5 Essential Ingredients of Elite Performance

There are no shortcuts to high performance. — Steven Kotler

When we see people who reach the top of their fields, who achieve elite performance we wonder if they have some sort of magic bullet. Perhaps they have the one hack that will change our lives.

On Alex Banyan’s quest to understand how the most successful people in the world launched their careers, he was searching for a holy grail. During the quest, he interviewed everyone from Jessica Alba to Steven Spielberg. Eventually, he found himself in Bill Gates’ office. If anyone had the answer, it had to be Bill Gates.

In the end, he discovered there was no holy grail. It was an illusion created by those who haven’t reached the peak of success.

Elite performance is never the result of one thing. Hundreds of little things done repeatedly make people world class performers in their field.

1. Elite Performance Requires the Right Environment

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There are 9 environments that make up your life, which include

  • The clothes you wear
  • The car you drive
  • The place you live
  • The food you eat
  • The people you surround yourself with
  • The information you consume and the equipment you use

Environment has such a profound impact on behavior, I wrote an entire chapter about it in my last book.

“If you become fanatical about designing environments, the environment will do the work for you. It will pull you into a bigger version of yourself.” — Jim Bunch

Upgrade Your Wardrobe

A few months ago, a friend turned me onto Proper Cloth dress shirts. Even though they’re expensive, I caved in and ordered one. Every one of my male friends complimented me. My sister did too. So, I replaced all the shirts in my wardrobe. Instead of a bunch of shirts I kind of like, I have a handful of shirts I absolutely love.

When I wear these shirts, I’m more productive. People respond to me in a different way and I feel better about myself. I used to think that wearing nice clothes was superficial. But then I realized that nice clothes are an upgrade to your environment.

Upgrade Your Physical Spaces

Your physical space is another environment that has a huge impact on your productivity.

  • If you’re not inspired by it, you won’t be effective in it. It’s more than a container.
  • When you clean your room or declutter your desk, you reduce your cognitive load. This allows you to preserve your mental bandwidth for what matters most to you.
  • If there are objects in your space that have painful memories associated with them, they will have an unconscious negative impact on your state of mind.
The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past. — Marie Kondo

If you want to audit and upgrade your environment, sign up for our newsletter and you’ll get access to the free 9 environment assessment.

If superhuman performance is building a house, environments are the foundation. Your environment determines your habits, ability to manage your attention, health, and social relationships. If you upgrade your environment, you’ll change your behavior. Design an environment conducive to the person you want to become, and everything else becomes automatic.

2. Habits

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Habits are the compound interest of self improvement. They are the building blocks of behavior change. All of us are a combination of our habits.

  • Say you smoke a cigarette, eat a burger, and wash it down with a glass of whiskey every night. You’re probably going to be overweight, out of shape, and at risk for all sorts of health problems.
  • Say you go to the gym, eat healthy meals, and get plenty of sleep. You’re probably going to be in great shape, full of energy, and not have many health problems.

Ask yourself who you are likely to become with your current habits? Are you becoming the next best version of yourself? Maybe you need to change a habit or two.

Drastic unsustainable change is the biggest reason people struggle to change their habits. This applies to everything from fitness to finance. It’s why New Year’s resolutions don’t work and 96 percent of development efforts fail.

This is most common with exercise routines. People go out of the gate guns blazing. They go to the gym every day for a week. Before they know it, they haven’t set foot in the gym for a year. Most gyms count on this. They make the bulk of their money off of people who don’t use their services.

Building the Identity

James Clear encourages people to start by building the identity of a person with their desired habit. For example, your goal is to lose 30 pounds, ask yourself what’s the identity and behavior of the person capable of this?

Break that identity into the smallest parts. A person who could lose 30 pounds:

  • Drives to the gym on a regular basis
  • Walks into the gym
  • Spends times there

One of James’ readers lost 100 pounds by doing this. He started by driving to the gym every day. Then he walked in the door with the caveat that he could only stay for 5 minutes. Before he knew it he was working out every day.

A person who writes 1,000 words a day:

  • Cracks open a notebook
  • Sits at a desk at the same time each day
  • Puts pen to paper

I always encourage students in our writer’s workshop and coaching clients to start by doing nothing other than cracking open a notebook. If they do that for a few days, it’s a success. The inertia of building the identity eventually leads to the adoption of the new habit.

Commitment Devices

Crossfit gyms have high participation rates because they leverage the power of what James Clear calls “commitment devices”. Unlike the $30 you pay for a big box gym, you definitely notice the $199 dent in your bank account. You go more often because you’ve spent more.

The ability to develop new habits is essential because all improvements in performance begin with changing your behavior.

3. Elite Performance Requires Attention

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Attention management is the primary ingredient that gets us from productivity to peak performance. It’s how we tap into the power of flow. As Steven Kotler says, “Flow follows focus. The state can only show up right here and right now.” In other words, it’s impossible to reach flow unless you’re focused solely on the task at hand.

Zero-Distractions
Like all of your behavior, your ability to manage your attention is a byproduct of your environment. You can only pay attention to and process a limited amount of information. Everything that competes for your attention is a distraction.

When I write in the morning, there’s nothing on my desk other than a pen, a book, and a Moleskine notebook. I leave my phone out of the room, set it on “Do Not Disturb”, and put on noise cancellation headphones.

On my computer, I start a distraction blocker and set it for 2 hours. I also use a distraction free writing tool like Notion. Most word processors are terrible for writing because they are bloated with features that distract you from writing.

If you want to increase your attention span, start by eliminating the competition for it. When you do this, you’re deliberately designing your digital environment.

Uninterrupted Focus

You’ll get far more done with one focused hour per day of uninterrupted creation than you will with 8 hours of perpetual task shifting. When we get interrupted, we divert and split our attention. When we return to the original task, we experience what’s known as “attention residue”. We’re thinking about the previous task while working on the original one.

