Over the past two years, I, along with a co-author who is a performance scientist and coach of Olympians, have been researching and reporting for a new book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive With the New Science of Success.
We set out to answer a simple question: What makes great? What are the principles that underlie mastery across fields and capabilities?
To find the answer, we spoke with world-class athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, and intellects, and we poured over literature from diverse fields including psychology, neuroscience, biology, physiology, and even philosophy. We learned enough to fill a book (that’s why we wrote one!), and what follows are some of the highlights. Each of the principles below is supported by both science and the experience of individuals who are on top of their respective fields. And best of all, each principle can be practiced by anyone.
1) Sleep! Sleep is one of the most productive things you can do. Period. If you’re not getting between 7–9 hours of sleep per night, you are shortchanging your physical, psychological, and emotional performance. Although it’s a bit paradoxical, neither your mind nor body grow while you are using them. They grow afterwards, while you are resting, and especially during sleep.
2) Physical Activity. Aim for at least 30 minutes of movement per day. This is just as important for your mind as it is for your body. While we all know physical activity has been linked to numerous health benefits, new research shows it’s also integral to priming the mind for creative thinking and problem solving.
3) Seek Out “Just-Manageable” Challenges. You only grow if you step outside of your comfort zone. While your activities shouldn’t make you anxious, they should leave you with a feeling of slight uncertainty. In other words, you grow from partaking in “just-manageable” challenges. This is true whether it means lifting a slightly heavier weight than before, reading a slightly more challenging book, or presenting in a slightly higher-stakes situation.
4) Stress + Rest = Growth. The universal growth equation requires not only that you challenge yourself, but also that you take time to recover. On levels both micro (i.e., throughout the day) and macro (i.e., throughout the year) follow especially challenging activities with periods of recovery and recuperation.
5) Cultivate Purpose: Find a meaningful “why” for your work and remind yourself of it often. Fueled by purpose, you can push harder, better, and longer. Fascinating new research shows that when we focus on something beyond ourselves, activity lessens in the part of the brain associated with the ego. When the ego is minimized, so, too, are constraining emotions like fear and worry. 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.
6) Design Your Day: Be as intentional as you can about when you do what you do. Match energy and focus levels to various tasks. In it’s simplest form, this means don’t waste your peak hours browsing social media or answering email. Easy to say and to understand logically, yet for many, very hard to do.
7) Surround Yourself Wisely: Performance is contagious. Actively seek out other high performers and do everything you can to work with them. The people with whom you spend your time have an enormous influence on your life. In many ways, they shape it.
8) Own Your Story: You can influence much of the lasting impact of events — both good and bad — based on how you fold them into your ongoing personal narrative. Don’t be delusional, but do be constructive in the stories you tell yourself about yourself. As I’ve written here before, we truly become our stories.
9) Respond Rather Than React: Resist the urge to immediately react to everything thrown at you. Better to take a deep-breath, evaluate the situation non-judgmentally, and then thoughtfully and strategically respond instead. You can practice this in any activity that makes you uncomfortable — form vigorous physical exercise to a traditional sitting meditation practice. When the going gets tough, rather than panic, have a calm conversation: pause to separate yourself from whatever emotion you are feeling and only then move forward. Great performers understand what they cannot control but they take control of what they can.
The book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, your local bookstore, and everywhere else books are sold.
Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He’s a columnist at Outside Magazine and New York Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.