By Brad Stulberg
Improving your performance isn’t easy.
“Principles are fundamental truths that serve as the foundations for behavior that gets you what you want out of life,” writes investor Ray Dalio in his bestselling book, Principles. Dalio focuses on skills like decision-making, investing, and managing organizations.
While reading through it, I became inspired to put together my own list of principles that I’ve devised after interviewing and coaching elite performers in sports, business, and beyond. Like Dalio’s, these principles are a foundation for a better you.
1. Stress + Rest = Growth
Whether you want to grow your body or mind or get better at a specific skill, you need to push to the outer limits of your current ability, and then follow that hard work with appropriate recovery and reflection. Decades of researching exercise science show that this is how you get stronger and faster, and the latest cognitive science shows that this is also how you get smarter and more creative.
2. Focus on the process, not results
The best athletes and entrepreneurs aren’t focused on being the best; they’re focused on constant self-improvement. When you stop stressing about external outcomes — like whether you win or lose, attain a certain promotion, or achieve some other form of validation — a huge burden is lifted off your shoulders and you can focus your energy on the things you can control.
As a result, you almost always end up performing better. Research shows that concentrating on the process is best for both performance and mental health.
3. Stay humble
Humility is the key to growth. If you don’t maintain an open mind, you’ll severely limit your opportunities to learn and make progress. The best athletes trust their training programs but are also constantly looking for new ways to improve.
Same goes for the best thinkers and creatives; they tend to be confident but not arrogant, and they check their egos at the door. Knowledge is always evolving and advancing — if you want to evolve and advance with it, you need to keep an open mind.
4. Build your tribe
There’s an old saying that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Turns out that’s true. A large and growing body of behavioral science research shows that motivation (or lack thereof) is contagious. One study, “Is Poor Fitness Contagious? Evidence from Randomly Assigned Friends,” found that up to 70 percent of your fitness level may be explained by the people you train with.
Other research shows that if you work on mental tasks with people who are internally driven and love what they do, you’re more likely to end up the same way. If, on the other hand, you surround yourself with people who have a negative attitude and are focused solely on winning the rat race, you set yourself up for a less fulfilling experience.
5. Take small, consistent steps to achieve big gains
Habits build upon themselves. If you want to make any kind of significant change, you’d be wise to do so gradually and over time. In Stanford researcher BJ Fogg’s behavior model, whether someone takes action depends on both their motivation and their ability to complete a given task.
If you regularly overshoot on the ability side of the equation, you’re liable to become discouraged and quickly flame out. But if you incrementally increase the challenge, what was hard last week will seem easier today. Put differently: Small and consistent victories compound over time, leading to massive gains.
6. Be a minimalist to be a maximalist
You can’t be great at everything. Regularly reflect on what matters most to you and focus your efforts there. In the words of Mayo Clinic researcher and human performance expert Michael Joyner: “You’ve got to be a minimalist to be a maximalist; if you want to be really good at, master, and thoroughly enjoy one thing, you’ve got to say no to many others.”
7. Make the hard thing easier
Willpower is overrated. Rather than relying completely on self-control, intentionally design your environment to make the hard thing easier. For example, if you (like everyone) are constantly distracted by your smartphone, don’t just turn it off — remove it altogether from where you’re trying to concentrate.
If your challenge is eating healthy, instead of relying on your willpower at 9 p.m. after a glass of wine, simply keep the brownies out of the house. This applies to everything. Don’t just think about how you’re going to accomplish your goals; think about how you’re going to designfor them.
8. Remember to experience joy
At first, this may sound crazy. Who doesn’t want to experience joy? But many Type A people are so driven to keep growing and progressing that sometimes they forget to be fully present for special moments or neglect to pause and celebrate their milestones.
Don’t fall for this trap — it’s an especially dangerous one. “Moments of joy don’t just give us happiness — they also give us strength,” says Adam Grant, author of Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. When things aren’t going well, we can fall back on happy memories to give us the resilience to move forward.
There is nothing fancy about any of these principles, though they do work best when all are applied together. Build them into your life and they will help you do it — whatever that is — better.
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