Frequency trumps duration. It’s best to meditate daily, even if that means keeping individual sessions short.
While reminding yourself of your purpose yields big benefits, what we really want is for you to act on it. There is nothing that enhances performance, vitality, and health like living on purpose. If you get only one thing out of this book, we hope it is this.
Once you’ve developed a purpose, do whatever it is you can to build a life that allows you fulfill it. The closer you can move to a 10—living completely in alignment with your purpose—the better, happier, and healthier you’ll be. In the words of Ryan Hall, the fastest American marathon runner of all time, living out your purpose “is the best feeling in the world.”
“Expressive writing”—a type of journaling that involves exploring issues that are integral and foundational to our lives—has been shown to strengthen the cells in our immune systems. In addition, expressive writing is associated with declines in depression and anxiety, reduced blood pressure, fewer visits to the doctor, improved lung and liver function, and increases in positivity and social connectedness. Scientists speculate that expressive writing yields such profound results because it gives us a safe space to reflect on the issues that are most important to us. Many of us otherwise inhibit these thoughts and feelings, keeping them to ourselves. But as anyone who has kept deep feelings bottled up inside knows, doing so can cause a great deal of tension. Yet, at the same time, sharing them with others can also be a less-than-comfortable experience. By letting the words that reflect our deepest values and emotions pour out onto the page, we release tension and in doing so improve our health. In the words of University of Texas at Austin professor James Pennebaker, PhD, a pioneer of expressive writing research, “Standing back every now and then and evaluating where you are in life is really important.” If anything epitomizes Pennebaker’s definition of expressive writing, it’s when we reflect on our purpose in an effort to determine how closely we lived in accordance with it.
Coming full circle, we also think it’s a good idea to reflect on your purpose every night. In particular, we encourage you to ask yourself: On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being “completely” and 1 being “not at all”), did you live today with purpose? After making your ranking, spend just a minute or two reflecting on what you could have done differently to move closer to a 10. If you gave yourself a 10, reflect on what you did to get there.
Self-talk is especially helpful in situations when our bodies and/or minds are telling us to quit, but we want to keep going.
There is widespread evidence that self-talk boosts performance. In particular, studies show that self-talk increases motivation and willingness to endure uncomfortable situations. Self-talk is most effective when what we tell ourselves is short, specific, and, most important, consistent.
We also recommend sticking your purpose on your bathroom mirror. This serves as a nice way to mark the start of your day and helps you get the most out of it.
Your purpose can change over time. As a matter of fact, it should! Perhaps the only constant in life is change. Revisit this process as often as you like.
You need not be religious, or even spiritual, to have a purpose.
Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankl:
By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.
•Find opportunities to give back in the context of your work; these can be more intensive, such as coaching and mentoring, or less intensive, such as posting sincere advice in online forums.
•The only criteria is that your “giving” is closely linked to your work and that you give without the expectation of getting anything back.
•While “giving” is especially powerful for preventing and reversing burnout, you should still aim to avoid burnout by supporting stress with appropriate rest.
Traditional thinking on burnout advises that we take an extended break from our work, whatever that work might be. Sometimes this can be effective, but often it’s not an option. An Olympic hopeful can’t just stop training 6 months out from a qualifying event, and most people can’t just take 3 months off from their jobs. Not to mention, when people do completely remove themselves from whatever endeavor led to their burnout, many lose their connection and never return.
The good news is that behavioral science offers an alternative approach for managing burnout that does not require extended time off and has the potential to actually strengthen your drive and motivation. We are going to call this “give back to get back,” and it’s based on the research of psychology professors Shelley Taylor, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Adam Grant, PhD, of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. The basic premise of “give back to get back” is that instead of moving away from your work when burnout strikes, you may actually need to move closer to it, albeit in a different manner.
That different manner is “giving back” to your field. This can take many forms, including volunteering and mentoring, but the basic gist is that you should focus on helping others. Helping others activates reward and pleasure centers in the brain. Not only does this make you feel better, but it also helps you re-associate positive emotions with your pursuit. For these reasons, giving back often results in renewed energy and motivation. In his New York Times bestselling book Give and Take, Grant references research from across fields—from teaching to nursing—to show that giving back is a powerful antidote to burnout.
Burnout is intimately linked to our fight-or-flight stress response. After a prolonged period of too much stress, our “flight” trigger kicks in, urging us to flee from whatever it is that is causing the stress. Burnout is quite common in people who are pushing to get the most out of themselves. This is because continually growing and improving requires adding stress over days, weeks, months, and years.
When it comes to increasing motivation, a wide body of research suggests doing something for others is far more effective than traditional incentives like money or reputation. Perhaps this is why after unbelievable, record-breaking performances—ones that inevitably required enduring immense pain and suffering—athletes never say they were thinking about how great it would feel to be a champion or how much money they would win. Rather, after crossing the finish line, they almost always report that when the pain came on, they began thinking about their family, their god, or their friend who has cancer. They were able to endure the pain, to say “more” when their bodies were screaming “less,” because they were supremely motivated by a self-transcending purpose.
It’s not just physical performance that improves with a self-transcending purpose. In a meta-analysis of over 200,000 workers (nonathletes) across numerous industries, researchers found the belief that one’s job had a positive impact on others was associated with better performance.
Strecher discovered that throughout history, when people focus on a self-transcending purpose, or a purpose greater than themselves, they become capable of more than they ever thought was possible. Strecher believes this is because when we concentrate deeply on something beyond ourselves, our ego is minimized. A large part of our ego’s role is to literally protect our “self.” It is our ego that tells us to shut down and flee when faced with threats. When we transcend our “self” and minimize our ego, however, we can overcome the fears, anxieties, and physiological protective mechanisms that so often hold us back from achieving major breakthroughs. A whole new realm of possibilities emerges.
[...] in extraordinary situations, like when someone’s life is on the line, we are capable of overriding these defenses. We no longer feel fear, fatigue, or pain. As a result, we can push ourselves closer to our actual limits (like lifting a Camaro). If someone had asked Boyle to lift a Camaro on a regular Sunday afternoon he probably would have laughed and not even tried. Even if he were offered thousands of dollars for lifting the car, Boyle wouldn’t have been able to do it. His mind would have shut down his body. Boyle was only able to lift the car because Holtrust was being crushed underneath it.
When drafting a novel, award-winning author Haruki Murakami designs his day with precision and adheres to a strict routine. But he’ll be the first to tell you that the routine itself is really just there to support what matters most—showing up. He’ll also be the first to tell you that showing up isn’t easy:
When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4 a.m. and work for 5 to 6 hours. In the afternoon, I run 4 kilometers or swim for 1,500 meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9 p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold such repetition for so long—6 months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.
•Recognize the enormous power of the people with whom you surround yourself.
•Positive energy, motivation, and drive are all contagious. Do what you can to cultivate your own village of support, to surround yourself with a culture of performance.
•Remember that by being positive and showing motivation, you are not only helping yourself, but you are also helping everyone else in your life.
•Unfortunately, negativity and pessimism are also contagious. Don’t put up with too much of either. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
At the peak of the Greek Empire, Plato noted, “What is honored in a country will be cultivated there.”
