and business and, like running, has the possibility to make you stronger when practiced with the right intention and perspective.  

In addition you can use a type of training called autonomic nervous system training or ANST for short.  One kind of ANST technique is to make your exhales a little longer than your inhales.  For example, someone comes to you with a problem that stokes some intense frustration.  Instead of biting that person’s head off or getting stuck in a spiral of increasing frustration, allow yourself to feel it.  It can even be helpful to note where in your body you feel it the most and to name it. 

During this time extend your exhales as you breathe slowly and deeply in and out of your nose.  After about 5 cycles of breathing, the acute bite of the frustration will often lessen, reducing the emotional friction to the point that you can resume your flow activity or go about trying to find the best solution to the problem facing you. 

To be clear, this isn’t simply stress management.  You’re simply reducing the intensity of the emotional experience so you can feel a little more comfortable with the sense of frustration.  The key to reducing emotional friction isn’t in pursuing techniques to relieve you from the discomfort or inconvenience, but to give you the ability to lean into the sensation of frustration.  Then it’s possible to embrace frustration itself as a means to improve emotional resilience and emotional intelligence for the future. 

So, try reframing any current or future frustrations as necessary experiences for growth, strength and eventual success.  At the same time, practice calming the nervous system during frustrating and stressful times so you can better tolerate them and even continue to perform at high levels while in the midst of those experiences.

Thank you for reading this article.  I do hope you learned something useful to help you have more peak experiences in your life and work.  

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