FIND YOUR SWEET SPOT
It all depends on arousal. You need an optimal level of emotional arousal (commonly called stress) to achieve peak performance.
Have fun. When you have fun, your brain releases dopamine. Without fun, peak performance is practically impossible.
Challenge yourself. The highest performance comes not when you’re bored or in a state of utter panic but when you’re feeling slightly overchallenged. That’s when the brain releases just the right amount of noradrenaline to keep you at your best.
Zero in on what’s important. Peak performance never comes when you’re doing more than one thing at a time. Only when you are in a state of focused attention, working single-mindedly without constant interruptions, is it possible to perform optimally.
One man’s meat is another man’s poison. When it comes to achieving peak performance, the same stimulation that invigorates one person may be overwhelming for another.
One type of peak performer isn’t better or worse than others; they’re just different. There is no appreciable difference in intelligence and overall performance between people to the left and those to the right on the peak performance graph. They just require different conditions to reach their peak.
Both gender and age can affect your performance profile. Women in general tend to be more to the left on the peak performance curve, whereas men on average are more to the right. With age we all tend to move further to the left.
Match your environment to your personal performance profile. If you are constantly over- or underaroused at work, the single most important thing you should do is to check whether your natural predisposition is in line with your environment.
Cultivate an optimal environment for your employees too. If you’re a leader, try to adapt the workplace environment to allow people to operate more in line with their individual performance profiles. Aim for enough flexibility in working conditions so that everyone can more readily reach his or her peak.
Use mental training techniques for fine-tuning, not life-changing. Only after you’ve found the right environment can you use mental training techniques to adjust your level of arousal so that you’re at your very best just when you need it
REGULATE YOUR EMOTIONS
Head and heart. Two key regions compete for the control of your brain. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the rational “thinking part,” while the limbic system is the center of emotional processing. In any battle between these two regions, the limbic system will always win.
Threat and reward. Within the limbic system there are two principal and very primitive responses: threat and reward. When you are in a threat state, your PFC temporarily shuts down. When you are in a reward state, your thinking abilities are actually enhanced.
Emotional resilience. To build up your resistance to the potential ravages of stress, you need to eat well, exercise, and get sufficient sleep.
Change your body. Change your thoughts. There are two routes to emotional regulation: changing your thought patterns and changing your response to stress.
Fake it till you make it. Although the brain drives the body, the communication channels go both ways. If you assume a confident posture or flash a satisfied smile, your brain will usually transform that made-up mood into a genuine reaction.
Don’t forget to say thanks. Just taking time in each day to be grateful has been shown to raise your baseline for happiness by as much as 25 percent.
Try Cognitive Jujitsu. The best way to cope with stress is to treat it the way experienced martial artists handle their opponents. Instead of fighting it directly, deflect it, by using its strength to your advantage through labeling or reframing.
Just name it. Simply labeling a stressful response when it occurs is usually enough to temporarily disarm the limbic system and allow your rational brain to regain control.
From lemons to lemonade. A threat can be a tantalizing challenge. A sudden setback can spell an unexpected opportunity. How your brain and body handle stressful situations can be dramatically altered depending on how you choose to reframe them.
SHARPEN YOUR FOCUS
Executive functions. The ability to plan, delay gratification, and maintain sustained, focused attention all originate from the prefrontal cortex (PFC).
Driven to distraction. The PFC may be powerful, but it is also very sensitive to a variety of disruptions. Two of the primary culprits in the workplace are constant, unexpected interruptions from a variety of sources, and, above all, multitasking.
Multitasking mythology. Rather than promoting productivity, multitasking undermines it. It can make tasks take 50 percent longer and with 50 percent more mistakes. A number of devastating accidents have been blamed on multitasking.
So you think you can multitask? True multitasking, which relies entirely on the PFC, is impossible. Instead, your brain switches rapidly back and forth between tasks, a highly inefficient process that comes at great cost to both concentration and productivity.
Don’t resist distractions. Get rid of them. Consciously attempting to ignore distractions can be as big a drain on your brain as multitasking. The key to successful concentration is to clear your mind and your desk of any potential distractions before you turn your focus toward an important task or problem.
Schedule a regular meeting of one. One simple strategy for sharpened focus is to regularly set aside a block of time when you close your door, silence your devices, and focus exclusively on a few minutes or hours of undistracted thinking time with yourself.
