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How to Achieve Peak Performance

Being a professional at the top of your field means being able to consistently perform at a high level. Those underneath may have the same knowledge and abilities, but if they cannot apply them consistently, then they will never rise to the top. This is true across a diverse collection of activities including athletics, photography, writing, and software development. In order to be the best, you need to be at your best every single day.

Professional athletes in particular are very focused on achieving peak performance. They do not simply hope that they perform well and accept whatever level of performance they achieve each day, but instead have a system for ensuring they do their best. If you want to consistently achieve peak performance, whether on the job, in a hobby, or at home, then you need to do the same. Pay attention to your daily activities and how they affect your performance, taking special note of when you are at your best or your worst. Over time, you will be able to identify what helps or hurts your performance.

To help you get started, here's a list of my top five performance-boosting strategies.

  1. Get sufficient sleep. Feeling tired is one of my worst performance-killers, so it appears first on my list. There are several techniques I use to ensure I am well-rested:
    • Always wake up at roughly the same time every day, including weekends. Up to about 30 minutes of variance in the wake up time is fine, but too much more and your body basically experiences the equivalence of jet lag. That is the reason many people are tired and unproductive Monday morning - they slept in on the weekend, and their bodies have to readjust to their workday wake-up time.
    • Know how much sleep you typically need, and use this to determine your standard bedtime. For example, if you normally need eight hours of sleep and get up at 7:00am, then your bedtime would be 11:00pm. Don't stay up much past this bedtime, even if you don't feel tired. If you do, you will feel tired the next morning. If you don't know how much sleep you typically need (it varies from person to person), then one way to figure it out is to turn off your alarm clock for a week, go to bed at the same time each night, and see when you naturally wake up.
    • Go to bed earlier if you get tired. Some days will be more tiring than others, and getting tired earlier than normal is your body's way of telling you it needs more rest.
  2. Maintain a positive attitude. Being positive and cheerful will not only boost your own performance, but will also improve the morale and productivity of your coworkers. Maintaining an optimistic outlook about yourself, others, and the world in general will help you persevere and overcome the normal challenges and setbacks we all face.

    The key is to avoid negative thoughts and attitudes - they will not only hurt your performance, but will also be harmful to your health over the long term. One example is high levels of anxiety or stress, which especially over a prolonged period of time are extremely energy draining. They impair your ability to think logically and creatively, which impairs your performance for intellectual activities such as software development. It is not a particular situation that is itself inherently stressful, however, but your reaction to it. You can train yourself to remain calm and less stressed even in high pressure situations. The first step is to become aware of your reactions to a stressor. Once you notice your body begin to tense up or your emotions begin to cycle up, then you can exert conscious control via breathing or other techniques to minimize your reaction.

    The book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman covers this topic in-depth.

  3. Regularly exercise. Regular physical exercise has many benefits which are well-known. For myself, I consider thirty minutes of hard exercise three times a week to be the minimum I aim for. If I go longer than two or three days without significant exercise, I don't feel as good. In particular, exercise helps me sleep better and recover from a stressful day. My exercise program focuses on a functional, whole body workout instead of lifting heavy weights, bulking up, or looking good and comes from the book Core Performance Essentials by Mark Verstegen and Pete Williams.
  4. Eat healthy. A good diet is important for long-term health, but also plays an important role in your day-to-day performance. If you regularly experience slumps in energy, particularly after lunch, then your diet may be to blame. Some of my key dietary practices are:
    • Avoid caffeine. You won't need it anyways in the morning if you are getting sufficient sleep. The problem with caffeine is that when it wears off, you typically experience a slump and lose productivity.
    • Stay hydrated by drinking enough fluids. Instead of coffee, I drink water, starting with one glass immediately upon getting up in the morning. At work, I have a water bottle next to me. I have heard that you only feel thirsty after you have started to dehydrate.
    • Avoid high-glycemic foods and eat small meals regularly, roughly every 3 hours. The goal is to regulate your blood sugar level to prevent it from dropping significantly and robbing you of energy. High-glycemic foods contain carbohydrates such as refined sugar that are easily digested and cause your blood sugar levels to spike. Your body then pumps out insulin to counteract this, which causes your sugar levels to drop below normal. Eating large meals has a similar effect, which is why if you go out for a large lunch at work, you will likely have problems staying awake a couple of hours afterwards.
  5. Take breaks. See my article on the value of taking breaks for why I feel this is important.

That concludes my list of performance-boosting strategies. If you want to be serious about achieving peak performance, then select the item from my list that is your biggest weakness or identify one of your own, and focus on improving it over the next thirty days.

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10 Comments on “How to Achieve Peak Performance”

  1. Astute readers may have noticed that I posted this article earlier than my normal posting schedule. I did this in order to participate in Problogger’s List Group Writing Project.

  2. Jersey Girl says:

    A positive attitutde is always a win/win in my book. Nice post.

  3. MamaDuck says:

    Ah, sleep and eating well. I definitely need to do that more often. Great list! Our list is up if you’d like to look… Have a great day!

  4. Shawn says:

    Basil, thanks for the list. I definitely need to get a grip on #3. I’m way overweight, and have actually signed up over at Traineo ( http://www.traineo.com ) to help me get a handle on my physical health. A brain that’s part of a physically exercised body definitely works better. What a great reminder.

    Again, thanks!

  5. I’m glad you all enjoyed my article.

  6. Excellent list Basil. I think another key is to make one change at a time and stick with that change for at least 6 weeks. That’s about the time required for it to become a routine. It’s important to note that when one aspect of our life is unbalanced (i.e. lack of sleep), it can affect all aspects of our life.

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