Three Secrets to Performing at Your Highest Level
Get started. Keep going. Stop.
It’s one thing to reach the top of a mountain. It’s another thing to stay there for a long time, through good weather and bad. Serena Williams, Tom Brady, Lebron James, and Diana Taurasi are all notable examples of elite performers who have accomplished the latter. They’ve ascended to great heights, and, somehow, they’ve managed to stay there. They are perennial peak performers.
Unlike these giants, you may not be the best in the world at what you do. But the truth is you don’t have to be. After years of research, the best definition I’ve come up with for peak performance is expressing your fullest potential in a sustainable manner—and feeling good while you’re doing it. In other words, peak performance is an inside game. And it is attainable to anyone, whether that means winning Super Bowls and Grand Slams or finishing your local 5K and doing good creative work. It’s about getting the best out of yourself, over and over again.
Though achieving this state results from a confluence of factors, there are a few key practices required for peak performance in just about any endeavor. All are simple. Yet none are easy.
Know How to Get Started
In his book Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work, bestselling author Steven Pressfield writes, “The professional does not wait for inspiration; he acts in anticipation of it.” Peak performance is actually a continuous practice. Or, as Pressfield writes, “It is the dedicated, daily exercise of commitment, will, and focused intention.”
While it can be helpful to design your environment and develop routines that encourage your best work, nothing matters if you don’t show up. Unfortunately, there is no elaborate program that will help you show up. No special tea, lotion, potion, or pill. You just have to do it. Day in and day out. A common misconception is that you need to be in a good mood or feel motivated to get going. But it turns out that, in many cases, the opposite is true. Mood follows action.
“Emotions come and go,” says Rich Roll, an endurance athlete and podcast host. “Sometimes it’s best not to fight a down feeling but just to accept it.” However, Roll says, this doesn’t mean you need to give in to those down emotions. “If I’m in a rut, I force myself to move my body, even if only a little bit. This helps shift my perspective and reset my operating system—and more often than not, the sun starts shining again.”
In science-speak, Roll is describing behavioral activation. Our brain loves to protect us from anxiety, fear, and failure, so it sends strong emotional messages telling us to stay in place. The best way to change these feelings is often to simply start acting. “The ability to overcome resistance, self-sabotage, and self-doubt is way more important than talent,” Pressfield writes.
Know How to Keep Going
Anyone who has ever pursued a big goal knows there are times when it’s really hard to keep going. Fatigue, boredom, and fear of failure are all common obstacles. It’s a lot easier to work through these obstacles when you’re not alone. Research shows that being part of a community bolsters motivation and creates a sense of accountability. When you fall, others are there to pick you up.
In addition to community, remembering why you’re doing what you’re doing can help you persist, especially during periods of low energy. Studies show that individuals with a strong sense of purpose are less likely to burn out. Purpose and community work hand in hand: lots of us derive meaning from our community, and when our sense of purpose is wavering, our community is there to support and hold us up.
Know How to Stop
The paradox of working hard is that it’s great until it’s not. Push too hard, and injuries, both physical and emotional, tend to kick in. It’s important to remember that the path toward any long-term goal requires periods of stress and rest. Regardless of the endeavor, long-term progress is less about heroic efforts and more about smart pacing.
Running coach Mario Fraioli has told me many times that one of the most important things he tries to communicate to his athletes is to “stop one rep short.” Though it can be tempting to keep pushing, he says, “You want to be able to pick up where you left off, which means you can’t beat yourself into the ground every workout.”
This mindset also applies beyond sports. A common piece of writing advice is to stop one sentence short so you can pick up in rhythm the next day. Not that this is easy. In an interview with the Paris Review, Earnest Hemingway said that as difficult as his blocks of writing were, it was “the wait until the next day,” when he forced himself to rest, that was hardest. In On Writing, Stephen King says, “For me, not working is the real work.”
On its face, knowing how to get started and keep going may seem contradictory with knowing how to stop. And yet it seems that what gives rise to peak performance is turning these seemingly opposing skills into a flowing cycle. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to come across a silver bullet to make this happen. Your best bet is to treat your own performance path like an experiment, paying close attention to your body and mind and adjusting as you go.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) coaches on performance and well-being and writes Outside’s Do It Better column. He is bestselling author of the books The Passion Paradox and Peak Performance. Subscribe to his newsletter here.