How to effortlessly achieve limitless performance and unconditional focus or: Do you believe in unicorns?
This episode discusses how 4 things to become better at doing 7 things to improve 3 things in your 1 live just don’t work. Seriously, this episode talks about foundational principles for peak performance and why they are so important.
Good morning, everybody and hello to my fellow earthlings. Welcome to this fourth episode of The Considered Life, the podcast about claiming back life ownership and leading an intentional. reflected and sustainable life. It’s a beautiful, pitch-black early Friday morning here in Switzerland. This is Marc, I’m your host on your considered life journey. And now without further ado nor any advertising, let’s just jump into it. I hope you enjoy.
After the first episodes, I got quite a few questions and many of them go something like, what should I do to work eight hours in a row, in a focused way? Or how do I keep my energy up? And I want to be, you know, like fully present and fully there for the entire work day. And you know, like my answer is, I don’t know because, well, first of all, that sounds pretty unrealistic.
And second, I don’t know how you actually function. And that’s why in the short book “Peak Performance” that I recently published, there are a couple of principles and I just would like to reiterate some of them, to give you more insight in how I think about peak performance. So there’s one principle that is simply “Know yourself”.
Because should I ever give somebody some foundational recommendation I mean, a real recommendation, not some like guiding through a coaching process, but you know, like this is what you should be doing. That would be ” know yourself”. Because when people have an issue with their outcomes and the performance, they typically do this:
They turn to either a book a website site or ideally a coach to help them sort their stuff. And that’s totally fine. The issue I have with that is that there are so many dogmatic systems out there that just tell you what to do. They are telling you something like “work in 25 minute blocks”, “work in large junks”, “do the most important things first”, “make your bed first thing in the morning”, and – my favorite – “have a morning routine with these 13 things to do to prime your brain for the day”. Well, you name it. And then you had over to the Medium daily digest, and I’m not saying anything against Medium per se, it’s a great platform to publish and to find information, but that daily digest of this morning reads like: “seven life-changing books you can devor in a single day”, “seven things that make us less attractive based on psychology”, ” a psychologist list of the six most common mistakes we make in relationships” and then goes on with “these seven books will improve the way you work”, ” 38 lessons that took me 38 years to learn”. And then my favorite: “a three minute hack for focus you’ve probably never heard of”.
All of that is not bad per se, but the point is that, first of all, if you look into the quality of many of these life advice blogs, and articles like that, it’s either really repetitive having picked up stuff from somewhere else, or they’re just claiming to have the ultimate truth to make you a better person.
And I’m comparing those quick hacks, three things to do 10 things to avoid whatever. I compare that with a diet and you know what? Every diet works for two weeks and then shit hits the fan. People start to realize that their results are plateauing. The diet doesn’t match the metabolic needs. They just crave more food, different food.
That blood work is going awry and whatnot. And then subsequently they fall back into old habits and declare surrender. Honestly, I’ve seen that so many times when it comes to improving lives through these kind of enter and predesigned performance systems or these like quick hacks to more productivity.
Which is why I am so passionate, not about teaching people productivity systems or how to produce faster more results. I am passionate about helping people leading considered. And that means that you are designing your principles on your own. You are creating your own habits, routines, and strategies that work for you because you have tried them out, and do you have proven that they work.
And that makes self-awareness and insight into oneself so critically important before making any change. And that is why I call out for what I call +awareness based change”. Rather than the blind adoption of someone else’s super cool, latest fads findings on how to be more productive.
And don’t forget that a considered life and peak performance has nothing to do in my view with being productive all the time with maximizing your output. Because of maximizing your output without having direction will just create a huge waste of energy because you’re going to be all over the place.
And that leads to my principle number two, and that is focus and presence. Because both of them are critically important in the approach I take to peak performance. So let’s have some definitions first. I define focus as directing your attention towards one particular context or objective at a time. So concentrating your conscious brain-power to that particular field of attention that is focus.
