Personal productivity: Optimize your body to reach peak performance consistently

Vinay’s note – When it comes to personal productivity advice, one size doesn’t fit all. However the right productivity methods can take you from feeling overwhelmed, unfocused, and unproductive to feeling assured and prepared to take on even the biggest projects. In this post, Michal shows us how to change our game at a fundamental level. 

Personal productivity seems to be one of the hottest topics over the last few years. While the majority of people read this stuff hoping to find a quick fix, what they typically come across is just another list that recommends meditation, the Pomodoro Technique and building habits. Those things work if you have the willpower and energy to do them.

Another problem with all those techniques is that a technique can take you only so far. In terms of productivity, it can take you from bad to good but won’t make your performance great.

Becoming the best version of yourself starts with the fundamentals such as physiology. Usain Bolt is not a running legend because of particular training techniques he’s using. It’s because his body allows him to make most out of them in the first place.

To cut it short, here are some science-backed concepts that can change your game on the most fundamental level.

 

Deep Work: Rewire Your Brain for Elite Performance

“Deep work” is a concept introduced by Cal Newport in his most recent book. It’s the ability to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single, cognitively demanding task, free from distraction.

Sounds simple but this skill is so rare in today’s economy that those who can acquire it will outproduce everyone else and achieve extraordinary results.

Deep work is what makes you produce at an elite level in terms of both quality and speed. It’s why top-producers achieve productivity much higher than everyone else.

productivity equation

The reason why few people are able to work deeply is that we live in an age of constant distraction and multitasking. Our brains are now rewired for higher distractibility and lack of attention.

The power of deep work comes from the fact the longer you’re fully focused on a single task, the better your brain performs. There’s a concept called “attention residue” which means that every time you switch from one task to another, it takes your brain a certain time to get fully concentrated.

But even if you select a single task to work on and eliminate all distractions, you likely won’t stay fully concentrated for too long. Deep work is a skill you need deliberately practice in order to master it.

synaptic plasticity

Neurons form new synapses after we practice a skill.

Our brain is plastic. That means the more you run a certain neuro-circuit in your brain, the stronger that circuit becomes. When you practice something, your neurons develop new synapses as well as a layer of myelin insulation, which makes them faster and more reliable.

Obviously, the kind of work you do matters the most. As a professional, you want to identify that 1 skill you have that delivers you the most results, is not repetitive, and can’t be delegated. That’s deep work. Everything else is shallow work.

 

Top Performers Sleep More and Better Than Everyone Else

You surely heard a lot about the importance of sleep. The problem here is that most self-help books and articles come from the frame of “hacking sleep,” making you sleep less so you can work more, etc. But sleeping less isn’t the answer.

In a famous study on human performance, researchers found that aside from focused practice (deep work) sleep was the major factor that separated elite performers from the average ones.

A typical American gets around 6.8 hours of sleep. Research shows that elite performers across all fields (sport, arts, business) sleep on average 8 hours and 36 minutes per night.

The reason sleep matters and there’s no way to “hack” it is that there are numerous processes going on that make it possible for you to function at your optimal level. And these processes take time.

Fatigue-Alcohol-Performance

Firstly, our brain cleans itself out when you sleep, giving you the ability to think clearly and quickly another day. Secondly, it works like a muscle. When you workout, a muscle grows stronger during the rest period when it rebuilds itself, not during the workout itself.

So if you want to take maximum advantage of your brain’s plasticity (ability to grow new and better neural connections), give it enough rest.

Another important factor is that during our sleep, we produce biochemicals such as testosterone and flush away cortisol (stress hormone). Both are correlated with professional success. Believe it or not, these chemicals affect our behavior, and the amount of sleep affects their levels in your body.

So sleep more and better. What really matters is how much of an uninterrupted sleep you get overnight or whenever you sleep. To get that uninterrupted sleep, a good tip is to use a sleep mask, shades and earplugs. You also want to build the right habits such as no screen time after night and no stimulants in the afternoon.

 

Your Biochemistry Determines Your Professional Success

So let’s carry on with what we said about testosterone, cortisol and biochemistry in general. The evidence that links business success to testosterone is just exhausting. Testosterone makes both men and women (while women have lower testosterone levels, they’re more sensitive to it) more likely to succeed.

Consider this quote from the book “Winner Effect” by leading neuroscientist Ian Robertson:

“Testosterone changes the brain because it alters its chemistry. In particular, it boosts levels of the neurotransmitter, dopamine. Dopamine is a key element in motivation – in getting clear in our minds what we want, and setting out to get it. Winning changes how we feel and think by racking up testosterone and the dopamine-sensitive brain systems responsible for an action-orientated approach.”

It turns out that your testosterone and cortisol levels are the top predictors of success. High performers and successful leaders have higher testosterone and lower cortisol than the average population. The latter counters the popular myth of “managerial stress.” In reality, successful leaders experience less stress than the average population.

Your biochemistry also makes it possible to reach the state of deep work or what psychologists call “flow” and sport scientists “the zone.” It’s your brain that makes “the flow” possible by engaging neurochemicals like dopamine, adrenaline, serotonin, epinephrine, norepinephrine and others in the right way.

