Darren Lawrence

Overcoming Procrastination, and Achieving Peak Performance

Just Do It

The other day I had one of those mornings when I just couldn’t get going. The usual responsibilities and distractions had been taken care of, my two children were at school and nursery, I was at my desk, with everything set up to work, it was 9.30 and the whole day was ahead of me – I had no excuses. I couldn’t focus, so made coffee. I returned to my desk, and still struggled. It wasn’t that I didn’t have anything to do of course, there is always plenty to do, and for the most part I love my work. It was just that a part of me, for whatever reason, didn’t want to do any of it. This may have been procrastination, or possibly my mind’s way of saying it needed a break after a very busy few months.

If like me you have the privilege of being able to structure your own working week you might agree that this can sometimes be a disadvantage as well as an advantage. Sometimes there is just too much choice, too many options of what to do first! I think this is termed ‘overwhelm’.

Whatever it was, I realised that as a self-employed business owner this is a state that you don’t want to be in, so I pushed myself into my priority task and through my list (taking my own advice from my previous blog to do one thing at a time!). As Tony Crabbe says in his book ‘Busy’, ‘start moving, and procrastination evaporates.’ As I got down to it I received an email from a colleague that further motivated me, and away I went to have a much more productive day.

But it got me thinking about how we can get ourselves going and up to full speed when a part of us is resistant, or still stuck back in the weekend, or groggy, tired, with low energy or perhaps even burnout? How do we ensure that we can be in tip-top condition for the moments when we really need to be? Realistically, if we view a typical working week as 37 hours (contracted hours anyway!) then it is unlikely we can be at our best for all 2,220 of those minutes.

After the General Election last month I heard a phrase being used about Jeremy Corbyn, and whether we had seen ‘peak Corbyn’ i.e. was his performance and growing popularity during the election campaign the best he would ever achieve as party leader? Whatever your political allegiances, it was clear that he had got it right and managed to peak at the right time.

Peaks and Troughs

During each working week there are occasions when we have to be at our best, step up to the plate, rise to the occasion. The frequency of these times will obviously differ depending on the kind of work you do, (e.g. in some jobs it is necessary to perform at a highly focused level daily, or for long periods) but these are often the things that occupy our minds and can lead to stress, which might include:

  • an important meeting you need to chair or present to;
  • a room full of students to lecture to;
  • a conference call where you need to manage and/or demonstrate your knowledge;
  • a job interview;
  • a visit to another client, site, company or conference where you need to have your ‘game face’ on and be the consummate professional.

In addition, we are always trying to meet expectations, whether these are our own or those of others. Are these expectations realistic?

With its groundings in psychology, there has been lots of work done on procrastination, and also ‘flow’ – i.e. the mental state when you are immersed in and have mastery over a certain activity. How can you move from one to another? In ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’, Timothy Gallwey argues that for every tennis player there is an outer game and an inner game. The outer one is played on the court against an opponent, and the inner one is in our minds where we deal with our self-doubts, anxieties and lapses in focus. It is this inner game that often dictates whether the outer game is successful. Gallwey developed a theory that:

Performance = Potential – Interference

I interpret interference as both physical interference (e.g. for me when I am working at home – a knock at the door from the postman, or phone call, or situations like today with my 5 year old son being off school ill), as well as interference going on in our heads, or ‘self-talk’. Therefore, often the key to peak performance is minimising the interference, which can get in the way of our potential. Also, if we can find ways to enhance our potential e.g. through learning a new skill or gaining additional knowledge, this can also improve our performance.

Our goals and motivations are important too. What motivates you to do what you do, what is your ‘why’? On top of this, to perform at my best during the working week I know that certain conditions need to be in place. I definitely need variety and this includes travelling to meet people but I also need some time where I am quiet, stay still, think, and reset myself, doing the routine tasks that need to be done (responding to emails, arranging meetings, calls to clients or colleagues), as well as ‘being in the zone’ and immersing myself into a topic, task, and quality work. I can’t be in the zone all the time. If I have too much of one thing e.g. travel, I don’t get enough of the other to be satisfied, and if I’m at my desk in front of a screen all week that’s also detrimental and I’m itching to get out and about.

Preparing For and Achieving Peak Performance

For me personally, the following tactics can help me to be at my best at work:

  • Some practical things e.g.
    • Planning and organising in advance to minimise any logistical things that might prevent me being at my best e.g. technology hitches or travel problems.
    • Removing and reducing interference – making arrangements to do all the other things I need to do to allow me to create time and space to achieve focussed work, ‘clearing the decks’.
  • Mental preparation e.g.
    • Looking at my schedule, identifying when I need to be at my peak over the next 1-2 weeks, preparing mentally and getting into a good ‘place’ for these events (e.g. focusing on the outcome I want and visualising success).
    • Preparing for these moments when I need to be at my best and treating them like a performance when I am in those moments. I can enjoy these moments more when they happen because I have already visualised them and pre-empted what might come up.
  • Self care e.g.
    • Getting enough sleep – not always easy but so important! If you’re going to peak you need something in the tank and reserves to call upon.
    • Doing enough exercise – at the moment running provides a release from work and adds thinking time, helping to generate new ideas and get me in the right mindset. Many coaching clients struggle to fit in exercise due to the demands of work, however sometimes exercise and your health must come first. Quite frankly if you are not keeping healthy, you will not be here to do any work!
    • Taking time out and giving myself a break – it is impossible to be at 100%, at peak performance or in the zone all the time. Furthermore there is evidence that your subconscious mind will continue to work on a problem or scenario, even when you are not deliberately focused on it, this explains why our best ideas or breakthroughs come through daydreaming, doing something unrelated to work, or whilst taking a shower for example.

What impacts on your performance day to day? When are you at your best, feeling good? When is ‘peak you’, and how can you prepare for it? Do you have different ways to reach peak performance at work? I would be interested to hear about them! Please leave your comments and feedback below.