In that sense, focus is directly related to being present. And I define being present as the outwards directed focus and connection with the present and also with others in the present moment. So we cannot be present without focus. If my girlfriend talks to me and my thoughts, wander all over the place, I’m physically there, but I’m not present.
If I fiddle around in my emails while playing Monopoly with my kids, my buddy is there, but my mind is not. On the other hand, I can be focused without being present to the outside world. For example, while I’m recording this podcast, I am highly focused, but I’m not at all present to the outside world. that’s why I’m sitting alone at my desk without any external source of distraction and even my curtains are closed. In our times we are prone to being dragged into all different directions and more often than not, we are exposed to many concurrent sources of distraction. Getting true focus time when we can direct our entire attention towards a single objective has become a very rare good in our increasingly digitalized society.
However, there’s one key point. We must not forget. And that is distraction is not sourced from the outside. Again: distraction is not sourced from the outside. Distraction is always originating with ourselves. Even though it seems to be driven by the increased availability of distractions. What may have been birds 40 years ago are now the bings and beeps of smartphones, yelling for attention because of a text message, an email or post on LinkedIn or another, like on our Facebook page are coming in.
Plus the average attention span that in human beings is lousy anyway, seems to drop even further in recent times. So there is a disputed Canadian study that measures like eight seconds. If it’s really that I don’t know. And it doesn’t matter, but we all know how difficult it is – unless we are in a flow state – to keep our focus and attention with one single thing, because we have always have these thoughts crossing our brain.
The really important question here is “what is your attention span?” And I would argue that this depends on how you define attention span. It’s well-known that there seem to be thoughts popping up in our conscious experience every couple of seconds. And these are thoughts that don’t have anything to do with what we are currently wanting to focus on.
It could be laundry, carwash, kids’ school or whatever, and that does not automatically mean that you are getting distracted up to the point where you are really redirecting your attention to that thought contex. Particularly when we are experiencing a flow state, the level of focus is so high that the sidetracking thoughts seem to be totally eliminated.
Now staying focused and present on the other hand can be energy consuming. Particularly when there is a requirement to stay present in situations where we don’t want to. Have you ever been in a business meeting that made you ask yourself after two minutes while you’re sitting there now with meetings being moved to the virtual space, that’s even harder because when people go on mute, switch off their cameras, although, there might be excellent reasons that are totally unrelated, there is a high likelihood that they are disengaging and they’re mentally elsewhere. It’s easier now at home than it was in a meeting room. And even in meeting rooms, sometimes it’s already a nightmare watching all these people running down their emails and so on. So now in the home office situation, we can run down our emails, watch cat videos, make breakfast for the kids while the show on the iPad is going on and we just have to unmute and mumble a “yeah agreed” or “exactly” from time to time to at least create the illusion that we are fully there. Now there’s a downside to that. And I just want to invite you to a little experiment that you can perform after your next meeting.
So sit down after that meeting or call and write down all of your takeaways, all of them, whether they have to do with a meeting or not. And once you’ve done that for each takeaway, write down the value for your current objectives or goals you had within the context of that meeting. And you may really find that you have been there present all the time.
But the relevance of your takeaways is totally zero. Should you have been there? Nope. If your key takeaways and be honest with yourself are having had fun with ten cat videos, the latest fellow army post and supercar Blondie’s top 10 cars, maybe then it’s time to rethink the approach on which meetings to attend.
All of that said maintaining focus on presence is easy. If you are clear about the answer to a basic question, and that question is “what’s in it for us”, not for me. The question is “what’s in it for us”. So most people would intuitively want to correct the question and say, indeed, what’s in it for me. Yes and you’re right. There is a part that is indeed related to your objectives and goals and how that current activity contributes to achieving them. However, the other angle is to understand what is the value that you contribute? And what is it that you give to others? And that sounds strange when we are in a business call and we feel it’s just boring.