The mindfulness miracle. There is mounting scientific evidence to support a powerful mental training technique called mindfulness. Mindfulness can change the wiring of your brain to improve your performance and increase your ability to focus.
The pinnacle of performance is “flow.” Characterized by complete and focused attention, flow occurs when your skills are in balance with the challenge you face. Highly skilled people who feel slightly overchallenged are far more likely to be able to enter the flow state when they need to.
Habit change is hard. Our brains prefer the path of least resistance. In order to trailblaze a new neuronal pathway, the brain must be convinced that all that extra effort is worth it.
Changing habits. Establishing good habits and getting rid of bad ones involve the same basic skills: 1) goal setting and motivation, 2) getting started, and 3) staying on track.
Putting your heart into it. Goals that look good on paper have no guarantee of succeeding. In order to be successful, your goal must be emotionally relevant.
What’s in it for me? People who don’t have an emotional stake in the process are unlikely to change. Unless they can anticipate a meaningful reward or threat, they might go through the motions but fail to make the necessary effort that a change requires.
The first step is always the hardest. The biggest obstacle to getting started is procrastination. The way to outsmart the brain’s natural aversion to change is to use kaizen, which involves taking very small steps. That enables you to steadily make progress without setting off your brain’s evolutionary alarm bells.
Sustainable habits depend on triggers. If you want to make a change that lasts, good intentions aren’t enough. You need to attach your new routine to a trigger. These trigger/routine combinations are technically referred to as implementation intentions but are better known as “if/then” or “when/then” plans.
UNLEASH YOUR UNCONSCIOUS
Your unconscious runs the show. Even when you make what seems to be a conscious decision, your unconscious brain does most of the deciding.
Unleashing your unconscious. When given limited time and limited information, experts often make better decisions. The tight restrictions force the brain to tap into the power, speed, and calculating capacity of the basal ganglia, where acquired expertise is stored.
Trust us. We’re experts! Because they rely on the stronger, speedier basal ganglia, intuitive decisions made by experts are often superior to rational conclusions arrived at through conscious calculation.
Beginners need more time. Unlike their expert colleagues, less experienced leaders typically need more time, require more information, and will usually have to do a lot of the processing with the help of the slower and less capacious PFC.
Don’t force experts to explain their decisions. The fact that experts frequently make their best calls unconsciously can make it difficult to explain just how they arrived at them. Forcing an expert to supply an after-the-fact justification for an intuitive decision may lead to hesitation and second-guessing that could undermine the original action.
Taking the analytical approach. To optimize conditions for rational processing, find a quiet corner, minimize distractions, and concentrate on the problem, solving it logically step-by-step.
Creating conditions for an aha moment. If the problem you have is a creative one, your overall mood, your level of focus, and the atmosphere around you can all play a role in triggering a sudden flash of creative insight.
Smile and it may come to you. Research has shown that a sunny disposition can increase the likelihood of an aha moment. So if you’re confronted with a creative conundrum, try to make sure that you or the problem-solving team are in a good mood.
Learning has no limits. Once believed to be hardwired by the time we reached our twenties, the brain has now been found to be far more malleable and plastic than even most neuroscientists imagined. You just need to know how to learn.
Learning is an emotional process. Learning will only happen when you are emotionally involved—either positively or negatively. Without emotional relevance, your long-term prospects for retaining new information are greatly diminished.
Passing the hippocampus test. The hippocampus weighs two factors in deciding whether information is worth remembering: emotional relevance and novelty.
It’s all about survival. From the standpoint of your brain, only information or experiences that activate the reward or threat response are considered worth retaining.
While you were sleeping. Sleep is essential to learning because that’s usually when the information deemed worth retaining is transferred from the hippocampus to long-term memory.
Get it right the first time. Good or bad, the strongest impressions are first impressions. That’s why it’s important to invest time and money to train people correctly at the outset.
Use aversive learning with care. By far the strongest form of learning comes from negative experiences. But aversive learning is ineffective for training positive behavior. Save it instead for those rare situations when you want to inhibit undesired behavior.
The company that learns together . . . As fundamentally social creatures, we learn better from others and in the company of others. This underscores the power of stories and the importance of being a good role model.
THRIVE ON DIVERSITY
People are different. There is a fundamental genetic predisposition to most personality differences. From these you can infer that people have different needs in the workplace, and if you respect the needs and try to accommodate them as flexibly as possible, people will perform much better and be happier at work.
