The Christmas season gives many of us a chance to take a break from routine, spend time with the family and recharge our batteries. As January looms and the start of a new year is upon us, it’s an opportunity to re-evaluate our priorities and set goals for the year ahead. That sense of a fresh beginning and new challenges has never been lost on me, and now is a good time to be evaluating whether you’re consistently performing at your peak, or whether day-to-day distractions and the demands of others are too often getting in the way.
It’s a common problem. We begin the working week with good intentions and a mental list of priority actions we need to accomplish over the next few days. But before we know it, our diaries have been filled with meetings, our inbox is close to bursting and we find ourselves unable to work for more than 10 minutes without an unexpected distraction. It’s half way through the week before we realise that we haven’t even begun to tackle those big actions which are keeping us awake at night with worry.
If this sounds familiar, it might be a signal that we are losing mental focus, which is easily done amid the myriad communications channels punctuating our thoughts. Instead we need to focus on working smarter and finding ways to filter out the noise and distractions, so that we can develop strategies that will enable us to consistently perform at our peak.
If you’re seeking some advice and inspiration, here are five ways to help you ensure that you’re working at your peak, and achieving your very best on a daily basis…
1. Have clearly defined goals
There are many common attributes between top ranking athletes and successful business people. Both of these groups of people are self-driven, motivated by the goals they want to achieve. Athletes visualise the medal they want to win, the ‘personal best’ they hope to achieve, the world record they would love to smash or the finishing line they want to cross. They put in place a plan or strategy to get there, and they remain focused and keep track of their progress along the way.
Similarly, many successful business people swear by the importance of setting goals regularly, to motivate them to perform at their peak. Richard Branson shares on his blog: “Ever since I was a young boy I have made lists of goals and resolutions. It’s how I make sense of the ideas in my head, the suggestions I receive, and the progress we are making. What’s more, if I didn’t write down all of my ideas and resolutions, I might forget them!”
Make your goals measurable so you know if your plans are working. There’s no point setting targets if you don’t know whether you are hitting them. Some should be short-term, for this week and this month, but also consider what you want to have achieved by the end of the year, and in five year’s time.
2. Conserve your mental energy for when it matters
David Rock, author of ‘Your Brain at Work‘, writes “your ability to make great decisions is a limited resource,” and so he argues it is essential to learn to say “no” to tasks not among your priorities. “This means not thinking when you don’t have to, becoming disciplined about not paying attention to non-urgent tasks unless, or until, it’s truly essential that you do”.
I’ve found this particular point has become most pertinent since having children! When you have other people to think about and organise as well as yourself, it’s easy to waste valuable mental energy on non-critical matters, such as deciding what to cook for dinner. It’s important to prioritise and limit distractions, and carve out a sensible chunk of time each week which you dedicate to quality thinking and focus. Deeper thinking is essential for problem solving, writing and creative work, and this when you need your mental energy most.
For some, this will mean finding a place you can retreat to for thinking time, where you are unlikely to be distracted. Think of this as your ‘Necker Island’, if you like!
3. Keep a ‘done’ list
Instead of writing a ‘to do’ list, which can easily become infinite, keep track of what you’ve achieved each day with a ‘done’ list. This is because busyness isn’t necessarily an indication of effectiveness. Often, what’s on your ‘to do’ list and what you have managed to achieve, don’t correlate anyway! Far better is to keep a record of your small wins, completed projects and achievements. This will help you to see how effectively you’re performing within your work, and seeing what you’ve accomplished will lead to a release of endorphins which will make you feel good about yourself, and energise you to push forward with your goals. If your ‘done’ list is worryingly insufficient, it will raise the flag that it’s time for a new productivity strategy.
4. Identify your peak work time
In order to consistently work at your peak, it’s important to identify the time in the day when your body and mind is most attuned to getting things done. It’s a classic productivity hack, to match your most critical actions to your most productive hours, but many of us don’t as it can be easier to live in reactive mode.
Everyone’s different and each person has their own natural rhythm. You probably already have a gut feeling over whether you’re more of a morning person, or a night owl; but it can be helpful to get more detailed and keep track of your productivity over a week, for example, to identify those times in the day when you regularly feel like you’re on a ‘roll’. Patterns will emerge, and if you’re able to work on a sizeable project for 90 minutes or more with only small breaks, that’s a sign you’re operating at peak productivity. Likewise, if there’s a point in the day when you seem to be regularly distracted by email and social media, that’s probably because it’s a trough.
Once you’ve clearly identified your peak work time, make your best efforts to clear that time slot in your day as much as possible. Communicate to your boss and even your clients that you would like to be off the grid for this hour or two, so that you can focus your mind on critical tasks.
5. Have a strong reason ‘why’
Mohammed Ali famously said, “service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” His love of boxing was superseded by his desire to inspire change and fight for what he believed in. Why he did what he did was firmly etched in his mind.
Successful business people are very often driven by passion and a clear belief in what they are striving for. They have a strong sense of purpose, and knowing this is critical for an individual to be motivated to perform at their peak. It helps you to keep focus on the bigger picture, and not get too bogged down in the mundane, boring tasks.
As American writer Mark Twain put it, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” If you’re not already, be clear on your reason ‘why’, and make sure it’s something you’re genuinely passionate about, so that you’re always putting in your best efforts.