The best performers in the world share a few key habits, and a new book helps you implement them
Michael Joyner, a physician and researcher at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minneapolis, is one of the most productive humans alive. Joyner, an expert on physiology and human performance, has published more than 350 scientific articles, was recently named the distinguished investigator at the Mayo Clinic, and was awarded a grant through the Fulbright Scholar Program. In addition to his research, Joyner, an anesthesiologist by trade, sees patients regularly and is a mentor to countless up-and-comers, informally running what he calls “my own version of a Montessori school.” He writes for Sports Illustrated and is frequently cited as an expert in other leading publications. Joyner, who’s 58 and married with young kids, is also still a dedicated athlete himself, completing near-daily 60-to-75-minute workouts.
Joyner doesn’t have a special genetic mutation that gives him endless energy, nor does he work 12-hour days. Instead, he has deliberately designed not just his days but, really, his entire life, around eliminating distractions and extraneous decisions. For example, he protects dedicated time for deep-focus work (early in the morning, before his family rises), prepacks his gym bag and lunch with the same contents every day, and even deliberately moved to be within a 15-minute bike commute from his office. In doing so, he reserves energy and willpower for the activities that are critically important to him.
Great performers like Joyner choose where to focus their energy and protect it from everything else that could encroach upon it. This includes even seemingly simple things, like deciding what style of shirt to wear. And Joyner isn’t alone. In the reporting for our new book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, nearly every great performer we spoke with developed daily routines to eliminate the trivial and maximize time spent on important things. In other words, to be a maximalist in a particular field, the world’s best are minimalists in nearly everything else. Here’s what you can learn from them.
They Avoid Decision Fatigue
At the end of 2014, in Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s first-ever public Q&A session, he was famously asked, “Why do you wear the same thing every day?” in reference to his nearly ubiquitous uniform of blue jeans, a gray T-shirt, and a hooded sweatshirt.
“I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community,” he replied. He went on to explain that, when taken together, small decisions—like choosing what to wear—add up and can be quite tiring. “I’m in this really lucky position, where I get to wake up every day and help serve more than a billion people. And I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life,” he said.
Zuckerberg isn’t the first genius to simplify his wardrobe. Albert Einstein had a closet filled with multiple same gray suits. Steve Jobs almost exclusively wore a black mock turtleneck, blue jeans, and New Balance sneakers. President Barack Obama recently told Vanity Fair that he only wears gray or blue suits. But can removing such simple choices—blue shirt or red shirt, Apple Jacks or Cheerios—really affect performance and make us more productive?
Research shows that we all have a limited reservoir of mental energy, which, over the course of a day, depletes as we use it. 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, succumbing to something called “decision fatigue.” As the decisions they were forced to make accumulated, the judges became mentally tired and thus had less energy to think critically about cases, opting instead for the easier default choice of no parole. Additionally, a recent study found that physicians make significantly more prescribing errors later in the day. Jeffrey Linder, lead author on the study, told the New York Times, “The radical notion here is that doctors are people too, and we may be fatigued and make worse decisions toward the end of our clinic sessions.”
Without doubt, evaluating whether to grant parole or examining a sick patient requires a lot more thought than deciding what color shirt to wear. Nonetheless, even seemingly trivial decisions deplete us. Experiments show that people who were forced to make choices among a range of consumer goods—like color of T-shirt, type of scented candle, or brand of shampoo—performed worse than those who were presented with only one option on a series of tests that covered everything from physical stamina to persistence to problem-solving. The subjects who were confronted with multiple choices also procrastinated more, researchers found, concluding that even when it comes to the simplest things, “making many decisions leaves a person in a depleted state,” impairing his performance on future activities.
This doesn’t mean that you should live on autopilot. But it does mean you should realize that you have limited energy and devote it only to things that really matter, making a routine out of just about everything that is not core to your mission.
They Take Advantage of Their Chronotype
If the first step to designing an optimal day is figuring out what to do (and, perhaps more important, what not to do), then the second step is figuring out when to do it. In his book Daily Rituals, author Mason Currey detailed a typical day for more than 50 of the world’s greatest artists, writers, musicians, and thinkers. Not surprisingly, nearly all of them were minimalists, cutting out the trivial from their lives, and they all adhered to fairly rigid routines. But the routines themselves varied significantly. This was especially true for when they did their best work. Some, including Mozart, did their best work late into the night. Others, including Beethoven, were most productive at the crack of dawn. It’s not that these great performers did their best work at a certain time of day, or that there is an optimal hour for productivity. Rather, each individual figured out when they were most alert and focused and designed their day accordingly. Whether they knew it or not, these individuals were optimizing their day around their respective chronotypes, which describes the natural and unique ebb and flow of energy that every individual experiences over the course of 24 hours.
Scientists refer to those who are most alert in the morning as “larks” and those who are most alert in the evening as “owls.” Whether it’s a physically or cognitively demanding task, science has shown that most people tend to perform their best either in the earlier part of the day or in the later part of the day. These individual differences are rooted in our bodies’ unique biological rhythms—when various hormones associated with energy and focus are released and when our body temperatures rise and fall.
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. 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 meetings, or doing basic chores.
So how do you know your chronotype? You could undergo extensive longitudinal blood work and fill out multiple surveys, or you could simply ask yourself: When am I most alert, and when do I do my best work? A bit of introspection goes a long way. The hard part is acting on it.
They Choose Their Friends Wisely
In 2010, the United States Air Force Academy set out to understand why some cadets increase their fitness during their time at the academy while others do not. In a National Bureau of Economic Research study that tracked a cohort of cadets over four years, researchers found that while there was variability in fitness gains and losses across all the cadets, there was hardly any variability within squadrons, or groups of about 30 cadets to which an individual is randomly assigned prior to his freshman year.
The researchers discovered that 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 they were motivated to improve, then his enthusiasm spread and everyone improved. If, on the other hand, the least fit person was apathetic or negative, his squadron slowly adopted that sentiment, too. Just like diseases easily spread through tight-knit groups, so too does motivation.
Motivation isn’t the only emotion that is contagious. Research has shown that when we see someone else express happiness or sadness, the neural networks associated with those emotions become active in our own brains. And the same goes for pain. 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 Seppala, “We are wired for empathy.”
And this empathy can prompt very concrete actions and behaviors. 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.
Many studies on behavior change and performance focus on the individual, but the makeup of one’s social circle has a huge impact on one’s own behavior, and the world’s greatest performers know this. Working to build a better self almost always means working to build a better community.
They Show Up
The best performers design their days strategically: They are minimalists in order to be maximalists; they ensure their work is in harmony with their chronotype; and they surround themselves with supportive, like-minded people. But designing the perfect day means nothing if you don’t show up for it. In the words of the writer James Clear, “The single greatest skill in any endeavor is doing the work. Not doing the work that is easy for you. Not doing the work that makes you look good. Not doing the work when you feel inspired. Just doing the work.”
The best performers are not consistently great, but they are great at being consistent. A large body of social science suggests that attitudes often follow behaviors. Great performers understand this, and, if nothing more, they make sure to at least get started on all their working days.
When drafting a novel, 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.
The secret of world-class performers is not the daily routines that they develop—it’s that they stick to them.
This article was excerpted from the new book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, published by Rodale Books. It is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, and everywhere else books are sold.