Performance Is Built On Repetition
Many of us don’t struggle for ceiling-busting ambition and grandiose plans. It’s the execution that tends to stutter, the transition from ego into reality. In the landscape of self-improvement, the process is king. A few weeks ago, I offered up 5 rules for maximising productivity. This time, I’m going to describe just how you can set it up over an average day.
But there’s a point that bears mentioning first. Peak performance isn’t sexy. It can’t be captured in Rocky montages, because in reality, it comes down to items on a checklist. And most of them are going to be mundane. Pin them down, tick them off, get ready to do it all over again the next day.
This is about creating the perfectly average cocktail of action items that set you up for relentless success. So before you dive into this performance guide, accept that there are three things you can’t do without.
Repetition, repetition, and repetition.
The following habits are tailor-made to get the brain running at peak capacity. But you’re not standing to gain much if you just run through them a couple of times. Habits don’t become habits over the space of a few days. The process needs weeks, often months. Once they get nailed down and imprinted into the brain neurochemistry, you’re set to reap the profits.
The goal here is to create the platform for sustained performance, rather than trying to create the occasional spark of genius. As long as you’re happy to play the patience game, this guide is going to be well worth your time.
1. Time That Cortisol Spike
Cortisol is a stress hormone, and that gives it some bad press, since it’s the conduit for anxiety and sleepless nights. But that’s an unfair reflection of cortisol, which is entirely natural, and designed to be a force for good. Things can get crazy when the body gets too trigger happy, side effects often occur, and that’s the same for practically all the mechanisms in the human metabolism.
Chronically elevated stress? That spells disaster. You’re tired, jumpy, wired.
Acute pulses of cortisol? You’re activating key parts of the metabolism, that enable you to become both alert and focused.
It’s just a matter of timing that pulse to sync up with the natural 24 hour rhythm, which rises through the morning, before beginning its descent in the early afternoon.
To keep it even simpler, the morning’s where you want to be placing your uppers. Activities and supplements that serve to spike cortisol, and set yourself up for a pattern of clean energy, eventually followed by deep sleep.
In fact, the first two hours after waking are prime time for getting that cortisol pump. Do that consistently enough, and the brain is going to wise up to your routine. Meaning cortisol and body temperature eventually begins to rise in sync with your established wakeup time.
You get to skip, not crawl, your way into the morning. That’s fantasy made into reality.
What are these special uppers? You’ve got plenty of options, and I’ll run through them briefly.
- Morning sunlight
- Caffeine – But there’s an asterisk to this, which I’ll be covering shortly
- Cold showers
- Ketogenic diet
Now onto the coffee dilemma. Because you might not want to start your day with that sweet life nectar.
2. No Caffeine For 90 Minutes After Waking
Nothing mixes better than the sleepless nights and morning brews. A big chunk of us are heavily reliant on caffeine, and there’s no getting past that. It’s an effective, cheap drug without the negative stigma of other popular uppers. As a drug, it has side effects. The dose makes the poison, and we’re dishing it by the tablespoon, several times a day.
Caffeine taken liberally, can lead to lethargy, headaches, anxiety, and insomnia. Just to reel off a few. Not quite what we have in mind when we’re seeking out the holy grail of peak mental performance.
You could always wean off it entirely, but what’s the fun in that? I tried going and staying cold turkey, slogging through a solid month of caffeine deprivation, before eventually deciding my life was better with some morning rocket-fuel.
So we’re addicts, and that’s a problem most of us are resigned to living with. But there are still ways of managing the side effects. In the case of the morning routine, you’d do well to avoid reaching for the brew to shake off the cobwebs. At least not straight away.
Taking caffeine first thing can screw you in a couple of ways.
- Caffeine works its energising magic by blocking adenosine, the chemical of tiredness, and increasing cortisol. Except that, at this point of the day, neither mechanism needs tinkering. Adenosine hasn’t begun to build up just yet, and the body is happily pumping cortisol through the bloodstream.
- By blocking adenosine so early, caffeine can cause adenosine levels to spike prematurely in the day, building up nicely to a midday energy crash. You may be sprinting now, but that’s going to cost you.