Studies show that if one of your friends becomes obese, you are 57 percent more likely to become obese yourself. If one of your friends quits smoking cigarettes, the chances you’ll smoke decrease by 36 percent. These social influences remain surprisingly strong even in the case of second- and third-degree connections. If a friend of a friend becomes obese, your odds of gaining weight increase by 20 percent. Even if an acquaintance you barely know starts smoking, it affects the chances you’ll light up by 11 percent. In other words, the makeup of your social circle has profound implications for your own behavior. While what you do and when you do it is important, so is who you do it with.
Motivation isn’t the only emotion that is contagious. Research shows that when we see someone else express happiness or sadness (e.g., by smiling or frowning), the neural networks associated with those emotions become active in our own brains. The same goes for pain; the mere sight of someone in pain activates our own neurological pain response. This explains why we cry during sad movies, feel uplifted among happy friends, and cringe when we bear witness to someone in pain. In the words of Stanford University psychologist Emma Seppälä, PhD, “We are wired for empathy.”
It turns out the determining factor as to whether the 30 cadets within a squadron improved was the motivation of the least fit person in the group. If the least fit person was motivated to improve, then his enthusiasm spread and everyone improved. If, on the other hand, the least fit person was apathetic or, worse, negative, he dragged everyone down. Just like diseases easily spread through tight-knit groups, so does motivation. And it’s quite contagious.
DETERMINING YOUR CHRONOTYPE
To help determine your chronotype, you can use an evidence-based questionnaire designed by researchers from the Sleep Research Center at Loughborough University in the UK. While information on how to access the full version is in the Bibliography and Source Notes and portion of this book, answering the three questions here should give you a good idea of where you fall on the lark-owl spectrum.
1.If you were entirely free to set up your evening, with no commitments in the morning, what time would you go to sleep?
2.You have to do 2 hours of physically hard work. If you were entirely free to plan your day, when would you do this work?
3.You have to take a 2-hour test, which you know will be mentally exhausting. If you were entirely free to choose, when would you choose to take the test?
This questionnaire is a valuable tool, but the best way to understand your optimal schedule is to listen to your body. For the next 2 days, pay deep attention to when your energy levels feel the highest and when you fall into that foggy brain state in which attention lags and your work starts to suffer.
While a 2-day reflective period can be insightful, months of coffee, sugar, and “fighting” fatigue can mess with your chronotype. Thus, the gold-standard way to learn your chronotype is to go 7 days without setting an alarm clock or compensating for fatigue at any point of the day. Not only will you most accurately home in on your chronotype, but you’ll also benefit from a “reset” period during which your body can return to its natural rhythm.
Great performers don’t fight their body’s natural rhythm; rather, they take advantage of it. They intentionally schedule their hardest and most demanding deep-focus work (or, for athletes, their workouts) during periods in which they are the most alert. For some this is early in the morning and for others this is late at night. When their biology shifts and they become less alert, great performers focus on tasks that, while still integral to their work, demand less attention. These tasks include things like responding to emails, scheduling unavoidable yet highly unproductive meetings, or doing basic chores around the house. Finally, when their attention really begins to wane, they don’t “force” themselves to keep working. Rather, great performers let their minds wander and their bodies recover, and in doing so, they often experience “aha” or “eureka” moments of insight. In other words, great performers are highly aware of their unique chronotypes and do everything they can to align their activities with their energy levels.
In addition to fatiguing us over the course of a day, making decisions, even small ones, interrupts our acute train of thought. Our brains must drop whatever they were currently stewing on (or, if our brains were in a creative mind-wandering state, they must switch out of it into an effortful thinking state) all just to evaluate what kind of socks we should wear.
This doesn’t mean that we should live on autopilot, opting to make hardly any decisions at all. But it does mean we should realize that we have limited energy and devote it only to things that really matter. Of course, the more things that we think really matter, the less energy we have to devote to any one of them. It is only by becoming a minimalist that we can become a maximalist.
Judges are charged with making impartial decisions based only on the evidence at hand. We expect judges to be skilled at minimizing noise and bias, evaluating each case in a vacuum. That’s why it is especially surprising that research shows judges’ rulings are heavily influenced by the number of decisions they previously made. For example, one study found that judges granted prisoners parole 65 percent of the time at the beginning of the day, but nearly zero percent of the time at the end of the day. These judges were succumbing to something called “decision fatigue.”
Great performers choose where to focus their energy, and they protect it from everything else that could encroach upon it. This includes even seemingly simple things, like deciding what style of shirt to wear.
Joyner has designed not only his days but, really, his entire life around eliminating distractions and decisions “that don’t really matter.” In doing so, he reserves energy and willpower for the activities that are critically important to him. In other words, the secret to Joyner’s accomplishing so much, to being a “maximalist” in his field, is that he is a “minimalist” in nearly everything else.
“I could have lived in New York, Boston, or Washington DC,” he explained, “but I was attracted to Rochester, Minnesota, because it was a place where I could most easily focus on what is most important to me: my research and family.” And since Joyner loves both his research and family, he’s extremely happy.
At work, Joyner doesn’t engage in politics or office gossip. And while there are countless seminars and conferences that he could attend literally every day, he often chooses not to, as they would detract from his deep-focus work. When Joyner returns home in the evening, he does his best to “turn it off,” rarely, if ever, engaging in extracurricular activities. In order to do great work, he told us, “You need to say no to a lot of things so that when it’s time to say yes, you can do so with all your energy.”
In particular, Hamilton was curious about the hormone testosterone. Perhaps more than any other hormone, testosterone is linked to performance. It increases muscle growth, strength, and energy. In addition to its profound effects on our physiology, testosterone is also linked to enhanced creativity, confidence, memory, and attention. In other words, testosterone is a potent performance enhancer across nearly all endeavors.
•Create “a place of your own” in which you do your most important work.
•Surround yourself with objects that invite your desired behaviors.
•Consistently work in that same place, using the same materials.
•Over time, your environment will enhance your productivity on a deep neurological level.
Ecological psychology suggests that the objects that surround us are not static; rather, they influence and invite specific behaviors. Experiments show that the mere sight of an object elicits brain activity associated with particular actions.
Much like Billingslea, Gaurnier, and other world-class athletes who design preperformance routines to prepare their bodies and focus their minds, you, too, can design a preperformance routine to help you deliver your best.
Though we’ve focused predominantly on mood, there are numerous other opportunities for psychological priming. For example, during the process of writing this book, whenever we hit an impasse that we couldn’t overcome with a standard break or, even worse, felt writer’s block looming, we turned to reading our favorite books in genres similar to this one.2 Without fail, rereading these books helped to jumpstart our creative-writing minds. We weren’t surprised when we later learned that in an actual study (similar to our self-experiment), researchers found that subjects improved pattern recognition ability, a common indicator of general cognitive performance, by 37 percent after reading well-written prose.
[...] the subjects’ ability to activate this critical brain region was linked to their moods. Whereas positive moods were conducive to problem solving and creativity, negative moods inhibited these functions at a deep neurological level. This experiment is just one of many that demonstrates how it is hard to do your best thinking when your mind isn’t at peace.
