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Think and Breathe: the HOW of Consistent Performance

Achieving consistent performance is not just about changing your behaviour. You need to look at what affects your behaviour itself.

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Achieve Consistent Performance Every Day.

This article originally appeared at Gen-i’

You go to work every day, as regular as the ticking of a clock. Yet, some days, you do great – you’re efficient, productive, and you get results. And on others, you do much less so – making mistakes, drifting off in daydream, or your mind freezing with stress and a feeling of being overwhelmed.

Maybe today is one of the latter days, and you’re sitting at your desk overwhelmed, quietly panicking, and frustrated with the things that you should – but, for whatever reason, can’t – be getting done. I feel you!

Why does this happen? How come some days we are on our A-game and on others we can be so desperately useless? And the important question is this: HOW can we ensure that we achieve consistent performance every day?

According to the neurologist and CEO of Complete Coherence, Dr Alan Watkins, the secret to consistent performance and success – or what he calls ‘being brilliant everyday’ – does not merely lie in our behaviour.

It is not enough, Watkins says in his TED Talk, simply to say, ‘I’ll do more of this’ or ‘I’ll do more of that’. Just doing different things doesn’t affect your ability to perform better. What you need to do is rather take a look at the deeper parts of you that influence your thinking and, in turn, influence your behaviour.

What Drives Our Behaviour?

So, really, of what is our behaviour the result? According to Watkins, there are a number of layers within us that influence our behaviour – and of which we not usually conscious.

Our behaviour, we need to realise, is directly related to the first layer – our thinking. We cannot begin to perform better if we do not have control of our thinking. When we are performing badly, we are not thinking with clarity, with a calm state of mind. Our judgement is clouded by thinking a million things a minute – but what if this happens? what if they get mad at me? how do I solve this problem? why can’t I concentrate?  – but, even worse, we might not be thinking anything at all.

This mental jitteriness – or complete shutdown – self-evidently affects our performance. Yet, it is difficult, if not impossible, to gain clarity in your thinking just by thinking harder or trying to think differently.  Rather, you need to recognise that your patterns of thought are the result of something else: your feelings (layer two), emotions (layer 3), and, fundamentally, your physiology (layer 4).

Feeling, Emotion, Physiology

These three things that affect your thinking are tiered, with the most foundational being physiology.

Let’s start with physiology. What do we mean by this? We mean your body, and all the things that are going on inside you. Are you cold? Are you struggling with the flu? Is adrenaline coursing through your veins? These all provide your body with incoming data that is either distracting, pleasant, or both.

Yet, this data is translated into emotions by your brain – and Watkins is keen to distinguish emotions from feelings. Emotions are the combinations of energy input coming from this varied physical data. These are emotions, arising directly from your physiology.

The Role of Feelings.

Whilst the emotions are the raw energy, they become feelingswhen you become aware of them and your brain interprets them. The trouble is that we are very rarely aware of them and much of the interpretation is done subconsciously – ie. the emotions of excitement and nervousness present in a similar way physically – but the brain’s interpretation dictates the ‘feeling’. This is something we can have conscious control over once we are aware of it.

As Watkins says, if asked how you feel, you’re probably going to say, ‘ah, yeah, fine’, ‘good, thanks’, or ‘all right’. This is not just a British politeness or reticence to share emotions, as some people might think. Rather, usually people actually think that they feel fine, even when they probably don’t. It just goes to show our general unawareness of what is actually going on inside us.

To change our way of thinking – and ultimately our performance – we need to become aware of our feelings. And we need to gain control and awareness of them too.

Getting in Control.

Watkins uses the example of the heart to show what he means here. The heart’s beat is one signal among many from our physiology, and it is one affected by many things that we do – from drinking coffee or eating sugar, to taking a break or falling in love.

When you’re under pressure, your heart beat goes wild. Not only does it speed up, but it loses its regularity; it becomes totally chaotic. This chaotic signal translates into an anxious emotional state, into a feelingof stress, and it immediately changes your thinking. Usually it stops your thinking dead. Under pressure, like a rabbit in the headlights, your brain stops working. And so, quite simply, your biology affects your thinking.

But how can you get control of that biology? What is one part of your biology you can control quite straightforwardly?

That would be your breathing.

Deep Breaths – or Rhythmic Ones?

‘It’s okay – deep breaths’ is what my mum used to say to me before a scary day at school. And I can be sure that we’ve all heard this expression. But it was unclear to me then, and it’s less clear even now, what ‘deep breaths’ actually are. Are they long breaths, big gulps of air, or breaths that seem to inflate your belly?

In thinking about getting a grip on consistent performance, Watkins suggests that we should forget about this notion of ‘depth’. We should instead focus on the rhythm of our breaths – keeping them stable, keeping them regular. Try it, either five seconds in and five seconds out, or four in and six out – something like this.

As soon as you do this, your heart will regain its coherence – as opposed to its chaos – reducing the physiological input, affecting your emotions, your feelings, your thinking – and ultimately your behaviour – and addressing the issue at the core.

As a leader, Watkins says, it is crucial to understand the underlying influencers on the way you think. This awareness will enable you to be calm and to thinkwell even under the most pressuring circumstances. With an ability to think clearly and calmly, we can change our behaviour and to perform at our best all the time.

How to Perform Consistently? Action Points.

  • Take time to be aware of what your body is telling you. Are you tired? Over-caffeinated? Try meditation or, simply enough, pay attention to the quality of your sleep.
  • When stress kicks in, turn to your breathing. Remember: the key here is regularity, not depth.
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