Reaching peak performance and productivity

While most jobs feel like long marathons where we cover a huge way over many years, certain jobs require short periods of peak performance.  For either sprint or marathon, reaching the peak performance can be the holy grail of productivity. For today’s reading, I went with articles here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Sprint vs marathon

Consider the art of negotiation or magical product presentation … These short, often one-hour opportunities may make or break deals and careers. On the other hand, someone working on VLSI chip verification is judged by statistical parameters like coverage and works like a marathon runner, without speeding up and slowing down. In both cases, we look for productivity.

Granted, not every job’s productivity can be accurately measured. If you happen to work in research or creative, the clients will judge the final product and not the way you took. Work fast or slow,  maybe procrastination will let your creative juices flow and produce an artform or discovery. Everybody else simply needs to be productive.

Most people do not feel energized unless they can generate a short sprint with clear goals. In this case, any large project can be divided into smaller milestones, possibly with short periods of rest between the sprints. Selected few can start with a given pace and simply never get tired. These people should be dealing with the biggest and most intimidating projects.

6 Ps for sports success

Rarely I can take an article I quote as a basis for something that I write. This is one of such cases. I quote:

  • Passion: What it takes to find your own personal greatness as an athlete can be tiring, painful, boring, and frustrating. That’s where passion comes in.

  • Perspective:  The reality is that, if you don’t have a good season, you will be disappointed, but you will certainly survive and be fine in the long run. If you can embrace competition this attitude you remove the expectations and pressure and have a much better chance of accomplishing those goals that are so important to you.

  • Process:  One of the most common problems that occurs in athletes as the competition season, and big competitions, approach is a shift in their focus away from the process and onto outcomes.

  • Present:  You can’t change the past, but you can ruin a perfectly good future by worrying about it.

  • Positive: You may go from being your best ally to your worst enemy. What are the chances of good things happening this season with this “dark” mindset?

  • Progress: The only thing you should really focus on is yourself and the progress you’re making toward your goals. You will always have setbacks and plateaus, but the key is to see that you are heading in the right direction.

Using 6 Ps in your career

I want to do something that I rarely do, and adopt this 6P approach not just for sports, but as a career mindset. Just like an athlete prepares for competitions, so we need to prepare for the deadlines, demos, submissions and other milestones.

Positive attitude with the focus on process and progress can keep our minds from worrying about any given event. We can open up to the new things we need to achieve. At the same time, we will be more positive and pleasant to work with.

Then, we must truly love our job, because most of the time we will be dealing with hard and boring stuff. If 10% of our time will be glorious, we should consider ourselves lucky. Currently, I do not know any exceptions.

Dealing with injuries

An athlete can suffer an injury if he does not work like. So can we. Maybe not physically, but we do risk our reputation. If we behave incorrectly, we will end up in a bad situation.

Hardware or software product can become unstable and impossible to maintain. A brand can suffer from bad publicity or be associated with something that is bad in many different ways. Search engines may declare a website as unreliable.

Injuries are bad. Before we do any serious work we should probably stretch: build a small scale mockup-project to test our ideas. We should not reuse the things we do in mockup as a part of the main project, but copy the functionality correctly.

If we do suffer injury, we can either push through the pain and have a long rehabilitation period, or retire from the event and have a longer rehabilitation. Certain managers will try to push through the pain at an increasing rate, which can be devastating in the long run.  Not so much for your own career but often for the entire company.

Be kind to yourself

If you push yourself too hard, you will probably get bitter and lose motivation. This is dangerous.  It is much better to be kind to yourself. It is good to sweat, but the effort should never break you.

Quite often we try to understand if a certain event is a success or a failure. This should not truly worry us. We should be worried about improvement and motivation.  If we are motivated, work correctly and improve constantly, we are likely to succeed eventually.

In certain positions, we must be resilient enough to fail 100 times before finding success. Moreover, each time we try we need to generate an honest effort and performance. Basically, we need to start loving failing, as failures may be bringing us closer to success. I think people who need to fail routinely start secreting endorphins to deal with the job pressure. I personally experienced this on several occasions.

Automate

There are many ways we can automate our activity. When if flow state we can often feel as if our responses are not controlled. As we get 100% involved, we act instinctively without sparing mental energy on unrelated stuff or considering the outcomes of our efforts.

At the opposite pole of the scale, a rule-based computer system may be handling the tasks for us, clearing our minds for what really matters. Good automation systems tend to be intuitive and nearly transparent. They allow us to offload the things we do not want to deal with. An athlete with good shoes often has an advantage, as the shoes do some of the work for the athlete.  In a similar way, we probably need a fast computer with a big monitor.

We can offload tasks to other people via different kinds of delegation, but then we will need to define the projects and interfaces, answer questions and oversee progress.  If an athlete passes the ball to another athlete, he needs to be damn sure he does the right thing and the ball will not be lost or intercepted. We do not want our task to fail.

AI can play different roles in automation, like our extension, a subcontractor or a stupid machine. It can also do all of these roles. I really cannot imagine the future without AI, yet I cannot imagine all the roles the AI will take in the future.

Extrinsic motivation

Teams that pay more can get better athletes and facilities, but the athlete will not perform better as his salary increases. The ability to do the thing you are good at and passionate about should be its own reward. Some companies give huge bonuses driving the people to perform. This can be great only in a very short term. People who get bonuses often lose touch with reality and focus on providing something that somehow works, without making it sufficiently clear and robust to maintain. Getting people who enjoy their work and delivering a job well done is much more effective than bribing people to work faster.

In certain big companies, employees often behave like Pavlov’s dogs. They do certain actions in anticipation of reward. Will they complete their tasks? Probably. Will they build something great? Probably not. Play, purpose, and potential are the direct motives because they are in some way directly connected to the work itself.  Being primed into an activity reduces the motivation for teamwork and job satisfaction.

Dan Ariely, the author of Predictably Irrational, showed that even MIT students can succumb to worse performance when they are victims of economic pressure. Those who were offered high payouts performed 32% worse on simple addition problems than those given less of an economic incentive to perform well.

Teamwork

 

Not surprisingly, being a part of a great team is very important for personal progress. Team players help each other, respect each other and learn from each other. Healthy competition builds up positive motivation. People who are willing to mentor and be mentored, are not afraid to ask for help and complement others, will do better at sports and at work.

The effect does not have to be direct. Simply belonging to a social group, immediately improve resilience. Being interested in somebody else reduces the chances that we get too dark and melancholic.

Accountability is another interesting effect. If we review the past and provide an account for it, we learn better and faster.

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