No Pain, No Gain?

“If we are hunting the highest version of ourselves, then we need to turn work into play and not the other way round. Unless we invert this equation, much of our capacity for intrinsic motivation starts to shut down. We lose touch with our passion and become less than what we could be, and that feeling never really goes away.”

― Steven Kotler, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance

So many A-type high performers run on a mental program that says if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working. Only if they end the day feeling they have really suffered can they escape a feeling of guilt and put in its place, for a short time, a feeling of a job well done.

From my own experience and that of many clients, I can say with certainty that this mental programming makes work and life progressively less enjoyable to the point where performance and results drop. Burnout is also a real risk  and there is no surer way to damage your performance and results than reaching the point where you do not want to, or simply cannot, do your work.

Sports science has long since recognised the value of not having the foot pushed hard on the accelerator the entire time: deloading, periodisation, and tapering are all important concepts in ensuring that athletes do not leave their best work on the training ground and end up running on empty when it matters most. More than this, players will talk glowingly about how the best coaches in the world manage to change up training and keep it varied and, yes, fun. For sure, real productive work is still being done but the best coaches understand when to back off and how to leverage enjoyment to aid productivity. As a bonus, that sense of enjoyment usually transmits itself to competition, with flow being experienced when it matters most.

The reality is that our minds work in the same way as our bodies. Just as recovery and variety can be the ally of progress to an athlete’s training regimen, it can help our mind be more productive and resilient.

Many people have heard of circadian rhythms, but fewer are aware of Ultradian rhythms, and fewer still are aware of the implications of ignoring them. Approximately every hour and a half to two hours, we hit an ‘Ultradian trough’ as a result of the build-up of the effort from mental and physical activity.

The solution is a short break away from work (for example, a walk around the block, a glass of water), anything from twenty minutes to half an hour – which allows mental and physical refreshment which has been demonstrated to increase productivity. I also teach my clients a specific  technique called the ultradian rest break which decompresses the mind during this period. 

Instead, many people try to ‘power through’ the slump they feel using caffeine, willpower, or a mixture of both. In doing so, they ignore the evidence that they are actually less productive than if they took that break. They are also blissfully ignorant of the long term impacts of ignoring ultradian rhythm breaks. When they hit that slump, body and mind are working properly, and  sending an important message which they should not be trying to override. The long term effects include increased blood pressure, lowered immunity , mood imbalances, accelerated ageing, cognitive decline, and accumulation of fat stores, to name but a few. And all this in exchange  for an actual  decrease in performance and results!

Likewise, just grinding at our work, in the same way, all day, every day, ignores the benefits of novelty. The brain has a network -the salience network- which is designed to detect novelty. In evolutionary terms, this was important: something novel could represent a danger or an opportunity, so the brain focuses sharply on the novel. Studies at Stanford University have shown a 700% boost in dopamine, in turn driving a huge boost in focus when our brains face the novel, the unpredictable.

The broader point is this. We need to get away from the idea that only if our efforts are painful are they productive. For sure, there will always be an irreducible baseline of work needed to produce peak performance, but the science shows us that to achieve peak performance, there are much more skilful, effective and enjoyable ways  than ‘grinding in out ‘  to allow your  body and mind to produce your  very best.

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