No one makes it to the Olympics without a coach. Peak performance in any endeavor requires an objective and understanding observer to help assess performance (strengths and weaknesses), reveal blind spots, establish a growth plan, and maintain accountability. Peak performance at work often requires unvarnished confidential reviews from peers, bosses, and subordinates before and during the growth process. (Those reviews should only be seen by the client and the coach as a tool for personal development and never for promotion, compensation, or termination purposes.) Having a fearless, objective, and confidential coach will help keep you on task to achieving your potential. Evidenced-based coaching for peak performance benefits from the recent advent of positive psychology, which opened a new domain of psychology devoted to peak performance instead of to mental or emotional pathology.
Related to maximizing your performance at home or at work is altering habitual behaviors or attitudes in a lasting way. A desired behavioral change could be either technical or adaptive. Technical change requires that you simply establish and implement structures, rules, and activities. As difficult as a technical challenge may be, however, it does not require introspection, self-awareness, or habit change. An adaptive challenge, on the other hand, is one that requires self-awareness, including discovery of the internal reasons and mechanisms for your unconscious resistance to a change, as well as a mindset adjustment. The same goal or challenge can be a technical one for some people and an adaptive one for others. For example, for some people (a small minority), losing weight is a technical challenge. They merely need to set rules for themselves (minimize calories, no eating after dinner, no desserts, etc.). For most of us, though, losing weight is an adaptive challenge. We need to discover what internal self-protection mechanisms are interfering with our ability to simply eat less.
Partners in Thought® tools include the “Immunity to Change” model developed by Harvard psychologists based on modern theories of adult development. The title of the model is based on the metaphor of our body’s physical immune system, designed to protect us. You maintain a psychological immune system, as well, that logically and with good intention may be “protecting” you from making the advances you desire. Even organizations maintain an implicit immunity to change. The Immunity to Change process helps individuals (and organizations) discover and test the hidden assumptions underlying these defense mechanisms, the result of which can be lasting adaptive behavioral change. Conceptually, adaptive change is analogous to the eventual acceptance by the body of a transplanted kidney, which initially was rejected by the body’s immune system. This concept underlies the Partners in Thought® workshop, Overcoming Barriers to Desired Change and other related workshops.
Achieving creative goals, in particular, can be enhanced by exploiting the “Zeigernik effect,” which is the counter-intuitive phenomenon of improving your work product by intentionally causing interruptions along the way. The act of starting work on a task, no matter how small, gives psychological weight to the goal. Interrupting oneself when absorbed in the task both extends memory of the task components and pushes the goal to the top of one’s mind. With the goal in mind, we are primed to consciously or unconsciously home in on observations and input relevant to the goal, which are later used to enhance our work product. With so many competing stimuli at any time, we should prime ourselves to attend to the stimuli that will be most helpful to achieving our goals.
For example, if you plan to write an article, you should start it as soon as possible, interrupt the process when engrossed in it (or when you get stuck) and defer completion. With your mind primed for attention to matters related to the subject of your article, you likely will discover or assemble new and valuable insights to enhance the article when you return to it. (Recording those discoveries or thoughts in a journal would be important to capture and retain these insights).
Peak performance can be achieved through various other counter-intuitive science-based tools and concepts. For example, varying your practice related to a physical or emotional task is better than focusing your practice exclusively on the particular target task. The more random the task practiced, the better the ultimate performance in the subject task. Scrambled and interleaved practice sessions are therefore more helpful than traditional focused practice. Similarly, to maximize performance and growth, we need to discard the intuitive concept that repetition is the best way to learn. We also need to discard the desire to hold on tightly to the outcome: if a mountain bike rider holds too tightly to the handles, she loses the flexibility and perceptivity to negotiate tight turns and tricky terrain. A tennis player who holds too tightly to the racket limits her agility and ability to optimize her swing and other movements. As 38 Special sang: “hold on loosely, but don’t let go."
Another key to peak performance, from positive psychology, is a focus on exploiting one’s strengths instead of on shoring up weaknesses. Based on research of over 1.5 million people, strengths are being used only 20% of the time, which means people are likely not matching their jobs and lives to their strengths. Other keys to peak performance and behavior change include habit formation and change, self-regulation, mindfulness and concentration, meditation, self-hypnosis, and improvement of memory and learning. A key to peak performance within an organization is development of social and emotional intelligences. All Partners in Thought® interactive workshops address peak performance in one way or another.