So what’s the point of this? Your sleep, nutrition, behavior and even body posture changes your biochemistry. That in turn changes your behavior and affects your ability to reach peak performance.

power posing hormones

A change in biochemistry after adopting low power vs. high power body language for 2 minutes.

Precisely, stimulants like caffeine and (possibly) modafinil, and even excess internet browsing and use of social media screw with your neurochemistry and oversaturate your brain’s receptors.

Lack of sleep and lack certain nutrients like zinc, magnesium, B6 and healthy fats, as well as not doing any strength exercise leads to low testosterone and other hormone imbalances.

There are no generally applicable tips – except go to your doctor, get a blood check first and take it from there. The important thing to say is that optimizing your biochemistry isn’t about quick hacks or taking some supplements, it’s about eliminating harmful behaviors and habits that are so common in today’s lifestyles.

 

Heart Rate Variability: the Key to Consistent Results

As it’s hopefully clear now, controlling your performance, whether mental or physical, starts with your physiology. While the mantra of the modern self-help industry is mind over body, in reality it’s body over mind. But what can you do about it?

Enter Heart Rate Variability. It’s a bit complex to explain in just a few lines, but put simply, every second of our lives our brain receives a stream data from its bodily organs. The most powerful of all is the electrical signal generated by the heart.

These streams of data affect our brains, which in turn affect how we feel. And one of the biomarkers that offers a more accurate assessment of the kind data your brain gets – especially in relation to performance – is Heart Rate Variability (HRV).

HRV predicts death, energy, and alters brain function. The effect of HRV on performance of top athletes is well documented. Sports science has been using various forms of tracking HRV to optimize performance and recovery for several decades.

Heart Rate Variability

It turns out it’s an equally great metric for cognitive performance and decision-making that’s so important for professional and business success. Put simply, your body comes before your mind and emotions because it’s your body that determines your brain’s responses in the first place.

So no matter how much time you spend “visualizing your goals,” motivating yourself, or reading affirmations and doing other BS popularized by the self-help industry, if your HRV signal is too chaotic your brain will also be chaotic.

This will then lead to irrational and poor decision making, that will impact your life both personally and commercially. Chaotic HRV signals are linked to low energy levels, while a more stable, coherent pattern in HRV is related to brilliant performance and an abundance of energy.

So if you can learn to stabilize your physiology, you can learn to control your entire emotional state. Controlling your HRV can lead to dramatic improvements in brain function and energy levels too.

HRV

This is an oversimplification. To get a good understanding of HRV and business performance, watch this video by Dr. Alan Watkins.

How do you track and control it then? With the boom in mobile and wearables, it’s no longer a big deal to track it. There’s bunch of trackers on the market and related apps. I won’t recommend any here, do your own research and get it.

Controlling your HRV is a skill you can easily acquire. A chaotic HRV signal is often caused by erratic breathing patterns. If you can learn to control your breathing, you can control the quality of the information you send round your body.

There are 12 aspects of proper breathing that we can control or regulate. The 2 most important ones are rhythm and smoothness. Practicing a basic breathing meditation can help you develop this skill and control your HRV. This will enable you to control your thoughts, behavior and, ultimately, your results.

 

So Where do I Start?

Start wherever you like. It’s individual. Just start if you’re serious about improvement. I highly recommend reading and watching some of the material I provided in the links. In particular, books like Deep Work, Winner Effect and the talks by Amy Cuddy and Alan Watkins.

The problem I have with all those productivity articles is that you can’t apply everything at once. The change is rarely instant – typically, it’s a gradual process.

In my case, after reading Presence by Amy Cuddy and Winner Effect by Ian Robertson, I had my testosterone checked and it was low (same story with everyone I know who had their T checked – our entire generation is 40% lower on T than the previous one). That was a result of irregular sleep, high stress and lack of exercise.

Changing my sleep pattern, improving diet and hitting the gym on regular basis doubled and later tripled my testosterone levels. I felt awesome, and I did epic stuff over the course of last year. Later on, I quit coffee and – surprise – it turns out I don’t need it. My energy levels got steadier, and my sleep quality improved.

Then I developed a habit of getting more sleep. I use a sleep mask and earplugs to get the most out of it. After years of sleeping 6-7 hours a night, I can say it’s the top productivity “hack” I discovered over the years. I did bunch of other stuff but you get the point.

However, deep work is a completely different category. It takes years to practice, and you need to develop a proper strategy that will work for YOU. It can be a long trial and error process, but it’s worth it.

Most people aren’t serious about improvement and are looking for “hacks” and quick fixes. But whether you realize it or not, time flies and nobody is going to stay here forever. So if you’re going spend your time here, you might as well be the best version of you and see what you’re really capable of.

 

PS: Work on yourself, then work on your business. To help with the latter, WPCurve has created a list of best tools you can use to grow your business. Download it free.

 

About

Michal Ugor is an entrepreneur, athlete and traveler. He is a co-founder of Freddy Bayne, a London-based luxury mens' wear startup and founding writer at Boomlink.co

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