The Science of Sustaining Performance

| Posted in Leadership Blog

Leaders are constantly under pressure to think creatively, strategically and communicate clearly. Yet we are frequently bombarded by news, emails, phone calls, and other interruptions that all seem relatively urgent. How can we stay focused and moving forward when we seem to spend most of our time and energy simply keeping (and catching) up? One way is to be more scientific about the way we approach work.


If you’re like me, you have a natural tendency to want to read and respond quickly to calls, emails, text and other instant messages and requests. However, this responsiveness, while well-intended (and even expected) can completely derail our productivity and waste our mental energy. Science is now showing that our instinct to “push harder” is actually counter-intuitive to how our bodies and brains work best.


According to Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project, “the problem is human beings aren’t meant to operate the way computers do: at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time. To the contrary, people perform best when they pulse rhythmically between spending and renewing energy – both physically, mentally and emotionally.” In a world where “downtime” is equated with laziness, weakness and loss of revenue, how many of us are inclined to adapt our schedules, or that of our employees, so that we are better aligned with our natural “rhythms?”


Of course, I’m skeptical, just as I imagine most of you are. However, I’ve spent the past week trying to do work intensely for an hour or so, then take a little break to refocus and reenergize. And, interestingly, I’ve found that by the 3rd day I felt less beat down and tired by 6 pm. I don’t know if anyone else would affirm that I’m thinking more clearly or creatively, but I can tell you that this blog post was written in less than an hour over lunch and that I created a 4-page brochure for our upcoming “Lead the Future” webinar series in record time. So, I’m willing to play along a little longer to see if I can truly use science to accelerate and sustain my own level of performance.


Here are the steps if you want to give it a try, too:

  1. Move your most difficult task to the top of your list each day
  2. Spend about 90-minutes working intently and without interruptions
  3. Take a 20 minute break to refresh/refocus/refuel
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3


We hear a lot about working smarter these days, but other than some good priority management techniques and realistic expectations, this may be one of the simplest tools you can try – also remember the fundamentals of this process when planning meetings or learning events/seminars – every 90 minutes take a break to minimize restlessness/fidgetiness, hunger, drowsiness and loss of focus! Tony suggests we “listen to our body’s signals” rather than pump up with caffeine, carbs and sugary foods. And, researchers say we may be more productive in a 6-8 hour day than a 10-12 hour one in which we’re chained to our desk trying desperately to stay engaged.


Are you up for the challenge? I’m willing to try it another week to see if I continue to get more done and feel more energized at the end of my day. That’s a good payoff for a small adaptation in my calendar. Let me know if it works for you…