1 Big Idea to Think About

  • If you want to achieve peak performance for a sustained period of time, you must embrace this idea: Relaxing is more than a luxury; it is a responsibility.

2 Ways You Can Apply This

  • Dedicate mornings to essential work: Break that time into three sessions of no more than 90 minutes each.
  • Rest and recover: Take a short break of at least 15 minutes between each work session.

3 Questions to Ask

  • What are my barriers to rest?
  • What are the signs that I am overexerting myself and need to rest?
  • Which activities rejuvenate me?

Key Moments from the Show 

  • The conundrum of inspiring peak performance in high achievers (2:32)
  • How rest becomes an antidote to pre-existing and future stress (4:16)
  • You must learn to relax (8:38)
  • How one baseball manager helped players achieve peak performance by prioritizing downtime (10:08)
  • Research that supports the critical role of rest in success (14:37)
  • One rule that enables you to balance work and rest (16:33)
  • The easiest way to replenish your energy continuously (17:37)
  • Don’t wear yourself out before your mission is done (20:52)

Links You’ll Love From the Episode

The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance –  Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993)

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Greg McKeown [00:00:00] Come with me on an exploration of self-discovery on this podcast, we decipher what really matters as we unravel the chaos of day to day work to learn how to build an essential life. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the What’s Essential podcast. I’m your host, Greg McEwan. We’ve been here before. Thank you for listening again. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your day. Maybe you’re actually taking a break. Just listening to this in the calm. That would be perfect given the theme we’re going to get to today. But maybe this is also just part of your ongoing routine. You’re driving somewhere. Maybe you’re on a walk, maybe you’re on a run, maybe a bike riding and tidying up somewhere. Maybe you wish you were relaxing right now. Just be here for a moment with me. Take a deep breath. I know how much you have going on in your life. I know how intense it can be. How relentless life continues to be, the unexpected. The challenges. 


So let me ask you a question. Have you ever struggled between that tension of not doing enough and doing too much? It is almost silly to ask you, have you ever pushed yourself past the point of exhaustion? On one day so that you wake up the next day, depleted or just thrashed. 


Well, if you have than today’s episode is a good one for you because you’re going to leave today’s episode knowing an absolute key for how to maintain peak performance. You know, because it’s all very well to have a moment of peak performance, to have a day of peak performance. But the key is to be able to have peak performance. For not a month, not a year, a decade. You know, it’s the rest of your life. That’s the challenge, that’s the issue. 


And as I think about this today, I want to frame our conversation with a conundrum that I have been grappling with for the last 25 years. This is when I was originally, you know, on my mission and I was trying to inspire the other people I was working with. Particularly, I noticed that I and other leaders would try to speak to the people who might be feeling discouraged or or maybe less engaged than others. And I, you know, we would say things, you know, let’s push ourselves, let’s give it our all. Let’s make an extra sacrifice. Let’s get up earlier. But here’s the conundrum is that that wasn’t the group of people who actually listened. The people who listened and responded were the people who are already engaged, already giving their all, already making a sacrifice, already getting up earlier. So my goal was to talk to Group A, but only Group B were listening. And if only Group B is listening and applying what I’m trying to say to them, then actually they’re going to miss apply what I’m sharing because it might lead them to being truly exhausted, truly burned out. You know, that’s the message wasn’t for them. And this is really a key part of why I wrote effortless in the first place. I had that group in mind. 


Really, it’s the sort of guide for how insecure overachievers can achieve healthy productivity. It’s for people like Jerry Suele. Who’s an eye surgeon who tried to do, you know, everything? For a long, long time? His wife emailed me about his story and I remember talking to her and asking her later about the experience. She said, I remembered when Jerry would sit his head in his hands and just say, You know, I can’t do it all. I can’t do it or. But then he’d stand up and declare, but I have to. And he would desperately try to push himself to do more. I mean, maybe you haven’t been in exactly that situation, but I know that you can relate to what Jerry was experiencing. 


So at age 56, he starts experiencing some health issues. He gets this rash on his hands that threatens to end his surgical career. He knew he needed to get to a dermatologist, but he was so busy at work he didn’t even have the space in his overscheduled life to make the appointment. 


Do you relate to that? I still relate to that, I know what that’s like. 


So finally, on this long road trip with his wife, he realized that space was never going to magically appear in his life. It’s like that old idea no one’s coming to save you. If he was ever going to get the medical help that he needed, it would have to be him that made the space for it. Which meant that for the first time in a long time. Caring for himself would have to take priority over caring for his patients. So together with his wife, he worked out what he needed and how he would go about doing it by the end of that road trip, they had drawn up a plan. He told everyone in the office that he needed to dial back his hours. And a bit to a surprise, they were just so supportive. Ready to do it. 


He actually found his experience with his church a little trickier. But with the new realization that he couldn’t truly serve others in this fatigued state, he stepped down from the elder board and told people why it wasn’t long after that that three other overwhelmed, exhausted people stepped down as well. 


