If you want to become elite at what you do, you need to consistently get better.
High performance is all about putting in more and “reps.”
Doing the same workout every day won’t make you stronger or faster. Just showing up to work every day and doing your job won’t make you better at your job.
It’s been shown that most doctors become worse at their job over their career. They are at their height when they come out of medical school and slowly get worse over time.
Because they stop learning.
Experience enough isn’t how you get better.
Continually improving your experience and process is how you get better — this is what psychologists call “deliberate practice.”
Another word for Deliberate Practice is what Cal Newport calls, “Deep Work,” which is rare in our distracted world. In order to engage in Deep Work, you need to design your life for Deep Recovery — which means you’re totally disconnected from work.
Deep work is rare because Deep Recovery is even rarer. Hence, high performance is rare and most people remain mediocre despite putting in LOTS of hours every day.
Most people’s days are not “deliberate” or designed for high performance
Every single day could be looked at like a “rep.” Like another workout. Like another opportunity to get better.
But very few people look at their days like this.
Most people are simply doing the same thing over and over.
They are gaining more experience, but that experience isn’t actually making them better. In most cases, their experience is actually making them worse over time.
In this article, I’m going to make several scientific arguments about how to optimize your day and your life. I’m going to provide a simple framework for designing your life around DEEP WORK and DEEP RECOVERY.
Here is a brief overview of the core arguments and principles:
- People who wake up earlier are more confident
- Waking up early is the first decision that dominoes into other better decisions
- Waking up early creates positive and optimistic emotions
- From an evolutionary perspective, waking up early gives you a competitive-edge (Darwin would be proud)
- Waking up early and focusing on “Important” rather than “Urgent” activities — such as learning, planning, fitness, and creative projects — allows you to make progress daily, which compounds over time
- Waking up early, working in a flow-state, and then completing your work early gives you a longer recovery period in your afternoon and evening
- The quality and duration of your recovery determines your creative and productive potential the next day
- The quality and duration of your recovery determines your level of presence in the other areas of your life — most notably your family and other close relationships
- Time spent away from work and away from screens is your greatest super-power
- Having a life and focusing your energy on your highest priorities allows you to be 10X or 100X more productive with your time when you’re actually working
Here’s a breakdown of how it works:
- You wake up early, ideally between 4–6
- You have a morning routine that gets you into a peak-state (this generally involves visualization, meditation, journaling, fitness, and IMPORTANT work)
- You leave your cellphone in another room and on airplane mode for several hours
- You focus your work on results, rather than the amount of time spent doing it
- You use your cellphone, social media, and internet sparingly and intentionally (ideally no more than 3–4 hours per day and during the early afternoon hours)
- You stop working earlier in your day than usual (ideally between noon-3PM)
- You put your phone back on airplane mode and you engage in your life and relationships
Why does this process make scientific sense?
In order to become a high performer at anything, you need to optimize your life for RECOVERY.
Working long hours is not rare. Most people work long hours. And people are actually working more and more — despite the fact that technologies have been developed so we could be working less and living more.
Being present with loved ones is rare. Engaging in physical and relational activities without technology is rare. Being away from screen-time is rare. Getting a good night sleep at a reasonable hour is rare.
Designing your life is rare. As T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Where is the Life we have lost in living?”
Most people are too caught up living and have no clue how to actually design a life. A life is something you build and create, not something you do. I life is something you have.
There are two key concepts required for high performance — both of which are rare
The two key concepts for high performance and radical productivity are:
Deep Work, as described by author and scientist, Cal Newport
Psychological Detachment From Work, a new and emerging line of research
In Deep Work, Cal Newport distinguishes “deep work” from “shallow work.” Here’s the difference:
Deep work is:
- high value; and
- non-replicable (i.e., not easy to copy/outsource)
Shallow work is:
- low value; and
- replicable (i.e., anyone can do it)
Deep work requires deep focus. Very few people can focus deeply for long periods of time anymore. Most people’s lives have been optimized for distraction. People’s bodies have become addicted to quick-hit neurochemicals — such as dopamine and even cortisol.
Deep work doesn’t just happen. It has to be designed for. According to Stanford Psychologist, Bj Fogg, willpower is not how you build good habits. Instead, you need to design your environment and life for them. You need to get small wins every single day, which stack on top of each other.
Thus, one reason to wake up early is that it is an immediate small win that ripples into other wins. Another reason is that your brain is far more creative and rested first thing in the morning, especially if you’ve adequately worked and recovered the day before.
You cannot be satisfied as a person if you’re not doing good, creative, and important work.
If you’re not doing deep work, you won’t become successful in today’s fast-paced, information, and technology driven world.
As Cal Newport said:
“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
In order to regularly do DEEP WORK, you need to set your life up so that it can happen. This is where RECOVERY is key. The important concept here is just as rare as deep work, and is one of the primary reasons deep work doesn’t happen.
This concept is known as Psychological Detachment From Work — which can only occur when you completely refrain from work-related activities and thoughts during non-work time.
The non-stop and highly competitive world we live in makes very difficult to psychologically detach from work.
Our technologies have been designed to be habit-forming, which means that if we are not intentional — we will regularly and subconsciously check-email, respond to texts, and check social media.
Even if we are not working, we will regularly be thinking about work because we are not absorbed in the other areas of our life. Research shows that it’s very difficult for most people to psychologically detach from work.