Unlike the stereotypical corporate operative, Tan isn’t sizing everyone up in preparation for white-collar battle. Rather, he’s taking a brief moment to say something nice about each person, even if he hasn’t yet met them. Melissa is wonderful to work with . . . Jim is a great marketing manager . . . That lady with red hair looks like she is filled with positive energy . . . In doing so, Tan is overriding a common instinctive reaction of seeing each person as a potential threat or obstacle. By uttering just a few simple words in his head, Tan primes himself into a positive, cooperative mood.
Screenwriter and filmmaker Alexi Pappas, who also happens to be a world-class runner, says she takes the same approach to her creative endeavors as she does to her running:
I think the same way I deal with writer’s block is the same way I deal with going to [running] practice and warming up for a race. I have these tools and these warmups that I can use to always be able to “show up.” Even if you’re competing against the best runner in the country, you can still do the same warmup for that race and show up in the same way. With writing, I have certain things, like my favorite place to sit or my favorite tea to have. I treat the whole filmmaking thing like it is practice. It’s something that I’m committed to. On good days and bad days, you always show up.
United States Olympic hero Frank Shorter, the last American to win a gold medal in the marathon (1972), always ate the same exact breakfast—toast, coffee, and fruit—before every race, no matter how big or small. In his memoir, My Marathon: Reflections on a Gold Medal Life, Shorter wrote, “Consistency was another way to tamp down terror.”
The BCG consultants discovered that it’s not just about accumulating hours but about the quality of the work produced in those hours. By working even 20 percent less, the consultants were able to get a lot more done, and feel better about it, too. If BCG consultants—along with the world’s best athletes, thinkers, and creatives—can find the courage to rest, so can you.
There is a high cost of neglecting to rest on the weekends: The quality of the work we do during the week suffers, leaving us feeling pressured to work on Saturday and Sunday just to catch up. We get caught in the vicious cycle: not enough stress to demand rest, not enough rest to support real stress.
[...] we are recommending that you strategically insert longer periods of rest to follow longer periods of stress.
Every now and then, we’ve got to take it really easy. In addition to his year-end break, Lagat also takes an off-day at the end of every hard training week. On his off-days, Lagat doesn’t even think about running. Instead, he engages only in activities that relax and restore both his body and mind such as massage, light stretching, watching his favorite TV shows, drinking wine, and playing with his kids.
•Sleep is productive.
•Aim for at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. For those doing intense physical activity, 10 hours is not too much.
•The best way to figure out the right amount of sleep for you is to spend 10 to 14 days going to sleep when you are tired and waking up without an alarm clock. Take the average sleep time. That’s what you need.
•For a better night’s sleep, follow these tips, consolidated from the world’s leading researchers:
Ensure you expose yourself to natural (i.e., non-electric) light throughout the day. This will help you maintain a healthy circadian rhythm.
Exercise. Vigorous physical activity makes us tired. When we are tired, we sleep. But don’t exercise too close to bedtime.
Limit caffeine intake, and phase it out completely 5 to 6 hours prior to your bedtime.
Only use your bed for sleep and sex. Not for eating, watching television, working on your laptop, or anything else. The one exception is reading a paper book prior to bed.
Don’t drink alcohol close to bedtime. Although alcohol can hasten the onset of sleep, it often disrupts the later and more important stages.
Limit blue light exposure in the evening.
Don’t start working on hard, stressful activities—be them mental or physical—after dinner.
If you struggle with a racing mind, try inserting a brief mindfulness meditation session prior to bed.
When you feel yourself getting drowsy, don’t fight it. Whatever you are doing can wait until the morning.
Keep your room as dark as possible. If feasible, consider black-out blinds.
Keep your smartphone OUT of the bedroom entirely. Not on silent. Out.
•Try taking a nap of 10 to 30 minutes to help restore energy and focus if you hit a mid-afternoon lull.
Staying asleep for more than 30 minutes, however, can be counterproductive. This is because with longer naps we run the risk of waking up feeling even groggier and more sluggish than before we fell asleep. This condition, called “sleep inertia,” occurs when we are awoken in the middle of a deep sleep cycle. The grogginess is the body and brain’s natural way of telling us to go back to sleep so it can finish what it started.
Even if you don’t actually experience the sensation of falling asleep, simply closing your eyes can help switch your active brain off, allowing it to recover.
In a critical review on the efficacy of napping, sleep scientists found that a 10-minute nap yields the greatest benefits, though most experts say anything under 30 minutes is effective.
[...] individuals who took a nap of 15 to 20 minutes awoke with more alertness and went on to perform better during the remainder of the day than those who, instead of napping, drank 150 milligrams of caffeine, or about the same amount in a Starbucks grande-size coffee.
When NASA scientists conducted studies on astronauts, they discovered that a 25-minute nap improved judgment by 35 percent and vigilance by 16 percent.
Regardless of what all the “life hackers” may tell you, napping does not make up for insufficient nighttime sleep. You can’t nap your way to growth, be it physical or psychological. That said, napping does help restore energy and concentration during midday lulls, so it’s a strategy worth considering for long and intense days.
[...] they fall into a trap of thinking that it’s better to get in just a bit more training and they sacrifice sleep to do so. This kind of thinking is especially prevalent in very busy people, like amateur athletes (busy with jobs) and student athletes (busy with school). Don’t get us wrong: You absolutely need to train hard to get better. Without the stimulus of stress, you can rest all you want and there still won’t be growth. But sneaking in that extra hour of training at the expense of sleep is rarely a good idea.
[...] when we stress our bodies, they enter into something called a “catabolic” state. Our muscles, and even our bones, break down on a micro scale. The hormone cortisol is released, telling our body, “Help! We can’t handle this stress.” We become tired and sore, which is the body’s natural way of informing us it’s time to take a rest. If we neglect rest and keep pushing, the breakdown continues and, eventually, our health and performance suffer. But if we listen and allow the body to rest, it shifts from a catabolic state to an anabolic one, in which the body repairs and rebuilds so that it can come back stronger. This is to say that the stress of hard physical training breaks us down, and it is only when we follow stress with rest that adaptation and growth occurs. This is especially true with sleeping, which is a catalyst for physical growth. Just as the brain is actively processing the work we’ve done throughout the day, when we sleep the body is doing the same.
Almost all of sleep’s benefits occur in the later stages, mainly during something called REM, or rapid eye movement. We spend only about 20 to 25 percent of our total sleep time in REM. And, in an interesting twist, the longer we sleep, the greater the proportion of it is in REM. That’s because REM time increases with each sleep cycle. In other words, there are increasing marginal returns to sleep. Hours 7 to 9—the hours that the majority of us never get—are actually the most powerful.
We think we are missing out on a lot by sleeping, but in fact we are missing out on far more by not sleeping. Sleep is one of the most productive things we can do. We don’t grow when we’re in the gym or when we’re immersed in our work: We grow in our sleep.