Say some idiot leaves a vicious comment or sends you an angry email. You don’t respond to it. But when you get back to what you were originally doing, you’ll still be thinking about it. That’s attention residue.

Facebook may say its mission is to make the world more open and connected, but its business model is to sell your attention to advertisers. If your attention span makes you Superman, social media is kryptonite. The link between high performance and limited use of social media shows up over and over.

  • Authors like Malcom Gladwell, Michael Lewis, and Seth Godin don’t use social media.
  • Bryce Harper just made 430 million dollars and doesn’t care about his personal brand.

One guaranteed way to have more stretches of uninterrupted focus is to quit social media for 30 days.

3 Ways to Increase Your Attention Span

  1. Meditation:Meditation is one of the most effective ways to improve your attention span. It forces you to sit, do nothing, and pay attention to your thoughts. Even if you meditate for 10 minutes each day, you’ll note a remarkable difference in your ability to focus on the task at hand.
  2. Interval Training: Another way to improve your attention span is with interval training. It’s really straight forward. You might start out with 20 minutes focused on one task and then keep building your way up until you’re able to manage one focused hour a day. In the same way social media trains you to be distracted, you can train yourself to focus.
  3. Read More Books and Less Articles On The Internet: The irony of telling you this while you’re reading my article is not lost on me. But you’d be much better off reading one of the books I’ve mentioned than you would this entire article. When people read on the internet, they don’t really read. They scan. That’s why we format content with headers and images.

Reading books requires a higher investment of your attention. You can scan an article like this in about 3 minutes. But reading a chapter of a book will usually take you 20 minutes. Therefore it’s a great way to increase your attention span. Not only that, with a physical book, there’s no competition for your attention.

4. Health

Your physical health is one of the 5-essential investments every human being should make in themselves. It’s impossible to perform at an elite level in any field when your health is compromised. The are 3 basic pillars of human health.

Sleep

Sleep is a time of intense neurological activity — a rich time of renewal, memory consolidation, brain and neurochemical cleansing, and cognitive maintenance. Properly appraised, our sleeping time is as valuable a commodity as the time we are awake. In fact, getting the right amount of sleep enhances the quality of every minute we spend with our eyes open — Arianna Huffington

While people wear sleep deprived 60 hour work-weeks like badges of honor, they are more like markers of human stupidity.

Arianna Huffington learned this when she collapsed, which ultimately led to her book The Sleep Revolution, and a different approach to work. A lack of sleep leads to a degradation in performance in nearly every part of your life.

  • It aggravates symptoms of depression
  • It leads to poor decisions
  • It dulls your reflexes

An abundance of sleep, on the other hand, leads to substantial improvements in performance. On the nights when I get enough sleep, I have a much easier time concentrating, I get into flow much faster, and I end up doing some of my best creative work. So it’s no surprise that Alex Pangs says we get more done when we work less.

Diet

I have a sweet tooth and judge every meal by dessert. I don’t trust people who don’t like chocolate and question their sanity. I also have plenty of vices. Despite all that, I’ve become more mindful about what I eat. Food is the fuel for your body. If you poured 25 gallons of Vodka into a Ferrari, it’s not going to go flying down a freeway.

Exercise

In Audience of One, I said that I never made any major progress as a writer until I became a surfer. Surfing didn’t just give me exercise. It’s an action sport that’s packed with flow triggers. As a result, I get my best ideas when I’m in the water or on the mountain. Surfing didn’t just change my life, it transformed my career.

Exercise not only forces you to disconnect from your devices and the barrage of information coming at you all day long, but it also releases endorphins and other chemicals that make you feel good. Anytime I’ve been in a funk or had a rough day, and I go to my Crossfit gym, I walk out of there feeling a thousand times better.

I’ve said before, if you’re stuck mentally, you should move physically. At his “Zero to Dangerous” seminar on peak performance, Steven Kotler said that 20–40 minutes of exercise a day are a non-negotiable part of peak performance.

5. Social Support

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Thirty-five percent of Americans over 45 are chronically lonely. One percent of Americans report having important conversations with their neighbors in a given year… Since 1999, the US suicide rate has risen by thirty percent. The plague hit the young hard. Between 2006 and 2016, suicide rates for those between age 10 and 17 rose by seventy percent — David Brooks, The Second Mountain

There’s nothing in the world more precious than our time we have with the people who matter most to us. But we take it for granted and we are spending more and more time alone together, with our heads buried in our phones. Social support and human contact are vital to our happiness and well being. Facebook friends and Facebook groups are not a viable substitute.

Athletes have coaches. Entrepreneurs have mentors. These people aren’t just important because of their ability to accelerate your progress. They’re a form of social support.

“Face-to-face conversation is the most human- and humanizing- thing that we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.” says Sherry Turkle in her book Reclaiming Conversation.

Shortly after my sister’s wedding, I met my old business partner Brian for dinner. He commented that I seemed happier, more confident and had a certain swagger about me. I had been off of social media for 30 days. The other thing I’d done was spend a lot more time with my family. These days, anytime an opportunity to spend time with members of my family comes up, I always say yes.

A few weeks ago, I ran a little experiment. I used the Gyroscope app to track my mood for multiple days in a row. On the days I had human contact and went to Crossfit, my mood score was always in the high 90’s. On the days I didn’t it was in the 70's.

Social support elevates your mood, which in turn elevates your performance.

Like anything else worth doing, elite level performance takes time. Reading this article won’t make you an elite performer. You’re not going to become Lebron James by watching videos on Youtube. All of this is an interdependent system that takes years of work and a commitment to small daily actions that add up to a lifetime of elite performance.


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Originally published at https://unmistakablecreative.com on May 22, 2019.