Keep your trigger fingers away from the kettle, and hold off for now. Because in about 90 minutes after waking, the cortisol spike will have settled, and adenosine will be mounting up. That’s the perfect time to throw caffeine into the mix.
3. Get An Early Dose Of Morning Light
You don’t want to hide away from those first hours of daylight. Head outside and let some sun hit your face. Even if it’s one of those gloomy Autumn mornings. While it might not look like the sun’s rays are poking through the cloud cover, reality shows there’s plenty. As the facts have it, on cloudy days, 80% of UVR (Ultra Violet Rays) still reach the Earth’s surface.
Sunlight is the primary signal by which the body regulates its circadian rhythm, the internal 24 hour clock. When those early rays hit your retinas, that’s a call to wake the system up. More cortisol gets pumped out, which gradually converts to serotonin over the day, leading to the right amount of melatonin to send you into deep, refreshing sleep.
Early bright light exposure sets you up for both great daytime energy, and appropriate nighttime slumber. It’s a fix we shouldn’t be doing without.
For the unfortunate workaholics who are getting out of bed and reaching the office zoo before the sun gets a chance to show itself, this can be a serious problem. Without the appropriate amount of morning light, the body struggles to settle into a daily rhythm, leading to mood swings, chronic fatigue, and insomnia.
That’s where a SAD lamp becomes the perfect tool, blasting the eyes with 10,000 lux, comparable to sunlight. 10-15 minutes sat in front of a SAD lamp will act as a trigger for the internal clock, allowing you to sidestep the serious side effects of chronic sunrise deprivation.
To get the best out of a SAD lamp, place it in an overhead position, rather than keeping level or below your eyeline. Doing so will mimic the position of the sun, further boosting the potency of this little biohack.
4. Don’t Avoid Blue Light
Blue light has been getting a bad rap lately, and for plenty of good reasons. This is the vehicle by which we’ve been artificially extending the daylight hours, at the cost of both sleep quantity and quality. Blue light can actually be used to describe a wavelength of the sun, but in this context we’re looking at electronics, which mimic sunlight.
Those wavelengths can certainly be destructive when allowed to assault your eyes over the evening hours, and that’s led to many well-meaning people to wear or install blue-blockers across the day for their electronics use. These biohacking practices often get out of hand, and potentially deleterious.
The fact is, blue light promotes alertness and wakefulness, a neurochemical cocktail that works completely in your favour across the daytime hours. The perfect foil for sessions of relentless productivity. Dimming or blocking out those wavelengths can result in slumber when you’d rather be bouncing.
In fact, research has found that bright lighting in office settings can serve to reduce sleepiness and increase alertness. As long as it’s not running into the evening hours, don’t skimp on blue light. Whether that’s coming from your laptop, overhead bulbs, whatever you can get your eyes on.
5. Work In 90 Minute Ultradian Bouts
Now you’re clued up on the importance of the body’s 24 hour rhythm, let me add another, more regular cycle. Ultradian rhythms are biological modes stamped into your DNA. You can easily see them as minified versions of the circadian clock. Just like the master cycle, ultradian rhythms etch out alternating patterns of alertness and fatigue.
As long as you’re bent on optimising productivity, you’ll want to pay attention to this pattern. Which is designed to go through two phases.
Productivity mode – For 90 minutes, your brain goes on a mission of sustained activity and focus. The energy burn is intense, and stress begins to mount. By the end of this 90 minute bout, you’re going to need a break.
Recovery mode – This is the point where you have to step in. Or better, step back. Pulling away from the activity at hand will allow the brain to decompress, and get rid of the various metabolites that have been building up. 20 minutes of recovery lets you prime the brain up for another 90 minutes of sustained productivity.
And that’s where workaholics like to trip up. They get the most of that first ultradian cycle, hit the 90 minute mark, and keep tunnelling forward. That hits the mark for effort, but leads to a few unfortunate consequences.
- The brain takes longer to pull out of recovery mode
- The next ultradian rhythm is stunted, and the peak comes much lower
So, by all means, you can keep typing away for hours at a time. Just know you’re leaving gains in the tank. The better route would be to leave your room, and go for a walk somewhere leafy. Take a long bath. Read a book that’s not directly tied to your work. Anything that takes your mind off the problem at hand.