Yet, research also shows that proper detachment/recovery from work is essential for physical and psychological health, in addition to engaged and productive work.
Research has further found that people who psychologically detach from work experience:
- Less work-related fatigue and procrastination
- Far greater engagement at work, which is defined as vigor, dedication, and absorption (i.e., “flow”)
- Greater work-life balance, which directly relates to quality of life
- Greater marital satisfaction
- Greater mental health
Put simply — if you want to be AMAZING at what you do, you need to do less of it. Well, not exactly less, but you need to be far more focused and deep while you’re doing your work. And when you’re not working, you need to be absorbed and engaged in the other areas of your life.
The length and quality of your recovery matters (which is another reason to wake up early)
If you wake up early, let’s say between 4–6 am and immediately get to work, you will get a lot of work done. Especially if you leave your cellphone away from your body, and especially if proactively avoid things like social media and email during the first few hours of your day.
The earlier and better you work, the sooner you can and should finish for the day.
One of the primary reasons to finish fast is so you can RECOVER longer. If you stop working sometime around 1–3 pm, and completely psychologically detach from work, you will experience the opposite of deep work — you will experience DEEP RECOVERY.
Deep recovery is essential for deep work.
In fitness, you can only push your body to the extent you’ve given it proper rest and nutrition. It’s actually during recovery that your muscles grow and strengthen. And if you push yourself to the max, then you need more rest.
It’s an incredible feedback loop. The better and harder you push yourself, the deeper you’ll need to recover — which will not only make you stronger, but will enable better and harder performance in your future work.
This is how you get better overtime.
It’s also how you build a life.
Most people are living day-by-day. They aren’t actually making their days progressively better.
The longer and deeper your recovery, the better rested you will be and the better you’ll sleep, because your mind will be at ease.
If, for example, you stop working around 1–3PM, and just live completely presently with loved ones and engage in other hobbies, your relationships will be deeper. Your life will be more meaningful. You’ll be able to make incredible progress on things like learning a language, or developing relationships, or reading books, or traveling, or doing community service.
You’ll be focused on the things which matter most, and you won’t need more time for work, because the time you spend at work will be well-spent, and the time away from work will also be well-spent.
You will be building a life.
You’ll be building memories.
You’ll have more to draw from and more meaning to forge into the work you do. You’ll have experience and perspective, which will make your work more mature and contextual.
As you get better at recovering, you will find that your creativity and clarity spike dramatically.
Research shows that time away from work is where clarity and creativity actually happen. Only 16% of creative insights happen while at the work environment. Tim Ferriss explains in The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9–5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, how regular “mini-retirements” can improve your life and productivity.
Every 30–60 days, you absolutely should take 2–5 days off, as Ferriss recommends. That recovery is essential.
However, you can and absolutely should be RECOVERING daily for 6–8 hours as well, and this isn’t sleep. The more continuous and intentional that recovery is on a daily basis, the better your life will be. The better your sleep will be. And the better and deeper you work will be when you do it.
FAQ: But what if I work for someone else and can’t control my schedule?
Whether you work for yourself or someone else — the goal is the same. Get the best results you can in the most effective manner.
Results are the name of the game — and if you’re effective, you can get those results faster than most people because most people are living in a distracted state. Very few people do deep work. Very few people have organized their life to recover.
Instead, most people are living in a subconscious-lull, rarely if ever truly present where they are. Very few people know what true productivity means. Very few people experience deep creativity and growth on a daily basis.
Again, most people’s days are a repeat of the day before. They aren’t being deliberate like an Olympic Athlete is with their workouts.
If you’re not deliberate with your days, then you’re not getting better, but instead, you’re probably getting worse.
In the book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, author Greg McKeown explains that, as an employee, you can usually negotiate your work hours and even work activities. All you need to do is be candid about what matters to both you and your boss. If you can prove that you can get better results doing things a certain way, you can often get what you want.
In this way, you can say “no” to non-essential tasks and non-essential work routines.
Put simply, with many if not most jobs, you can work when you want, where you want, and how you want. But only if you can actually execute and produce results. The best way to produce results is by doing deep work on only the most essential things — and by removing all of the non-essential stuff from your life and day.
Break-down of how to become elite, day-by-day
According to Stephen Covey, most people focus all of their energy on Urgent activities — such as email, deadlines, etc.
We all have urgent things going on in our lives. But how much have we designed our lives to focus on the Important and Non-Urgent things, such as planning, fitness, learning, long-term projects, and creating memories with loved ones?
The most successful people in the world learn how to focus their time and days on the most important things. They learn how to delete, delegate, outsource, or automate most of the urgent stuff.
How much of your time do you spend on Important Stuff?
How much of your time do you spend on Urgent Stuff?
How much DEEP WORK have you done in the past 30 days?
How many incredible and fun memories have you had with your loved ones?
Are you merely living, or have you built a life?
— — —
When you wake up early and get right to work, you’ll have more time in your afternoon and evening to enjoy the other areas of your life.
The deeper your recovery, the deep will be your work AND your relationships. The more creative, clear, and successful you’ll be.
Happiness and success are not rocket science. They simply need to be designed for. They require that you live presently and intentionally, every single day.
Ready to upgrade?
I’ve created a cheat sheet for putting yourself into a PEAK-STATE, immediately. You follow this daily, your life will change very quickly.
This article first appeared on Medium.