Most digital devices with screens, be it computers, smartphones, iPads, or televisions—in other words, pretty much everything that we peer into in the evening—emit something called blue light. Of all the types of artificial light that mess with sleep, the blue variety is by far the worst. While we can rebound from being in a room where the light bulbs are on, it’s much harder to rebound from staring at a screen. Blue light throws our circadian rhythm (the body’s natural clock) completely out of whack. Depending on when we are exposed to it, blue light can shift our internal clocks by up to six time zones. This is why when you have a creative idea in the middle of the night, it’s best to write it down on a paper notebook and not run to your computer to start working on it. This should also serve as a warning against the increasingly common habit of checking smartphones throughout the night.
[...] a whopping 65 percent of Americans get less than the medically recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Forty percent sleep less than 6 hours. This wasn’t always the case. In 1942, the average American slept 7.9 hours every night. Today, that number is down to 6.8 hours.
Much, if not all, of our collective sleep loss is related to the technologies that keep us connected at all times and allow us to work at all hours. We feel compelled to be online and pressured to do more and more work.
Happy hour tends to be a time when people who work together go out to commiserate about work. As such, far too often these hours are generally not very happy. Go hang out with your friends instead.
Even though we may not always want to be sociable, the benefits of surrounding ourselves with friends and kicking back are enormous, especially following demanding situations.
Yes, that’s right, we just provided you with the scientific basis for getting drinks with friends.
“The basic biology of feeling connected to others has profound effects on stress physiology,” McGonigal told us. The positive effects of social connection include increasing heart rate variability (HRV), shifting the nervous system into recovery mode, and releasing hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. “What’s even crazier,” says McGonigal, “is that oxytocin helps your heart repair. It’s pretty poetic that feeling connected to others literally fixes a broken heart.”
Berman hypothesizes that nature inherently makes us feel good and improves our mood, thereby hastening our transition from the stress of hard work to a more restful state and promoting mind-wandering and subsequent creativity.
In 2008, a University of Michigan psychologist named Marc Berman, PhD, sought to explore why so many great creators, from DaVinci to Darwin, reported being inspired by nature. To test whether there is truly a strong connection between nature and creativity, Berman enlisted undergraduate students and divided them into two groups. Both groups went through the same initial series of rigorous cognitive tasks. After finishing, one of the groups took a break in a secluded park while the other group took a break in a busy urban setting. On a subsequent series of challenging cognitive tasks, the students who took a break in a natural setting outperformed those who took their break in an urban setting.
At first, the researchers suspected that increased bloodflow to the brain was the culprit behind the walks’ benefits. However, it appears that the benefits might also stem from the interplay between walking and attention. Since walking requires just enough coordination to occupy the part of our brain responsible for effortful thinking, it ever so slightly distracts our conscious mind. As a result, when walking, it’s easier to tap into our creative engine, our subconscious.
Taking a stroll isn’t just useful for creatives like writers, artists, and inventors. When Brad was working on complicated financial models at McKinsey & Company, he’d take walks throughout the day, especially when he felt stuck. Almost without fail, what he couldn’t figure out while staring at the screen popped into his mind during or immediately following a walk.
Stepping away from your work takes a lot of guts, especially when you’re on a tight deadline. Sometimes you simply don’t have the time to walk very far. The good news is that even short walks can provide big benefits.
Like all the other great runners of the time, Bannister had come close enough, within mere seconds, to think he could break the barrier. So when he declared, in early 1954, that he’d go for the record again, Bannister truly believed he’d get it. But before taking on history, Bannister made what seemed like a very questionable decision. He abandoned his training plan of intense intervals on the track and instead drove off to the mountains of Scotland, only a mere 2 weeks before the race. For days, he and a few buddies didn’t speak of, let alone see, a track. Instead, they hiked and climbed in the mountains. They completely checked out of running psychologically and, to a great extent, physically. While hiking is a great activity for developing general fitness, it’s a far cry from the blistering 400-meter repeats that Bannister was accustomed to running on the track. In other words, relative to his normal routine, Bannister was resting.
Upon returning to England, Bannister once again shocked everyone in the running community. Instead of immediately hopping on a track in a fit of compulsion to do some “panic training” in the hopes of making up for lost time, he continued to rest. For 3 more days, Bannister let his body recuperate from the demands of the training he’d put in during the months prior. With just a couple days to go before the record attempt, Bannister completed a few short workouts to tune his body up, but that was it. Bannister was physically fresh, and this was a good thing. He would need every last bit of energy to redefine what was possible in running.
Back on the track in Oxford on May 6, 1954. With only one runner nearby, Bannister came through the third lap in 3 minutes and 0.7 seconds, slightly off the sub-4 pace. Ding! When the bell rang signifying the final lap, Bannister burst into a maddening drive. As he slowly pulled away from the field, everyone in the crowd rose to their feet: 3:40, 3:41, 3:42. . . . Down the final straightaway, the energy was palpable, fans screaming at the top of their lungs . . . 3:54, 3:55. . . . As Bannister crossed the finish line, unaware of anything other than how hard he was pushing himself, the crowd roared. The stadium announcer, Norris McWhirter, who would go on to found the Guinness World Records, burst onto the loudspeaker with his most memorable call:
Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event nine, the one mile: first, number 41, R.G. Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which—subject to ratification—will be a new English native, British national, all-comers, European, British Empire and world record. The time was three . . .
The crowd erupted and the rest of the announcement faded into oblivion. In 3 minutes, 59 and 4/10 of a second, Roger Bannister had broken one of the greatest barriers in human history. And it was in no small part due to his courage to rest.
•When you are working on a strenuous mental task and hit an impasse, stop working.
•Step away from whatever it is you are doing for at least 5 minutes.
•The more stressful the task, the longer your break should be.
•For really draining tasks, consider stepping away until the next morning.
•During your breaks, if you aren’t sleeping (more on this soon), perform activities that demand little to no effortful thinking. Though we’ll explore in great detail how to fill your breaks in Chapter 5, some examples include:
Listening to music
Going on a short walk
Sitting in nature
Taking a shower
Doing the dishes
•You may have an “aha” moment of insight during your break. If you do, great. Even if you don’t have an “aha” moment during your break, your subconscious mind is still at work. When you return to whatever it is you were doing, you’ll be more likely to make progress.
Lin Manuel Miranda, MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant” winner and creator of the blockbuster Broadway musical Hamilton, puts it like this: “A good idea doesn’t come when you’re doing a million things. The good idea comes in the moment of rest. It comes in the shower. It comes when you’re doodling or playing trains with your son. It’s when your mind is on the other side of things.”
“Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,” Thoreau famously penned in his journal.
When it comes to generating creative thoughts in the shower, Allen isn’t alone, as evidenced by an entire industry of waterproof white-boards and notebooks.
If not in the shower, maybe your best ideas come to you when you are on a run or a walk. Many esteemed philosophers, from Kierkegaard to Thoreau, held their daily walk as something sacred, the key to generating new ideas.