Now rethinking of frame and understanding what we can. She Butte suddenly makes it less boring. And obviously this angle is even more important. If it’s related to family and friends, Yes, playing the hundredth time “Settlers of Catan” with my kids. After a high energy consuming, Workday can be a tough task.
However, just reminding myself and changing my angle of perception to formulate a clear answer to the question. “What do I want my kids to take away from here?” That suddenly gives it a total different twist? Right? Or the other question I’m also asking myself is “what is the memories I want to create for my kids?”
In the business context this could be what is the value I want to create for others to take away from that particular interaction. And now that gives it a totally different spin, right? Now, the third principle is directly related. With maintaining focus and attention, and it’s eliminate distraction. As we have found before maintaining focus is hard enough, even if there aren’t any outside factors that we can use to source distractions.
Because the way our brains are designed and fortunately so, is to react immediately to deviations between expected reality and perceived reality. And let me explain that a little bit. Neuroscientifically speaking, parts of our brain are continuously forecasting what will happen next. And this process is vital for our ability to interact with our environment.
However, the brain reacts very sensitively to the deviations between the predictions it made and the actual sensory input. For example, sitting there reading a newspaper with your brain predicting that you are going to continue sit there quietly and reading your newspaper and then you hear a loud bang outside will immediately turn your attention to the source of the noise.
And the same goes with the bings on the smartphone or the popups on your preferred email client on your laptop. The reason for that, that design is that in the times where life was really dangerous all the time, we had to be able to quickly – without any question and thinking about it – redirect our attention to potential threats in our environments.
However, with such distractions also comes the immediate disruption of attention and focus and the need to consciously redirect our attention after the interruption, to the original task. And most of the time, that seems easy. Just don’t look at your smartphone or don’t open the email, but there are some complications to that.
Firstly, there are many people that will just let them distract. While for example, they are working on a research report. They will indeed divert their attention to whatever new WhatsApp has come hitting their inbox and respond to it. Maybe it’s just a “are we still up for lunch?” from John that’s quickly answered.
And then the report writing continues. However, behind the scenes, there may be a lot more going on and this could go like this: “Oh yeah. We are going for lunch in that little nice Indian restaurant in the ninth district. Hmm. I love the Murg Makani there. Or should I rather go for the tandoori chicken while I remember last time I went there with Claire for dinner. Oh my God. It was so romantic. And she wore that nice black dress. Oh, that reminds me that I absolutely want to bring her flowers tonight. Well, I need to leave a bit early to pass by the florist on the 2nd street. They have these nice roses she likes so much. Or should I take a mixed bouquet? Which colors does she like already? I need to check my calendar to see when I can leave or for fuck’s sake. I really forgot the meeting with Henry crap. I still need to prepare for that. I’ll do that after lunch. Okay. So where was I?”
Now you get the idea. There’s one Bing and your flow is totally gone, whether you want it or not. Even if you just realize the Bing and you don’t open your smartphone app to look at it, there is this little nagging voice in your head.
Well, who was that? What is that about? Could it be important? And in any case, the flow is gone. If you have kids, you know that the most promising strategy to avoid disaster and tantrum is to avoid situations that may result in such all together in business. That’s what we call risk management. And many people I meet are great in business risk management, but they totally screw it for their lives.
So regarding focus and attention, risk management means eliminate the sources of distraction all together. Clean your desk so that only stuff you need is even visible. Put your phone in airplane mode. Disable notifications on your desktop, close the software that you don’t need for the task. At hand, people have their preferred browser open all day. And I have seen browsers with 50 that’s five, zero tabs open side by side. I really admire those people, doing that for their apparent ability to focus on one thing, despite all these distractions. And it becomes really funny when you’re sitting in a video conference with them and they desperately try to find that particular document they want to share on screen, whether you amid the tab chaos, featuring Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, weight loss with Freddie, getting in shape with Amy and whatever.
Now, eliminating distractions, however, also means that you actively counter the brain’s need for surprise, excitement and diversity. Because our brains love to get distracted. And that is because focus and attention is hard work for the brain consuming, lots of energy. Getting out of there makes it easier.
