Hack-Attack: Getting Rid of Bad Advice About Habits, Talents, and Mindset

Given the number of claims about performance hacks and shortcuts in the world, we need a system to separate truth from distraction (hint: it's called science).

Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury/Getty Images
Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury/Getty Images

For every person striving to be her best there are 100 websites promising the “secret” to high performance. The latest “hacks” to achieve better sleep, memory, exercise, work, shoe-tying and sandwich making bombard us at every turn. Luckily we have a tool, called science, to cut through the distraction and find the best strategies for long term benefits. To start thinking like a scientist, whenever you hear some claim about what it takes to have better habits, talents or mindful practice, ask this simple question: “Is this claim Necessary and Sufficient for high performance?

The question of necessity and sufficiency for a claim to be true is absolutely central to science and is a great tool for uncovering how things work. As an example, if you are hungry, eating a sandwich is sufficient to alleviate hunger, but a sandwich itself is not necessary. If you want to become an expert chess player, hard work is necessary, but probably not sufficient, since other factors such as the available competition, coaching, etc., may play a strong role in determining one’s limits in the domain. Performance requires a number of necessary and sufficient approaches and conditions — thinking about each one systematically will help you land on the best ones and find the best way to be effective.

When it comes to performance, let’s consider three commonly held strategies and how they respond to the question of what is necessary and sufficient.

1. You need to have the same habits of high performers.

There is a reason that books on habit sell so well on Amazon (in fact, the self-improvement market is valued at $9.9 billion). To be sure, a daily discipline of sleep, nutrition, and hard work and training are key features of any high performance biography. However, what makes habits so tricky, is that no two habits are identical. Some habits can form in a day, others may take months or years to develop. Research has shown that habits must also interact positively with our own goals (another huge topic) for them to be effective. What’s more, how well can we apply the habits of high performers to our own mundane lives? If I take on Alex Honnold’s habits of hang boarding and eating, am I ready to free solo El Capitan? If you want to free solo El Cap, you should definitely take on some of Alex’s approaches, but habits alone would not capture the underlying drive and curiosity that he has. Habits are a conduit for performance but not a sole proprietor. In this regard, we would say good habits are likely necessary but not sufficient for high performance.

2. You need to be genetically gifted to be an elite talent.

How many times have you heard people say about high performers: “oh, well he/she is genetically gifted!”? To be sure, research supports the idea that genes play a role in our many aspects of our lives. However, your genes don’t necessarily decide whether you can achieve high performance. In one study, genetic factors such as telomere length, a marker of muscle cell’s ability to regenerate, is associated with athletic performance. But interestingly enough, telomere length can change with practice. Studies identifying which actual genes lead to higher performance are not as conclusive as we may believe. In what was probably the first study of its kind, in 1998 a sample of elite Australian rowers was found to have genetic differences in a section of the DNA that improves cardiovascular function compared to control participants. A follow up study using a larger and more diverse sample, however, found no such association between this gene and athletic performance. Perhaps we can say that those with a genetic makeup that makes them taller or bigger can help for sports like basketball and football — though there are clearly exceptions in both cases. So are certain genetics necessary and sufficient for high performance? Based on the available evidence, at the moment we can conclude that there is no specific gene or set of genes that fit the criteria of being necessary and/or sufficient for high performance.

3. You need to train your mind in order to be a high performer.

Mindfulness and meditation practice are all the rage at the moment, and there is mounting evidence that meditation practice can benefit our everyday lives when done skillfully. Interestingly however, the evidence that mindfulness training is a key part of developing high performance is more mixed. In a review article (these are scientific articles that combine findings from many other articles), mindfulness did not appear to show an overall benefit to practice itself. Mindful practice itself does not inherently boost performance, but rather certain types of mental re-appraisal strategies that are part of high performance. In both of these papers mentioned, interestingly enough, it was not so much mindfulness but the structured approach to the mind that was so emphasized. “We consider that athletes with a higher degree [of] mindfulness practice and dispositional mindfulness will enhance the level of several required psychological skills through various impact mechanisms (Birrer et al., 2012).” Given the above, it is a fair interpretation that while mindful/meditation practice itself is not necessary or sufficient for high performance, having key elements of a skilled mind, such as intention, acceptance, self-knowledge, and present-mindedness are indeed necessary. In those moments of extraordinary stress and pressure, these mental skills may even be sufficient alone for high performance.

Performance does not require some magic bullet or shortcut.  The necessary and sufficient conditions for high performance include dedicated practice, ability to regulate emotion in the moment, and curiosity about the nature of pressure — all things that can be practiced and mastered. Luckily, the greatest hack of all time is that you have the ability to control how much time you spend practicing, refining and getting better. In fact, time spent practicing is the single greatest predictor of high performance. Performance is under our own volition; hacks are neither necessary, nor sufficient.

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