The Best way to Improve Your Performance

Here are some easy tips, which I elaborate on later, to improve your performance at almost anything.

  1. How you practice makes a big difference. You need to think about feedback loops, deliberate practice, and working in chunks.
  2. The mindset between top performers and amateurs is different.
  3. Sleep is incredibly important.
  4. There is a difference between hard and soft skills.
  5. Leverage tempo, focus, and routines to work for you not against you.
  6. Make sure you have time for rest.
  7. If you want to think, take a walk.

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Improving Performance

No matter what we do for a living, a common thread is a desire to get better. And yet few of us were taught what matters and what doesn’t when it comes to improving performance.

Given that we spend a lot of time doing things that we never get better at, I thought I’d share my “developing world-class performance” commonplace book with you. (Here commonplace book just a fancy word for a folder with notes in it.)

How you Practice Makes the Difference

Four-time world memory champion Joshua Foer says:

Amateur musicians … tend to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros tend to work through tedious exercises or focus on difficult parts of pieces.

How you practice and who you practice against makes the difference. 

Skill improvement is likely to be minimized when facing substantially inferior opponents, because such opponents will not challenge one to exert maximal or even near-maximal effort when making tactical decisions, and problems or weaknesses in one’s play are unlikely to be exploited. At the same time, the opportunity for learning is also attenuated during matches against much stronger opponents, because no amount of effort or concentration is likely to result in a positive outcome. (source)

Feedback loops are how we get better. Funny isn’t it that we rarely get helpful feedback at work whereas world-class performers in almost all other disciplines get regular feedback from a coach. Now you know why we rarely get better at things we do over and over at work.

In Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, Geoff Colvin writes:

You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring.

Work in chunks or pulses (and don’t multi-task). Deliberate practice should be so hard that you can only sustain it for a relatively short amount of time.

From Talent is Overrated:

The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes.

Your Mindset Makes A Difference

When practicing and playing there is a different mindset between average and top performers. Amateurs believe errors were caused by something other than themselves whereas professionals believe they are responsible for mistakes.

From Talent is Overrated:

Average performers believe their errors were caused by factors outside their control: My opponent got lucky; the task was too hard; I just don’t have the natural ability for this. Top performers, by contrast, believe they are responsible for their errors. Note that this is not just a difference of personality or attitude. Recall that the best performers have set highly specific, technique-based goals and strategies for themselves; they have thought through exactly how they intend to achieve what they want. So when something doesn’t work, they can relate the failure to specific elements of their performance that may have misfired.

Sleep is Key

Aside from practice, sleep is the next most important thing.

In Anders Ericsson’s famous study of violinists, the top performers slept an average of 8 hours out of every 24, including a 20 to 30 minute mid-afternoon nap, some 2 hours a day more than the average American.

The top violinists also reported that except for practice itself, sleep was the second most important factor in improving as violinists. (source)

The Difference Between Hard and Soft Skills

So all of that is great for technical skills (like chess and music) where there are pretty defined rules about good and bad but how can we develop the softer skills? Like Soccer or Swimming?

Change how you practice, increasing the number of repetitions. The way that Brazil develops its soccer players is fascinating. They use a game called futebol de salão, which creates a laboratory of improvisation.

From The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:

This insanely fast, tightly compressed five-on-five version of the game— played on a field the size of a basketball court— creates 600 percent more touches, demands instant pattern recognition and, in the words of Emilio Miranda, a professor of soccer at the University of São Paulo, serves as Brazil’s “laboratory of improvisation.”

Copy people who are better than you. Consider how Ben Franklin improved his writing. Franklin intuitively grasped the concept of deliberate practice. As a teenager, Ben received a letter from his father saying his writing was inferior: “in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances,” as Franklin recalled.

From Talent is Overrated:

Ben responded to his father’s observations in several ways. First, he found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce, a bound volume of the Spectator, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would have ever thought of.

It began with his reading a Spectator article and marking brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, “discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.

One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required an extensive “stock of words” because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. …

Franklin realized also that a key element of a good essay is its organization, so he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original; again, he “discovered many faults and amended them.”

Use Leverage to Accelerate Productivity

In order to do our best work, even thinking, we need to focus on one thing

From Your Brain At Work — Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long:

One of the most effective distraction-management techniques is simple: switch off all communication devices during any thinking work. Your brain prefers to focus on things right in front of you. It takes less effort. If you are trying to focus on a subtle mental thread, allowing yourself to be distracted is like stopping pain to enjoy a mild pleasure: it’s too hard to resist! Blocking out external distractions altogether, especially if you get a lot of them, seems to be one of the best strategies for improving mental performance.

Consciously evaluate your hidden scripts that execute to make sure they’re working for you. For instance, your habit of going to work and checking your email might be a good ritual but it might derail your progress because you’re not matching time and energy effectively.

From Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career:

A ritual is a highly precise behavior you do at a specific time so that it becomes automatic over time and no longer requires much conscious intention or energy.

While we all need routines and habits to free up our brain for some heavy lifting, it’s important that we regularly review our subconscious processing to make sure it’s still what we need.

Your environment matters more than you think. Think of your physical and virtual environments as nudging your unconscious.

 

You Can’t Work 24/7

You need downtime. I don’t care who you are, there is no way you can work 24/7 for weeks. Leisure has been proven to extend your life, reduce stress, and make you more creative. When you’re at work, work. When you’re not there take some time off. Embrace the ability to do nothing.

From Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing:

What comes into your consciousness when you are idle can often be reports from the depths of your unconscious self— and this information may not always be pleasant. Nonetheless, your brain is likely bringing it to your attention for a good reason. Through idleness, great ideas buried in your unconsciousness have the chance to enter your awareness.

Exercise also has numerous health benefits. From Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving At Work, Home, and School:

Just about every mental test possible was tried. No matter how it was measured, the answer was consistently yes: A lifetime of exercise can result in a sometimes astonishing elevation in cognitive performance, compared with those who are sedentary. Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material in order to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work.

Take a Walk Before Deciding

Some philosophers walked to think and others walked to escape. Kant combined walking and habit.

From A Philosophy of Walking:

Like Nietzsche — although with different emphasis — (Kant) was concerned with only two things apart from reading and writing: the importance of his walk, and what he should eat. But their styles differed absolutely. Nietzsche was a great, indefatigable walker, whose hikes were long and sometimes steep; and he usually ate sparingly, like a hermit, always trying out diets, seeking what would least upset his delicate stomach.

Kant by contrast had a good appetite, drank heartily, although not to excess, and spent long hours at the table. But he looked after himself during his daily walk which was always very brief, a bit perfunctory. He couldn’t bear to perspire. So in summer he would walk very slowly, and stop in the shade when he began to overheat.

Putting it Together

There you go. All of these are helpful individually but together they help you accelerate your performance to new and sustainable levels. It’s simple but it’s not easy.