And that’s why we are continuously looking for the next stupid thing we can turn to, to escape that energy drain. And that permits us to just shut off the power plant. Interestingly, once you’re in a flow state, you are proliferating output and creativity without your brain wanting to switch. In summary, adapting the environment to focus does make sense I think.
If you’re writing a book, have the word processor open in focus mode and shut down all other things around you. Maybe you want to activate a timer that will tell you when to close out because your time’s up. However, sometimes or often, depending on your situation, you can’t eliminate distraction. We have to deal with it. For example, working on a train, working at a noisy open office with Jimmy on the phone, yelling all day long, or even now locked down at home with three kids running around playing. That’s why it’s important to train the brain to focus. It’s possible it’s work, but it does work.
And the earlier we start with the training, the better now kids are specifically prone to distraction, and that’s probably due to the fact that their neocortex is still developing. Particularly their prefrontal cortex that is key for executive functions, including inhibition, is still in development.
However, training them to focus and to ignore distractions is going to be invaluable for the later life. Now looking at the number of adults coming to coaching and say, Oh, I have a hard time concentrating and focusing, can you help me? That seems to be something that we have just forgot to learn when we had the opportunity to learn. Now, all that said one additional thing I would like to remind us of, is just to be kind to ourselves. Because peak performance in my view is very different from producing maximum output and be at your a hundred percent productivity all the time. That doesn’t work, you can’t be focused all the time. You can’t be productive all the time.
There is a need for relaxation. There is a need for recreation. There is a need for recharging the battery. And we all need our brains to rest from time to time. We all know that whatever is written in our agenda, we just may not feel like following up following through now. We just want to not do what’s on the agenda. And that’s a decision to make where I think we need to give ourselves the kindness to allow us to deviate because ultimately we want to maximize on one end, but on the other hand, we also want to live. There is a level of performance we can thrive at.
We also can stretch that level by applying certain strategies, habits, and routines. However, there is a limit to what level of performance we can achieve. Similar to the maximum muscle strength we can achieve with physical training, there is a limit or the maximum performance we can achieve mentally. And growing training and stretching that limit is all fine.
If we go beyond a certain limit, however, we are running into trouble. Continuously putting ourselves under pressure for being motivated or being disciplined is very dangerous. It’s a dangerous path to follow. I have seen many people running into a burnout like that because just, they have set their expectations too high.
One of the most dangerous movements I see in the online self development guru crowd is to compare what these highly successful people are doing with what average Joe should be implementing. Recently, there was an article, on I don’t remember which online journal it was, talking about Elon Musk having, you know, like, five minutes working slots and five minutes meetings and he is multitasking all the time and so on and so on.
And then people just go and read that and they say, “Oh, I want to be like Elon Musk. I want to be a multi-billionaire and you know, I want to get things done. So I apply the same principles.” And that just doesn’t work. As I said at the beginning, like know yourself, it’s yourself who need to actually work to identify at which level you can perform and what works for you and what doesn’t.
It’s a process we have to run through there, but it’s a very valuable experience and a very valuable process. So be kind to yourself as opposed to be motivated or be disciplined all the time.
With that, I’d like to close with the explicit invitation to be critical. What works for other people doesn’t work for everybody.
And even if you are listening to this podcast and you’re taking away a couple of principles where I don’t talk about what you should be doing, but just inviting you to think about it. My work is mostly based on science. It’s based on experience through years of coaching however, I’m not providing by any means and ultimate truth.
It’s just really an invitation for you to think about. And to hopefully help you lead a more considered life. And I really look forward to the next episode, because I’m going to have a guest with me, not saying any more, stay tuned. And as always, I appreciate if you share with your friends and family so that they can listen into their considered life as well.
As usual, if you have ideas, question criticism or anything else to share, just drop me a line and I’m happy to get in touch with you. And with that, have a wonderful day. See you soon. .