Peak performance

The message of Peak Performance, by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, is as simple to understand as it is difficult to apply in practice.

Stress + rest = growth

That is to say, if you alternate periods of intense work, work that takes you a little beyond your limits, yet not too much, with periods of relax and rest, your potential will increase. And this is true both for athletes and knowledge workers.

The illusion of “always busy“, then, is not only bad for your narrative and your relationships, but also for your possibility to deliver your best work and to incrementally and progressively increase what “best” is to you.

If you think at all the times you came up with a solution to your problems, or a new idea, or a different approach to a tricky situation during moments of break (in the shower, during a walk outside, while playing with your kids), the message should easily resonate with you. On the other hand, think about how often you have managed to overcome a difficult situation by continuing to work relentlessly. Never, right?

And yet, we often fall in that trap. Sometimes because of peer pressure, sometimes because we feel guilty, more often simply because we are not sure what we are doing is good work, and we try to compensate by doing a lot. We end up being over-stressed, and this is never a very good idea.

Stress can be positive, triggering desirable adaptations in the body; or stress can be negative, causing grave damage and harm. The effects of stress depend almost entirely on the dose.

The book is full of examples of high performers, in different areas, and all seem to respect the growth equation that is the foundation of Peak Performance. And on top of that, they have pretty rigid and established routines.

Routines help keeping you focused on what you are doing in different moments of the day. They leave little space for excuses and resistance, they force you to show up and to be present with body and mind.

There’s a pretty good example on how to apply this principle for day-to-day work: the authors suggest to split your days in chunks of 50 to 90 minutes (depending on the type of work), followed by 7 to 20 minutes of rest.

In the words of the writer James Clear, “The single greatest skill in any endeavor is doing the work. Not doing the work that is easy for you. Not doing the work that makes you look good. Not doing the work when you feel inspired. Just doing the work.”

The final part of the book is dedicated to a very important part of performance: purpose. There’s quite a lot of evidence that having a purpose that “transcends ourselves”, that goes beyond the immediate, short-term gains, makes us bring out the best work we could possibly do. And more than that, it increases our capability to accept stress, widening the growth leaps in the equation.

In situations that feel scary or overwhelming, our brain—our central governor, our ego, our “self”—automatically tries to protect us from failure. It shuts us down and tells us to turn in the other direction. Even if failure doesn’t mean physical injury, our ego doesn’t like emotional injury, either—it doesn’t want to risk getting embarrassed, so it ushers us down the safe route. It’s only when we transcend our “self” that we can break through our self-imposed limits.


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