During one of his experiments, Berger left the EEG machine on while a patient was resting between tasks. He noticed that the EEG needles, responsible for tracing electrical activity in the brain, didn’t stop moving. Rather, they continued to buzz frenetically. At the time, prevailing wisdom held that the brain essentially turned off when not performing a concrete task. But here was Berger, watching his patients’ brains remain extremely active even when they weren’t actively doing anything.
Being mindful doesn’t just help the best athletes get through hard workouts, it also helps them recover. We need look no further than heart rate variability (HRV), or the space between heart beats, for proof. HRV is commonly used as a global indicator of physiological recovery. The faster someone’s HRV returns to its pre-exercise value (baseline), the better. Research shows that following hard training, the HRV of elite athletes returns to baseline far faster than the HRV of nonelites. In one study, 15 minutes after strenuous exercise the HRV of elite athletes had already returned to 80 percent of its baseline value. The HRV of none-lites, however, was at just 25 percent. After 30 minutes, the HRV of elite athletes had returned to normal, whereas the HRV of nonelites remained at only 40 to 45 percent. Much like the elite meditators, the elite athletes were able to transition from stress to rest much faster than their more novice peers. Perhaps the adage that hard work separates the best from the rest only explains part of the picture. The best rest harder, too.
When pain sets in during a hard, long workout, everyday runners, and even pretty good ones, often get wrapped up in it. They think to themselves, “Oh crap, this already hurts so much and I’ve got a long way to go.” These emotionally charged thoughts can lead to panic. Heart rates rise and muscles tense. As a result, both enjoyment and performance diminish. But for the best runners, like the ones that Steve coaches, it’s a different story. It’s not that elite runners don’t feel pain and discomfort during their hard workouts, it’s just that they react differently. Rather than panicking, they have in their minds what Steve calls a “calm conversation.”
The calm conversation goes something like this: “This is starting to hurt now. It should. I’m running hard. But I am separate from this pain. It is going to be okay.” Just like the expert meditators, Steve’s best runners choose how they respond to the stress of a workout. Their amygdalas are not hijacked. Although not all of Steve’s elite runners meditate, they’ve all developed a strong mindful muscle through the years of deep, solitary focus that being an elite runner demands. Steve hasn’t scanned their brains, but we’d wager that if he did, he’d find their prefrontal cortexes are bursting with gray matter.
When we challenge ourselves—whether by running a hard workout, learning how to play a new instrument, or working tirelessly to solve a complex problem—we are triggering a stress response in the brain. By strengthening our prefrontal cortex, mindfulness allows us to recognize that we are having a stress response rather than automatically being overcome by it. It’s as if we are viewing our thoughts and feelings as a neutral observer and then choosing what to do next. A weak prefrontal cortex gets overpowered by a strong stress response. But a strong prefrontal cortex lets us choose how we want to respond to stress.
[...] brain studies are beginning to show the immense and measurable benefits of mindfulness meditation. Researchers are finding that starting at just a few minutes every day, mindfulness meditation increases gray matter in the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is one of the most evolved parts of our brains; its complexity separates us from more primitive animals. In addition to performing higher-order thinking, the prefrontal cortex serves as the brain’s command and control center. It allows us to respond thoughtfully to situations instead of instinctively reacting. Having a well-developed prefrontal cortex is especially important when it comes to transitioning out of stress and into rest.
After just a few weeks, Rennels noticed profound changes. He became more aware of himself and his emotions, and more cognizant of how those emotions precipitated certain actions. His mind still raced at work and when he was actively problem-solving, but he was able to quiet it at the end of the day. He listened better, and he slept better, too. Rennels told us that as he ramped up the duration and frequency of his meditation sessions, he began to feel more in control of himself and no longer at the behest of the world around him. “It was as if every element of my life improved,” he recalls.
Upon first meeting Rennels, we couldn’t help but notice that he is fully present. None of his movements are without intention. He focuses with a deep gaze that soaks up every detail of his surroundings. When we walked into a conference room, presumably one Rennels has been in hundreds of times, he observed the room as if he was walking out onto a ledge to observe the Grand Canyon. The same thing happened when he opened his laptop: He looked like a 4-year-old discovering a MacBook for the first time. Rennels was taking it all in, seemingly awestruck by things we considered ordinary.
Rennels told us that he wasn’t always like this. Prior to SIYLI, he worked for a large management consulting firm. Though he was good for the job, an opinion confirmed by promotions and strong performance reviews, the job wasn’t good for him. Rennels noticed himself chasing external rewards and craving status. He found it hard to focus—something almost impossible to believe given what we witnessed at SIYLI—and he could never calm his racing mind. He told us that even when he wasn’t physically at work, his mind was there. “Like the early Googlers, Rennels simply couldn’t turn it off. But, he says, “That all changed when I got serious about mindfulness.”
Google’s leadership team couldn’t help but notice the benefits of Search Inside Yourself, either. Their employees were healthier, happier, and more productive. They approached Tan and asked him if he’d be interested in teaching mindfulness meditation full-time and leading a new department, called Personal Growth. Tan was floored by the offer and took it, with only one condition: his job title would no longer be software engineer. He’d now be called “Jolly Good Fellow.”
Additional research, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, shows that instead of trying to calm yourself down, “reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement” is often advantageous. When you try to suppress pre-event nerves, you are inherently telling yourself that something is wrong. Not only does this make the situation worse, but it also takes emotional and physical energy to fight off the feeling of anxiety—energy that could be better spent on the task at hand. Fortunately, according to the authors of this paper, simply telling yourself “I am excited” shifts your demeanor from what they call a threat mindset (stressed out and apprehensive) to an opportunity mindset (revved up and ready to go). “Compared to those who attempt to calm down,” the authors conclude, “individuals who reappraise their anxious arousal as excitement perform better.” Put differently: The sensations you feel prior to a big event are neutral—if you view them in a positive light, they are more likely to have a positive impact on your performance.
Of the many hormones at play when we are stressed, two are particularly important: cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). While neither is categorically “good” or “bad” and both are necessary, chronically elevated cortisol levels are associated with lingering inflammation, impaired immune function, and depression. By contrast, DHEA has been linked to a reduced risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease, neurodegeneration, and a range of other diseases and conditions. DHEA is also a neurosteroid, which helps the brain grow. When under stress, you want to release more DHEA than cortisol. This ratio is aptly named the “growth index of stress.” Sure enough, studies show that people who react to stress with a challenge response have a higher growth index of stress versus those who perceive stress as a threat. In other words, if you frame stressors as challenges, you’ll release more DHEA than cortisol. As a result your growth index of stress will be higher, and you’ll actually experience health benefits instead of health detriments. And, according to the 2010 study on stress and mortality that we mentioned earlier, you might just live longer, too.
Could something as simple as one’s attitude about stress truly contribute to extending life?
This quest ion captivated McGonigal. Might she possibly have had it wrong for all these years? Her quest to find the answer turned into The Upside of Stress, a book that challenged the prevailing wisdom on stress. She discovered a large body of evidence showing that how we view stress weighs heavily on how stress influences us.
GET YOUR MIND RIGHT
In the late 1960s at Yale University, a young PhD candidate named Carol Dweck was studying helplessness in children. In particular, she wanted to answer the question: Why do some children give up when faced with failure, while others are motivated by it? The answer, she found, was all in their heads.
