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Key Insights from “Peak Performance”

The tempo of life has increased in the last decade. In the constant pursuit of improved efficiency, companies expect employees to think faster and perform better. Overachievement is becoming a new norm. While results are often improved, several negative consequences emerged, such as employee burnout and exhaustion.

I came up with tips and tricks to avoid burnout, but when I started my leadership role and was responsible for burnout prevention not only for myself but also for the team, I decided to take a more academic approach. My main goal was to find information on making sure that my team continued achieving results without burnout. It turned out that there’s a book exactly on this topic.

The book is called “Peak Performance.” The authors, Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness have experience with both achieving amazing results (in sports and business consultancy) and the overwhelming burnout that comes after. They did extensive research and made a large collection of recommendations on achieving results while staying healthy and energized, and maintaining a work-life balance. I’d like to share the ones that seemed most useful to me.

The authors highlight several important factors that contribute to increased stress. The competition on the labor market is no longer local — with high-speed internet and working from anywhere in the world becoming the norm, competition is global. New technologies are developed rapidly, which often leads to the extinction of certain jobs or the reduction of salaries. These and other factors push people to work more and neglect self-care, which often leads to burnout and unhappiness.

So what practices can help us strike a healthy work-life balance?

1. Alternate between practice and stress

Athletes know that carving out time to rest is as important as pushing yourself to the limit. The same logic can and should be applied to work-related activities. It’s difficult to continuously generate effective business ideas and make decisions. Taking regular breaks allows the brain to recover. Pay attention to how long you can work before your productivity and efficiency begin to suffer, and take breaks when this happens.

2. Only take on a few challenges at once

Multitasking has become a popular word in the last decade. While it has been scientifically proven that most people are not capable of multitasking efficiently (see “Singletasking: Get More Done — One Thing at a Time” by Devora Zack) it’s still a common opinion that we should be able to do it. We tend to pile work on our plate and don’t notice how fatigue in one task builds onto the next. Stulberg and Magness point out that it happens even when the tasks are unrelated. The key is to only take a few challenges at once, which can be broken down into two important components: The first is to understand your work capacity, and the second is to prioritize.

3. Hone specific skills

Regular practice empowers you to grow professionally and become an expert in that field. However, there’s a big gap between being better and being great. To achieve the latter, simply practicing something on a regular basis won’t be sufficient. Instead, one needs to choose a specific skill and actively seek challenges that are slightly higher than their current level. When the challenges stop being challenges, one should raise the bar a little more.

4. Identify your distractions

It’s much harder to concentrate on what’s important when you constantly receive all sorts of notifications on your devices, like emails, WhatsApp messages, ads, and more. And this is only your smartphone. To stay focused it’s important to analyze what items around you cause distractions. These items can be different for different people. For example, some people can work with a TV or radio on in the background, but for others it can be a nightmare. Once you identify these distractors, make sure that you do your best to remove them or, at least, limit them.

I’ve seen this advice often when reading books on personal efficiency. Some authors went as far as disconnecting from Wi-Fi on their laptops to prevent any distraction from popping up on their screen. I disable notifications on my laptop and smartphone when I need to focus. It’s a simple yet effective technique.

5. Divide work into intervals

Stulberg and Magness note that it’s difficult to focus on work for longer than two hours. Your attention span decreases and the quality of your work can suffer. Instead of pushing yourself to stay focused for many hours, you should divide work into 50- to 90-minute intervals and take a break after each. It may seem that multiple breaks would negatively affect how much work you can get done, but the real culprit is burnout. So taking breaks can actually boost your productivity.

6. Keep a positive mindset

A positive attitude goes a long way. I once reacted to the same task two different ways: “Oh, not this again” and “Wow, this will help me to progress very quickly.” In the latter case, I was able to finish the job much faster. Concentration powered by motivation is a powerful combination. Oftentimes, the difficult tasks that you’re putting off aren’t as difficult as you make it out to be. But telling yourself that you’re excited or, at least, finding a reason for why this work is important can have a big, positive effect on your productivity.