The Fantastic Four. According to a scientifically sound psychometric tool devised by Dr. Helen Fisher at Rutgers University, four neurochemicals account for four key personality styles that she calls Explorer, Builder, Director, and Negotiator.
Explorers and Builders. Explorers are sensation seekers who inherit certain genes from the novelty-sensitive dopamine system. They exude optimism and excel in creativity. Builders, people valued for their loyalty, stability, and dependability, are characterized by the serotonin system, which is linked with a sense of calm and well-being.
Directors and Negotiators. Men (and women) with strong activity in the testosterone system are known as Directors. They tend to be consummate strategists, both decisive and logical. Women (and men) who demonstrate a dominance of estrogen are Negotiators. They are intuitive, sympathetic, and verbal and often exhibit superior executive social skills.
A team that looks like the UN may not be diverse. A group that looks different doesn’t always think differently. Teams succeed not because of the variety of their appearances or backgrounds, but because of the diversity of skills and personality types they possess.
Best in class. Rather than trying to make everyone well-rounded, hire the people who have one or several top skills you need on your team and then develop them in the areas where they already excel, with the goal of helping them become “best in class.”
Accentuate the positive. When dealing with a team member’s weaknesses, move any behavior that qualifies as “not acceptable” to “acceptable standard” but no further. Then spend the rest of the time working on their existing strengths with the goal of helping them to become “best in class” in one or two areas.
Identify your experts. Make a list of the top skills that you need on your team and then rank everyone according to that list. Once you do this, everybody should be able to provide a clear and confident answer to the crucial question “Why am I on the team?”
Don’t try to teach a pig to fly. Hire a bird. Rather than adopting the doomed strategy of attempting to develop weaknesses into strengths, hire new talent that already has a natural predisposition for the skill you require.
One size doesn’t fit all. Don’t expect everybody to be good at everything, but make sure that everybody is good at something. Develop people based on their specific strengths.
DEVELOP THE TEAM OF THE FUTURE
T is for Team. T is for Talent. Creating a high-performing team is above all a question of recruiting and developing top talent. One of the most important roles of a leader is to recognize the presence of genuine talent. When you see it, grab it!
Target your development efforts. Don’t dilute precious development time and money by devoting the same type of training to everyone. Training has a far greater impact on people who are already talented. Employees will gain more by building on their existing talents than they will by trying to improve their areas of weakness.
Create a brain-friendly workplace. Talented people still need an environment that makes them want to come to work and enables them to succeed. Since exercise, nutrition, and sleep make up the trio of stress protectors, it is essential to support and encourage an atmosphere that makes these things feasible.
Provide meaningful incentives. With a brain-friendly workplace, your employees will want to come to work. And with the right incentives, they will want to remain on the team. When providing meaningful incentives, keep two brain-based principles in mind: fairness and novelty.
Individual rewards are shared by the group. Like it or not, all compensation occurs in a social context. Money matters less than the perception that someone is being compensated fairly in relation to his or her colleagues. Fairness triggers oxytocin, and oxytocin promotes collaboration.
Everyone loves a pleasant surprise. Unexpected rewards are processed more strongly by the brain than incentives that a team member has been anticipating. The difference is dopamine, the novelty neurotransmitter, which can be a potent motivator. With this principle in mind, strive to set aside part of your budget for spot bonuses. You’ll be impressed by how powerful these unscheduled rewards can be.
Social flow is flow on steroids. The flow that leads to individual peak performance can be extended to an entire team. Psychologists who have studied social flow closely have arrived at a set of conditions that can significantly increase the likelihood of its occurring. These four factors are focus, flexibility, collaboration, and cost.
Focus. Social flow won’t occur in an atmosphere of distraction. A clear goal, complete concentration, and close listening will provide the focus a team needs to collectively achieve the flow state.
Flexibility. Undue rigidity will discourage the flow state. It is important to build on the ideas of others instead of rejecting them outright and to surrender your normal tendency to assert your own ego in favor of pursuing the cause of group identity.
Collaboration. Groups that work well together are more likely to experience social flow. The optimal level of collaboration is achieved when members have a basic familiarity with each other’s processes and approaches but are not so comfortable as to become complacent, when everyone participates at equal levels, and when overall communication is effective.
Cost. Social flow seldom occurs unless something is at stake. A tangible, meaningful risk triggers noradrenaline, which sharpens everyone’s focus. Both individually and in groups, a sharpened focus is a crucial precursor to the satisfying state of flow.