The children who gave up easily also avoided challenges and felt threatened by others who were different from themselves. They often perceived learning and growth as outside of their control. In their minds, the qualities that determined whether they would succeed or fail were fixed. In adult-speak, these children believed it was their innate ability and talent—their genetic code—that governed the outcome of nearly all situations in life. To them, they either “had it” or they didn’t. They were either smart or stupid. The children who were motivated by and more apt to confront challenges, on the other hand, had a completely different mindset. They felt that with hard work they could do anything. They didn’t see ability as something that was fixed, but rather as something that could be improved with practice over time. These children had what Dweck called a “growth mindset.”
When Dweck and her colleagues tracked the performance of a group of seventh-grade students for 2 years, they found that although all the students started from the same measurable baseline, those with growth mindsets progressed significantly faster than their fixed-mindset peers. The growth-mindset students were willing to push themselves harder, sought out just-manageable challenges, and viewed productive failure as a positive. In contrast, the fixed-mindset students avoided challenges and quit when the going got tough.
When researchers from Yale compared how people responded to the two shakes just described, they confirmed all of these assumptions. Study participants who received the unhealthy shake reported feeling greater immediate satisfaction but craved more sweets later. They also experienced a steeper decline in ghrelin. Ghrelin is the hormone associated with hunger, and its decline told their brains that “I’m full.” None of this should sound surprising, because it’s not—it’s precisely what you’d expect to happen. With one small exception: The contents of the milkshakes given to each group were exactly the same. The only thing that differed was the description. It was the participants’ minds—not the sugar, fat, fruits, vegetables, or protein—that controlled not only how they subjectively felt after drinking the shakes, but also their deep hormonal response.
•Divide your work into chunks of 50 to 90 minutes (this may vary by task). Start even smaller if you find yourself struggling to maintain attention.
•As you develop “fitness” in whatever it is you are doing, you’ll likely find that you can work longer and harder.
•For most activities and most situations, 2 hours should be the uppermost limit for a working block.
Much like it takes time for a runner to build the fitness necessary to execute high-intensity intervals, it may take time to build yourself up to blocks of undistracted work. This is especially true for people who are accustomed to multitasking or working amid digital-device distraction. If you find yourself struggling to maintain full attention (e.g., checking your smartphone for notifications, pulling up your email browser, mind-wandering), start with small chunks of 10 to 15 minutes and gradually increase the duration every week. No different from any other skill, deep work is a practice that must be cultivated over time.
While the exact work-to-rest ratio depends on the demands of the job and individual preferences, the overall theme is clear: alternating between blocks of 50 to 90 minutes of intense work and recovery breaks of 7 to 20 minutes enables people to sustain the physical, cognitive, and emotional energy required for peak performance.
•Identify what interrupts your deep focus. Common intruders, many of which are enabled by smartphones, include:
•Remove distractors: Remember that only out of sight truly leads to out of mind.
Walter Mischel, PhD, is a world-renowned expert on willpower at Columbia University. He’s devoted over 30 years to exploring how and why some people are able to resist temptation and others are not. In his years of research, across numerous studies involving children and adults, Mischel has found that one of the best methods for self-control is to move the object of desire out of view. (Or in the case of vibrating phones, perhaps “out of feel.”) Mischel’s findings explain why recovering gamblers are prohibited from being near casinos and why dieters have long been told to keep unhealthy foods hidden in hard-to-access places or outside the house altogether. The mere sight of a desirable object triggers dopamine, which is like the devil on our shoulder that says, “Are you sure you don’t want to have just one?”
Smartphones distract us whether they are on, off, in our pockets, or on a table, and they command our attention even when they are not our own. Though it pains us (i.e., Brad and Steve) to say, odds are that just reading about smartphones for the past few minutes may have distracted you from this text. Perhaps this discussion even prompted you to feel for your phone or, worse, check it. It follows that the best solution for preventing smartphone distraction is to remove it from the picture altogether. It turns out there is a lot of truth in the expression “out of sight, out of mind.”
Let’s say that you could somehow resist the temptation to check your phone when it is near you. This in and of itself would take a lot of effort. Rather than devoting all your cognitive energy to what you are truly trying to accomplish, a good portion of it instead goes toward thinking about checking your phone, imagining what might be awaiting you on it, and restraining yourself from actually checking.
Telling someone they can keep their cell phone within arm’s reach but cannot check it is not much different than telling a drug addict he can keep a loaded syringe in plain sight but may not use it. In both cases, the craving for reward, and the emotional and chemical addiction to it, is overpowering.
Resisting the temptation to check our phones is only made harder by the tricks our minds play on us. Have you ever had your phone turned off in your pocket, only to feel it vibrate nevertheless? If so, you’re not alone. A recent study from Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne found that 89 percent of college students suffer from “phantom vibration syndrome.” About once every 2 weeks, college students reported they felt their phone vibrating when it wasn’t. Although they knew their phones were off, their subconscious longing for a notification manifested in a physical sensation. They stopped whatever they were doing to check their buzzing phones that weren’t really buzzing.
OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND
The most common defense against smartphone distraction is straightforward: turn your phone to silent mode and then place it face down on the table, or perhaps even put it in your pocket.
Our phones and the apps on them, designed by highly sophisticated PhDs to lure us in, operate like slot machines. When we swipe down and wait for our email and instant messenger and Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and on and on to refresh, dopamine floods our system. Instead of a row of cherries or 7s, the potential rewards we are chasing are new likes, comments, or messages. Although most of us aren’t rewarded every time we check our phone, we are rewarded often enough to keep us checking.
When a gambler awaits their next card at the blackjack table or pulls down the lever on a slot machine, they get a hit of the powerful neurochemical dopamine. Dopamine excites and arouses us. Under the influence of dopamine, we feel revved up and alive. Unlike other neurochemicals that are released when we’ve achieved something, the far more potent dopamine is released prior to the payoff of an event, when we are longing for or desiring something deeply. In other words, we don’t become addicted to winning; we become addicted to the chase.
The unpredictability of gambling—the feeling we get while we wait for the dealer to turn over his card or for the slots to cease spinning—triggers a super-sized dopamine rush. That’s because uncertain situations, when there is a mere chance of winning, are far more irresistible than situations in which we know we’ll win every time. If this weren’t the case, then people would get all jazzed up about putting their money into municipal bonds with guaranteed 4 percent returns instead of into slot machines. But alas, the brain rewards us with more dopamine for the act of seeking a reward than for the act of receiving one.
Apply the components of perfect practice each time you set out to do meaningful work:
•Define a purpose and concrete objectives for each working session.
•Ask yourself: What do I want to learn or get done?
•Focus and concentrate deeply, even if doing so isn’t always enjoyable.
•Single-task: The next time you feel like multitasking, remind yourself that research shows it’s not effective. Keep in mind Dr. Bob’s secret: “Do only one thing at a time.”
•Remember that quality trumps quantity.