7. Stop working when you’re stuck

Things don’t always go according to plan. You might’ve allocated four hours of your Wednesday to a specific task, but after an hour you may feel frustrated that there’s no progress at all. If you find yourself in such a situation, step away from work at least for five minutes, or longer if necessary. Step away from work-related activities during your break, and try to do something that demands little to no brain power, such as listening to music, taking a shower, doing the dishes, or going on a short walk. I usually go to the kitchen, get myself a nice cup of cappuccino and a bar of chocolate, and relax for five to seven minutes. I was surprised with how many insights I suddenly had during these breaks.

8. Get enough sleep

It can be easy to underestimate the importance of a good night’s sleep for being productive — not only at work but in all areas of life. Lack of sleep can cut your productivity in half, or more. So this is definitely not something you should consider sacrificing for the sake of working more. Stulberg and Magness recommend sleeping a minimum of seven to hours every day. It’s also important to identify when you’re the most productive — whether you’re a morning lark or night owl. For example, I’m a night owl and my most productive hours are after 7 p.m. Regardless of your sleep schedule, try to avoid caffeine a few hours before you actually sleep, as well as looking at screens that emit blue light, such as your phone, laptop, and other devices.

9. Take at least one off day per week

Sometimes working on weekends doesn’t seem like a bad idea. You get the opportunity to finish the tasks that you didn’t have time for during the week and the chances of someone distracting you are significantly lower. However, you’re stealing this time from yourself and giving your mind and body less time to recover after a stressful week. So even if you do work on a weekend, make sure that at least one day per week is 100% work-free.

Also, large periods of stress should be followed by vacations. For example, if you were focused on a large enterprise deal for several months, once the deal is closed, take some time off to recharge. While closing the deal can be (and usually is) very exciting and motivating, it doesn’t mean that you don’t need to rest after this stressful period of time.

10. Environments we work in invite certain behaviors

Our environment plays a big role in our productivity. Things around us can impact our focus both in a positive and negative way. It’s important to set up your work environment to encourage a productive and healthy mindset. For example, if you use a daily planner like I do, leave it open on your desk so it’s the first thing you see.

The same logic should be applied to any distractions. For example, if you tend to browse a website for fun every time you turn on your computer, make sure that the laptop you work on doesn’t have that page bookmarked. It can be more tempting to open bookmarked sites. Setting up your workspace should be a continuous process. Take the time to evaluate what items boost or hinder your productivity, make the necessary changes on a regular basis.

11. Spend your time intentionally

It’s no secret that time is the most precious resource. But I absolutely loved Stulberg and Magness’ advice in their book: “Being mindful of your time means having the ability to say no to a lot of things, so when it’s time to say yes, you have a lot of energy.” We should make choices on how we spend our time on a daily basis. Our choices are often guided by emotion, not reason, which leads to us biting off more than we can chew.

12. Become minimalist to be maximalist

The authors share the results of research that proves that our willpower is a limited resource. It doesn’t matter what type of activity we spend it on — it’s always taken from the same source. With that in mind, the authors recommend reflecting on decisions made throughout the day, identifying the unimportant ones, and automating as many as possible. They could vary for different people, but some examples that worked for me are preparing breakfast ahead of time and choosing a specific route to commute to work. That way, I don’t have to waste time thinking about what to eat or which route to take to work.

Another thing the authors recommend is to ignore what others think of you and workplace gossip. I couldn’t agree more, and would also add reading news to the list. Stephen Covey presented the circle of influence and concern in his book, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” According to this model, you should focus all your effort on the things you actually have control of (circle of influence) and not spend a single minute worrying about those out of your control (circle of concern). Since you can’t do anything about the latter, why worry about them?

13. Cultivate your own village of support

The people around us impact our motivation, energy, and drive. So it’s critical to surround yourself with motivated people. Actively seek the opportunity to meet the people who are highly motivated and achieve amazing results. Learn from them and be open to teaching others as well. Do your best to stay positive, because by doing this you’re helping not only yourself but also everyone else in your life. But keep in mind that this rule also works vice versa if you surround yourself with negative people, it’d be much harder for you to have the energy to do your best work.

I hope that these recommendations will help you to be more efficient while maintaining a healthy work-life balance!

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Artem Gurnov

Artem Gurnov

Head of Global Customer Engagement @Wrike