So it was as though his wife said it this way. It was as though his choice, his awakening. Gave other people permission as well. So you actually got to the dermatologist. He started riding a bike every day, which he loves. He started getting eight hours of sleep a night compared to the five or maybe six that he used to claim were all he needed. 


It wasn’t long after these changes that his business partner retired with just a month’s notice, leaving Gerry to take over all of those patients as well. And if Gerry had tried to deal with that added responsibility and workload in that burned out state he was already in, it really might have finished him off. And that’s why his wife had reached out to me. It was really to say that stress might have given him a heart attack. These ideas in essentialism and in effortless didn’t just change Gerry’s life.


According to his wife. It saved his life. So fortunately, with his energy restored, he was able to meet the challenge. With relative ease, he was clear headed about what he could and couldn’t take on. He was able to make decisions more quickly and execute them more efficiently. Rest proved an antidote. For both preexisting and future stress, it kept him grounded in what I’ve come to call the effortless state. 


Does his story sound familiar to you? I mean, sure, you’re probably not an eye surgeon. I mean, there’ll be some ice surgeons listening, so you obviously are. But for the rest of us, that’s not the idea. Maybe you don’t have patience. But perhaps you have also felt that burden. Of thinking I just have to I have to. You’ve forgotten that there is a choice. You’ve forgotten. That you can do something about it. And one of the things you can do. And strangely, it doesn’t come naturally to most insecure overachievers is. To learn. To relax. 


That makes him the oddest thing in the world to have me say that you have to learn to take a break. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what I have learned. People need to understand and need to actually develop competency in in our 24-7 always on culture. I mean, some people simply don’t know how to relax. Actually, chances are you’re probably one of them. You know, ironically, for you and I doing nothing can be painfully hard. 


Joe Maddon, who you may remember is the manager of the Los Angeles Angels. I learned that in professional baseball, players also tended to be among these people. So Maddon, who worked for the Angels for 30 plus years and held a long list of positions, including the manager, scout, roving, hitting instructor, bench coach, first base coach. You know, you might expect someone with that resume to just be an advocate for endless hustle. And certainly, according to Madden, anyway, a lot of the players are taught to expect exactly that. But he learned something over those years, he said since coming up in the minors position, players are taught to arrive at the ballpark early. Take batting practice on a daily basis and prepare for a game. Hours before the first pitch.


 But what he’s learned is that the baseball season is long with 162 games, teams can go through stretches where they play almost every day for a month, maybe a month and a half. So by the time playoffs come in the fall, many players are spent. So Madden sees the advantage of a completely different approach. He puts it this way. I didn’t have enough chance to do nothing last off season. Yeah, you heard that right? He said. I didn’t have enough chance to do nothing last season. I want more of an opportunity to do nothing. 


Isn’t that what you want? Don’t you want just a little more chance to do nothing? 


He carries on. I mean that in a positive way when you get this downtime to be able to do nothing, well, that’s my goal to do nothing. Well. One way he has implemented the art of doing nothing with his players is by instigating what he calls American Legion Week. It’s the week that’s held during the dog days of August, when player performance often dips. But instead of cramming in hours of pre-game practice, he told his players to just show up for the game. He encouraged them to sleep in, take naps, arrive fresh the same way they did when they were teenagers as amateurs. 


So this is important, Madden is clearly interested in his players performing at their best peak performance is exactly the name of the game. Of course, he wants a team of elite players playing the best baseball of their careers. The difference is he simply believes that regular spurts of doing nothing are the best way to achieve that. He put it this way, if you treat it that way, it keeps their minds fresher, if their mind is fresher, they’ll play a better game. 


Now, that’s true for baseball players. It’s true for eye surgeons. It’s true for you. Madden’s approach has had a transformative impact, not only on the angels, but on the other teams he’s coached over the past decade as well. After he launched American Legion Week with Tampa Bay, the Devil Rays made it to the World Series within a year. When he brought it with him to Chicago, the Cubs won the most games in the league over the next four years, including the World Series in 2016. Incredibly, over a five year period, Madden’s Cubs won 21 of 24 games during American Legion week. 


Now for people who are listening to this podcast over a long period of time, it’s not a surprise that. This is the case. We’re familiar with the idea and some of the research behind the idea. That if you want to achieve peak performance over time, you have to rest. You have to build that into the routines and systems of your life. But there’s some recent research and physiology that supports Madden’s counterintuitive response. Studies show that peak physical and mental performance requires a rhythm of exerting and renewing energy and not just for athletes. In fact, one study found that the best performing athletes, musicians, chess players and writers all hone their skills in the same way by practicing in the morning in three sessions of 60 to 90 minutes with breaks in between. Meanwhile, those who took fewer or shorter breaks performed less well, that’s the very core of the application of the principle. I’m trying to emphasize the principle. Is that relaxing is a responsibility. 