Unfortunately, our brains don’t work like computers. For 99 percent of us,1 effective multitasking is nothing more than effective delusional thinking.
Even in individuals who claim to be great multitaskers, fMRI scans of the brain reveal it is impossible to do two things at once with a high level of quality. When we multitask, our brains either constantly switch between tasks or they divide and conquer, allotting only a portion of our cognitive capacity to a specific task. As a result, as countless studies show, the quality and, ironically, even the quantity of our work suffers when we are multitasking.
Although the switching costs may seem trivial—sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch—they add up over time as we switch back- and-forth between tasks. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that seemingly innocuous multitasking can cannibalize as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time. Although it may feel like we are getting twice as much done when multitasking, we’re actually getting close to half as much done.
By doing one thing at a time and devoting his full concentration to that one thing, Dr. Bob is able to do many things well—from writing and influencing health care policy, to investing in companies, to being a good husband and father. His insistence on single-tasking ensures that he learns and grows from every document he drafts and every interaction he’s involved in. “It’s not that I can’t multitask,” he says. “But when I do multitask everything suffers. So I just don’t multitask. Ever.”
He compartmentalizes his day down to the hour. Each compartment has a concrete objective. These objectives range from, for example: write 500 words for a paper; learn enough about a company to make an investment decision; have a free-flowing conversation with an interesting person; keep his heart rate at 80 percent of its maximum in a fitness class; influence a decision maker in a highly political meeting; enjoy dinner with his wife and kids. This type of compartmentalization ensures he follows his governing rule: “Do only one thing at a time.” Dr. Bob’s secret to doing so much is doing so little. He is the ultimate single-tasker.
[...] we admire Dr. Bob for all of these achievements and the hard work that they rest upon. But we also look up to him because he wears a $40 digital watch; that is to say, he doesn’t do any of this for the money, nor is he driven by material glitz. He prioritizes his physical health, exercising for at least an hour nearly every day. Most important, he is a wonderful husband and father of two young girls, almost always home in time for dinner, and present at extracurricular activities. So when we met with Dr. Bob at his Palo Alto office, what we wanted to learn most is how—how does he accomplish so much while seemingly maintaining balance in his life? He answered our question without needing to say a word.
From the minute we walked into the room with Dr. Bob, we were in the room with Dr. Bob. We were not in the room with Dr. Bob’s email, phone, or any interrupting colleagues. Prior to our time together he was crafting an article for a high-profile medical journal and making decisions about the future of a company. But he didn’t bring those issues into the room with us either. It was just the three of us discussing this book. The energy was palpable. He gave us the same attention he gives to the president of the United States. Dr. Bob was fully present. We were witnessing in real time his secret to success.
The best violinists spent significantly more time intensely focused on mastering a specific goal, and remained totally present when doing so. They eliminated all distractions. They rarely, if ever, merely went through the motions. The best violinists were practicing, as Ericsson and his team coined it, far more “deliberately” than everyone else.
•Think of a skill/capability that you want to grow.
•Assess your current ability to perform this skill/capability.
•Actively seek out challenges that just barely exceed your ability.
•If you feel fully in control, make the next challenge a bit harder.
•If you feel anxious or so aroused that you can’t focus, dial things down a notch.
These workouts are designed to stretch limits, pushing runners beyond their current abilities. As a result, it’s not uncommon for Steve’s athletes to show up to practice a bit nervous. Some may even question whether they will be able to complete the workout. While armchair sports psychologists might say this kind of doubt and uncertainty is a negative, Steve has a different take. A little doubt and uncertainty is actually a good thing: It signals that a growth opportunity has emerged.
When psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, was studying how the best performers get in the zone and continuously improve, he noticed they all regularly pushed themselves to their limits, and perhaps just a bit beyond. In an attempt to convert the mystical “zone” into something a bit less nebulous, Csikszentmihalyi developed an elegant conceptual tool.
Csikszentmihalyi’s tool not only can help you find your way into the zone, but it can also double as a great way to dial in the optimal amount of stress required for growth. The best kind of stress, what we like to call “just-manageable challenges,” lies in the upper right corner of the “flow” section.
•Stress stimulates growth.
•As the chess prodigy turned martial arts champion Josh Waitzkin says, “growth comes at the point of resistance.”
•Developing a new capability requires effort: Skills come from struggle.
•When you struggle, System 2 is activated and true development is underway; myelin is accumulating and neural connections are strengthening.
•Fail productively: Only seek out support after you’ve allowed yourself to struggle.
If we stick at learning something for long enough, what was once a formidable System 2 challenge becomes a simple System 1 task.
To understand why System 2 learning is such a challenge, we need to look deep inside the brain. Our actual web of knowledge consists of brain cells called neurons that are linked by axons, which function like fine electrical wires in the brain. When we learn something new, electrical activity travels between neurons along these axons. At first, the connections are weak (both figuratively and literally) and we struggle with the new skill, whether it’s properly using grammar or using our nondominant hand on the basketball court. If we give in, opting not to struggle, System 1 takes over. We default to the already strong connections in our brain and continue using adjectives instead of adverbs or dribbling with our right hand instead of our left. But if we endure the struggle and keep working at the new skill, the connections between neurons strengthen. This occurs partially thanks to a substance called myelin. Myelin is like the brain’s version of insulation, wrapping around our axons. As we work more at something, more myelin is generated, and that enables electrical activity to travel more fluidly between neurons. In other words, the connections in our brain strengthen. Over time, our former struggles become second nature.
Lamb’s secret lies in making himself uncomfortable. “During training, I seek out and try to ride waves that scare me,” Lamb said. “It’s only when you step outside your comfort zone that you grow. Being uncomfortable is the path to personal development and growth. It is the opposite of complacency.”
[...] science shows that learning demands open-ended exploration that allows students to reach beyond their individual limits. In a series of studies involving middle school and high school math classes, students who were forced to struggle on complex problems before receiving help from teachers outperformed students who received immediate assistance. The authors of these studies summarized their findings in a simple yet elegant statement: Skills come from struggle.
The effects of stress depend almost entirely on the dose. And when applied in the right dose, stress does more than stimulate physiological adaptations. It stimulates psychological ones, too.
If the amount of stress is too large or lasts too long, however, the body fails to adapt. It actually does the opposite of growing stronger: it deteriorates. Selye called this the “exhaustion stage.” Today, many refer to the exhaustion stage as being under “chronic stress.” The body rebels and enters something called a catabolic process, or a state of persistent breakdown. Rather than signaling for repair and then subsiding, elevated inflammation and cortisol linger at toxic levels. The adrenal system, constantly on guard, becomes overworked and fatigued. This is why it’s not at all surprising that chronic stress contributes to myriad health problems; the body as a whole can withstand only so much tension before it breaks.
[...] our adaptive stress response is rooted in molecules called inflammatory proteins and a hormone called cortisol. Inflammatory proteins and cortisol are activated by stress and serve as biological messengers, telling the body, “We’re not strong enough to withstand this attack!” As a result, the body marshals an army of biochemical building blocks and directs them to the area under stress, making the body stronger and more resilient. This is the body’s incredible, preprogrammed way of better preparing itself to face future threats.
