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If You Want to Get Better, Focus on What Really Matters

June 20, 2017

We’ve previously written that you simply cannot ‘hack’ your way to long-term growth and performance. If any of the latest and greatest quick-fixes actually worked, there wouldn’t be an ever-expanding market for them. No coffee bean will magically help you lose weight. No tea will improve your cognitive function. No (legal) supplement will dramatically improve your strength, power, and speed.


We’ve beat this drum before but it’s a drum worth beating over and over again: Quick-fixes stop working quickly.


So, then, what does work? What are the evidence-based interventions that promote a high-performance lifestyle, reduce burnout, and support mental health?


Do Deep-Focus, Undistracted Work: Multi-tasking is an illusion. If anything, it ought to be called “half-tasking.” Research shows that when people multi-task, they are constantly switching their attention between tasks. Even though this occurs at the scale of milliseconds, it adds up. The American Psychological Association reports that when you multitask, though you think you’re getting twice as much done, you’re actually getting close to only half as much done!


Multi-tasking not only occurs at a conscious level (i.e., knowingly trying to do two things at once), but also at a sub-conscious one. Even if you aren’t actively using/checking your smartphone or other digital devices, just having them in your pocket or visibly near you can sap your cognitive energy. That’s because you end up exerting tons of energy resisting the urge to check them! All kinds of research has demonstrated that the mere presence of a smartphone detracts from your ability to produce high-quality work. This holds true in the office, the writer’s studio, or the gym.


The main takeaways: 1) Don’t multi-task—even if it feels productive, it’s destructive. 2) Remove distractions. If your unaccustomed to working in this manner, start with small chunks, even as little as 10 minutes, and gradually increase duration.


Take Breaks: Working in the above manner can be draining. For most tasks, studies show people can only sustain intense concentration and effort for 90 minutes. Much like interval training allows athletes to get the most quality work done in a given duration, so too does working in intervals allow the brain to maximize output. Science says the most productive way to work is in blocks of intense work (15-90 minutes) followed by brief breaks (5-30 minutes).


One of the best and most practical breaks is walking. For cerebral work, just a 5-15-minute walk has been shown to increase creativity. For physical work, a brief walk encourages one’s heart-rate to come down while keeping blood flowing and the body limber.


Sleep: It’s one of the most productive things you can do. Period. Aim for at least 7-8 hours. If you’re an athlete who is training HARD, even 10 hours isn’t too much. When we sleep, our bodies grow; our minds consolidate, store, and connect information; and our willpower is replenished.


We spend a lot of time discussing sleep in our book, and for good reason. Though it’s one of the most important things we can do, the vast majority of people don’t sleep enough. Some simply because they don’t prioritize sleep and don’t try (if this is you – start trying!) and others because they can’t. If you fall into the second category, start with doing an inventory of your sleep hygiene and work to correct any gaps.



Spend Time in Nature: If you have access to greenspace, immerse yourself in it often. Unfortunately, most people aren’t lucky enough to walk out their back door and onto forest trails. Rather, getting to the park or trailhead is a 30-45-minute drive. This can seem like a hassle, but it’s so well worth it. We’ve never met someone who has regretted driving so that they could spend time in nature.


Nature is good for both our mental and physical health. It lowers blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol, it can help thwart anxiety, depression, and burnout, and it increases creativity. Especially in a world where so many of us spend so much time starring into screens, nature is a restorative powerhouse. Make spending time in it a priority.


Surround Yourself Wisely: The people with whom you surround yourself have a profound influence on your life. In many ways, they shape it. Research shows that motivation is contagious. If you surround yourself with driven people who exude a positive affect, you’ll performer better. What’s more is that the opposite—negative affect—is especially powerful. A study we’ve written about before found that even amongst high-achievers, groups tend to be pulled down by the least motivated person more than they are pulled up by the most motivated person.



Live on Purpose: Having a strong and deeply-held purpose for what you do is a powerful performance enhancer. Find a meaningful “why” for your work and remind yourself of it often. 


Fueled by purpose, you can push harder, better, and longer. A fascinating line of new research shows that when we focus on something beyond ourselves, we may be willing to endure more effort for a longer period of time. Additionally, the more we can minimize the importance of our ego, of our literal “self,” the less fearful we’ll be. No longer in a guarded state trying to protect our literal “self” from failure, we are more likely to take constructive risks and venture beyond our perceived limits. In a paradoxical twist, thinking less about ourselves is one of the best ways to improve ourselves.



Exercise: We’ve covered this topic up the wazoo! So either just trust us that at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity is good for brain and body or read more here, here, and here.


Reflect on Your Mortality: More on this in a future newsletter, but thinking (and reading) about death and dying has a profound way of increasing self-awareness and ensuring you are spending your days how you really want to be spending them. Reflecting on your own end can be quite uncomfortable, but it’s influence on what you do while you’re alive is too important to overlook.


If you enjoyed this post and want to support our work, please consider buying our new book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success. It's available Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and everywhere else books are sold.

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