And now let’s just take a moment for an ad break. And now back to our conversation. 


Kay Anders Ericsson concluded it this way. He’s the study’s lead author. To maximize gains from long term practice, individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis. And many of us struggle with the tension between not doing enough. 


The guilt that goes with that and doing too much, as I asked at the beginning, have you pushed yourself so far past the point of exhaustion one day that you wake up the next morning? Utterly depleted? And almost without your choice. You end up needing the entire day to rest or at least just in low productivity activity to stop that cycle, that boom and bust cycle. 


Try the simple rule. You’ve heard it before. Let’s emphasize it again do not do more today than you can completely recover from by tomorrow. Be careful not to miss the signs that you’ve reached the end of an energy cycle. It’s easy to ignore the loss of focus, the low energy, the fidgeting. So we can power through. We can artificially try to compensate with caffeine or sugar to get past our energy slump, but in the end, our fatigue catches up with us making essential work much harder than it needs to be. 


OK, so let’s get specific here. The easier way to replenish our physical and mental energy continuously is by taking short breaks. We can plan those breaks into our day. We can be like the peak performers who take advantage of their body’s natural rhythms for his specifically what you can do. One. Dedicate mornings to essential work. We’ve started recently trying to do that with our children. You know, they’re still involved in home school, trying to do it ourselves as well, trying to make sure that we do what my friend Carl Wood called deep work 9:00 till noon. It doesn’t sound so hard, but just to get everybody in the same place and working on the same things, and to do that quietly itself is a routine that’s taking some time to build in. But the reason to build it in is because, 


Number two, you break down that work into three sessions of no more than 90 minutes each. Take a short break. Ten to 15 minutes in between sessions to rest and recover. Sometimes I’d been forgetting that recently, you know, trying to push through myself, trying to push the children through. But to have that concentrated burst of focused energy and to make sure that you’re doing in that time, the work that will move the needle. So that you complete that precious few hours, satisfied that important work done today. I’m not going to say you do nothing for the rest of the day, I’m not saying that, but I am saying that if you can tilt your day away from doing nonstop, constant, exhausting approach in the name of productivity. If you can shift past that, that false, that con, then you have a chance of discovering a new way of living, a new way of working. 


Well, at least that’s what I feel is true for people like Jerry Suale. It’s true for people like me and it’s true for people like you to. So there it is a simple, different approach to being able to use that precious time in the morning, but to do it in a way that you actually take breaks and then you build that with the other things that we’ve talked about so often on this podcast. A done for the day list. A time that you’re done so that you don’t just in the name of productivity and hustle. Just keep going and going at six o’clock, seven, eight, nine 10 and now you really are living a boom and bust approach to execution. And you will make suboptimal performance. You certainly will not have peak performance over the long run. 


And that really, as I said at the beginning, is the name of the game. That’s the idea. That’s the promise. Of the effortless mindset and the effortless practices is that you don’t just want to have some, you know, impact for right now. 


In fact, I was just reading about this. I was just reading about a George Albert Smith who was a churchman, a leader at the time in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. And there’s a story about him that is not widely known even within the church, but certainly beyond, that’s not well known. I mean, here is a person who had devoted his life to service. I mean, so the motives aren’t the issue. He wants to make a contribution. He’s like you. He wants to do something about the challenges that he sees in the world. He wants to be kind. He wants to be able to improve life for the people that he touches. So no one can question that, but life is not just about motive, it’s also about method. 


He got a letter, in fact, I was literally reading the original letter today, rather a copy of it in his handwriting from Dr. Heber J. Sears. Who said a letter from your mother brings the sad intelligence that you are down with nervous frustration. He writes, For heaven’s sakes, George, sidestep or step backward, not forward, cheat the asylum of a victim. Cheat the asylum of a victim. He goes on in that letter to say wouldn’t. In this case, the church be better served. By you, if you gave your life steadily. Consistently over 50 years rather than all in one week month burst now, and it’s over. That’s the key idea. And what I love about this story is, is, again, you can’t question the motive. You have great motives, you want to make a difference in the world. I know that. But if you go about it in a way, you can’t sustain the effort over time, it doesn’t matter how good the motive is. He’ll still wear yourself out before your mission is done. 


So as we come to that time again, the end of the show, I want to really encourage you. Rest today, rest this week, discover the perks of doing nothing of finding a rhythm so that you can be in a rhythm for a long, long time into the future. That, to me, matters. That’s essential. If you found value in today’s episode, please write a review on Apple Podcasts. The first five people to write a review of this episode will receive a signed copy of Effortless Make It Easier to do what matters most. Please send a photo of your review to info at Greg McKeown dot com that is I N F O at  G R E G M C K E O W N dot com. Remember, relaxing is a responsibility. Tune in next week to hear another episode of the What’s Essential podcast. I’ll see you then!