Over time, humans and rats alike seemed to adapt to each unique stressor, building up increased resistance. Certain stressors could even produce desirable effects, strengthening the specific part of the body that was under duress. They learned that stress isn’t just harmful; it can also serve as a stimulus for growth and adaptation.
•Remember that “stress is stress”: fatigue on one task spills over into the next, even if the two are completely unrelated.
•Only take on a few challenges at once. Otherwise you’ll literally run out of energy.
•Tweak your environment to support your goals. This is especially important at times when you know you’ll be depleted. It’s incredible how much our surroundings impact our behavior, especially when we are fatigued. fatigue—be it to resist temptation, make tough decisions, or work on challenging cognitive tasks—it, too, won’t function very well. This fatigue might lead you to eat cookies, give up on solving a tough intellectual problem, or even prematurely give in during physical challenges. In the worst case, you might even cheat on your significant other.
The good news is that just like the body, by stressing and allowing the mind to recover it also becomes stronger. Scientists have discovered that the more we resist temptation, think deeply, or focus intensely, the better we become at doing so.
When shown a tempting image, such as a juicy cheeseburger, or asked to solve a hard problem, activity in parts of the brain associated with emotional response (the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex) supersede activity in the part of the brain tasked with thoughtful, rational thinking (the prefrontal cortex). Other experiments show that after someone is forced to exert self-control, activity in the prefrontal cortex diminishes altogether. It’s no wonder that when we are mentally drained we struggle with complex problems and self-control, opting for cartoons and cookies instead.
It seems we have a single reservoir of brainpower for all acts of cognition and self-control, even those that are unrelated. When people are asked to suppress their emotions when under duress—for example, not showing frustration or sadness while watching a tragic film—they subsequently struggle on a wide range of unrelated tasks, such as resisting tempting foods or storing items in working memory.
After both groups finished eating, all participants were asked to solve a seemingly solvable, but actually unsolvable, problem. (Yes, this was a cruel experiment, especially for those stuck with the radishes.) The radish-eaters lasted a little over 8 minutes and gave the problem 19 attempts. The cookie-eaters, on the other hand, persisted for over 20 minutes and attempted to solve the problem 33 times. Why the stark difference? Because the radish-eaters had depleted their mental muscle by resisting the cookies, whereas the cookie-eaters had a full tank of psychological gas and thus exerted far more effort in trying to solve the problem.
•Alternate between cycles of stress and rest in your most important pursuits.
•Insert short breaks throughout your work over the course of a day.
•Strategically time your “off-days,” long weekends, and vacations to follow periods of heavy stress.
•Determine when your work regularly starts to suffer. When you find that point, insert a recovery break just prior to it.
Around the same time that Seiler was exploring commonalities among the top endurance athletes in the world, another researcher was exploring commonalities among the top creative and intellectual performers in the world. This researcher was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chick-sent-mi-hi), PhD, a pioneer in the field of positive psychology known for his ideas on happiness, meaning, and optimal performance. If you’ve ever heard of the term “flow”—or a state of being fully absorbed in an activity with laserlike focus, completely in the zone—that’s Csikszentmihalyi’s work.
Less known than his work on flow, but equally insightful, is Csikszentmihalyi’s study of creativity. Over the course of 50 years, he conducted hundreds of interviews with field-altering geniuses from diverse domains. He spoke with groundbreaking inventors, innovative artists, Nobel Prize–winning scientists, and Pulitzer Prize–winning writers. Just as Seiler found that world-class endurance athletes migrate toward a similar style of work, Csikszentmihalyi found that the same held true for creative geniuses: the brightest minds spend their time either pursuing an activity with ferocious intensity, or engaging in complete restoration and recovery. This approach, Csikszentmihalyi discovered, not only prevents creative burnout and cognitive fatigue, but it also fosters breakthrough ideas and discoveries (we’ll explore why this happens in more detail in Chapter 4). Csikszentmihalyi documented a common process across almost all great intellectual and creative performers, regardless of their field:
1.Immersion: total engagement in their work with deep, unremitting focus
2.Incubation: a period of rest and recovery when they are not at all thinking about their work
3.Insight: the occurrence of “aha” or “eureka” moments—the emergence of new ideas and growth in their thinking
Kastor says she realized early on that simply working hard wouldn’t do. She’s even called her workouts the easy part. What sets her apart, the magic that has allowed her to run so fast and so far for the past 25 years, is how she recovers: the 10 to 12 hours of sleep she gets each night; her meticulous approach to diet; her weekly massage and stretching sessions. In other words, it’s all the things she does when she isn’t training that allows her to do what she does when she is.
World-class athletes are masters at this cycle. On a micro level, their training alternates between hard days (e.g., intervals until the brink of muscle failure and total exhaustion) and easy days (e.g., jogging at a pedestrian pace). The best athletes also prioritize recovery, time on the couch and in bed, just as much as they prioritize time on the track or in the gym. On a more macro level, great athletes often follow a hard month of training with an easy week. They intentionally design their seasons to include only a few peak events that are followed by periods of physical and psychological restoration. The days, weeks, months, years, and entire careers of master athletes represent a continual ebb and flow between stress and rest. Those who can’t figure out the right balance either get hurt or burn out (too much stress, not enough rest) or become complacent and plateau (not enough stress, too much rest). Those who can figure out the right balance, however, become life-long champions.
[...] the cycle looks like this:
1.Isolate the muscle or capability you want to grow
3.Rest and recover, allowing for adaptation to occur
4.Repeat—this time stressing the muscle or capability a bit more than you did the last time
Yet discovering such an ideal weight is only half the battle. If you lift every day, multiple times a day, without much rest in between, you’re almost certainly going to burn out. But if you hardly ever make it to the gym and fail to regularly push your limits, you’re not going to get much stronger, either. The key to strengthening your biceps—and, as we’ll learn, any muscle, be it physical, cognitive, or emotional—is balancing the right amount of stress with the right amount of rest. Stress + rest = growth. This equation holds true regardless of what it is that you are trying to grow.
Think for a moment about what it takes to make muscles, such as your biceps, stronger. If you try lifting weights that are too heavy, you probably won’t make it past one repetition. And even if you do, you’re liable to hurt yourself along the way. Lift too light a weight, on the other hand, and you won’t see much, if any, result; your biceps simply won’t grow. You’ve got to find the Goldilocks weight: an amount you can barely manage, that will leave you exhausted and fatigued—but not injured—by the time you’ve finished your workout.
His days were a monotonous pursuit of excellence. Wake up at 6 a.m., head out the door for a 9-mile run, go to school, lift weights, and then run another 9 miles at 6 p.m. In order to avoid injury and illness, he adhered to a rigid diet and religiously went to bed hours before his peers. His life was an exercise in willpower and self-control.
He insisted on sticking to his training plan always, even if that meant running 100 miles during a week-long cruise vacation—circling the 160-meter track on the top deck until not fatigue but dizziness stopped him. He ran through tropical storms, summer heat advisories, and family emergencies. No natural or human disaster could prevent him from getting a workout in.