When you return, you might find out that you’ve stumbled on a solution that was hiding in your blind spot.
6. Avoid Morning Carbs
Or you could just fast.
The diet is always going to play a heavy role in mental performance. It’s an input that’s taking place upstream from much of what we’re tackling here. Your ability to create and sustain a state of alertness is going to hinge massively on the nutrition you’re getting in.
Mornings can be frantic affairs, a rush of items to be checked off before you can get out the door. Cooking is something that many don’t have the time or inclination to afford. The classic breakfast solution is something that takes no prep, and minimal effort. Just like cheerios and milk dumped into a bowl. A superdosed bolus of sugar that can act as rocket fuel for the brain.
Keto / Carnivore – Take out most, if not all the carbs, while having your fill of animal-based foods. Meats, eggs, dairy, you won’t want for flavour. If you’re in need of inspiration, try out my creamy salmon scramble recipe.
Fasting – Skip breakfast altogether, because who’s got time for that? Drink water laced with electrolytes, and you’re good to go.
Whichever you pick, you’re going to see more of that energy-boosting cortisol, and a clear drop in brain fog due to the lack of inflammatory triggers. And if you’re already fat adapted, you can expect to have absolutely no hunger.
7. Sleep Like It’s Your Job
Ultimately, all these fancy biohacks won’t amount to much spark, if you don’t tie the bow with a refreshing night of sleep. This is the single best way to put yourself in a healthy state of mind. Without ensuring adequate recovery, you don’t get to go back to a state of optimal performance. That means you need to be paying serious attention to either sustaining and rescuing the following.
Sleep Quantity – Set up your routine to allow at least 8 hours in bed, preferably 8 ½ hours.
Sleep Quality – Adjust your uppers and downers to coax the body to settle into deep, untroubled slumber.
As with all the other habits I’ve listed, repetition makes or breaks the game. If the brain is allowed to adjust to a predictable routine, then both quantity and quality will come easy. Energy steadily slopes down in the evening hours, making sleep an inevitable conclusion, rather than something you have to force by counting sheep.
Which, incidentally, doesn’t work. A study back in 2001 discovered that the traditional sheep fix actually resulted in people taking longer to fall asleep. Whereas visualising a calm, engaging scene worked far better. If you want to try that out for yourself next time you’re staring at the ceiling at 1am, use your imagination to take a walk through your favourite haunt.
How I Take My Mornings
By now you’re probably wondering just how you can weave together this information into an actionable format. After all, all this inspired science won’t mean much without forward motion. So I’ll attempt to help you out by showing how I typically set-ups to fuel relentless productivity.
Just keep in mind that it’s merely an example, not a manual. This routine is specifically to my quirks, and it’s extremely unlikely to work perfectly for you. Especially if you have families and office jobs to wrestle with.
5:00 – Wake-up, although I often end up moving well before the alarm
5:10 – Cold shower to shake off the cobwebs
5:25 – A leisurely outdoor stroll, ideally with sunshine, but mostly in pitch darkness
6:30 – Dose out some black coffee to keep the cortisol pumping along
8:30 – A good hour of weight training, preferably intense, assuming I’m arriving off a good night of sleep. Cortisol will reach a fever pitch, and energy levels for the day will likely peak at some point in the penultimate exercise.
10:30 – Settle down for a big meal of buttered steak, relax the nerves, then attack whatever projects I’ve pencilled in for the day
12:00 – Head out for a walk, train another client, stare at the ceiling, bother someone nearby, whatever gets me away from my laptop.
And that’s the blueprint, more or less, for Monday through to Friday. The weekend is a little more relaxed, but I end up waking up at 5am regardless. At this stage, I’ve literally got no choice but to wake up early. It’s etched into the system.
By all means, pick the activities that suit you, while dropping or modifying the ones that don’t jive with your routine. As long as you understand the importance of uppers, downers, and a predictable regime, you’re in a great position to extract the maximum yield from your mornings. If you’re convinced that you don’t have the genes to by an early bird, you’d be surprised where a little biological programming can get you.