May 11, 2017

How To Improve Your Performance

When it comes to health and well-being, we either ignore it, thinking it is unrelated to business success and performance, or we know it is important but do not have the time or aspiration to do anything about it.

In the last decade, there have been more and more cases of people leaving their jobs or moving on to something else due to stress, feeling worn out or needing to recharge their batteries. In extreme cases, there have even been people collapsing at work. In China, this phenomenon is known as guolaosi and numerous cases of sudden death due to overwork are being reported. Most disturbingly, at least a million people in China are dying from overwork every year.

Most people wait until they have fallen ill and then go see a medical doctor. Doctors are trained to treat illness and disease once it has become well established. They are not trained in illness prevention and happiness. If you want to be healthy and happy well into old age it is up to you to look after yourself. There is no silver bullet for heart disease or cancer. You will not see these medical conditions coming. They seem like they 'come out of the blue' but they brew for months if not years. Many people are pressing on unaware of what is approaching.

A key member needing to take time off to recuperate following a serious illness can be extremely harmful to the business. The loss is felt in the team, and on the profit and loss account. When people are healthy and happy at work they are much more likely to release discretionary effort that can have a profoundly positive impact on results.

Our health is most certainly eroding if we are not paying attention to it. There is a growing interest amongst scientists, psychologists, and physicians in the concept of coherence and its significance for health. As renowned sociology and stress, health and well-being expert Aaron Antonovsky said, "We are coming to understand health not as the absence of disease, but rather as the process by which individuals maintain their sense of coherence (ie, sense that life is comprehensible, manageable, and meaningful) and ability to function in the face of changes in themselves and their relationships with their environment."

The first factor affecting performance is Exercise.



Some businesses seek to 'tick the health box' by having a gym or pool, and sometimes even employ personal trainers. But the health and fitness of people are largely seen as a private matter of individual choice. They are not considered commercially relevant. But when people fall ill or need to take extended sick leave, that becomes commercially relevant. It seems like it is time to put health and well-being on the business agenda.

The main benefits of Exercise are:


We often hear about the physical benefits of exercise (for example, increased heart health), less often are the psychological benefits heard. Yet, engaging in a moderate amount of physical activity results in improved mood and emotional states. Exercise can promote psychological health and well-being as well as improve quality of life.

The following are common psychological benefits gained through exercise.

  • Improved mood
  • Reduced stress as well as an improved ability to cope with stress
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Pride in physical accomplishments
  • Increased satisfaction with oneself
  • Improved body image
  • Increased feelings of energy
  • Improved confidence
  • Decreased symptoms associated with depression

One of the primary benefits of exercise is determined by the way you feel about the exercise. If you force yourself to workout but don't really enjoy it, then your body will react catabolically and you will be operating from a negative place. This means that your workout will be breaking your body down, but not building it up. In contrast, if you enjoy your workout the exercise will provoke an anabolic response and will be much more beneficial to you because you are operating from a positive place and building your body up. You can be exercising regularly but still have poor physiology. When you change your exercise regime to incorporate routines that are much more enjoyable, your psychology as well as your physiology will improve significantly.

Music can have a powerful effect on cognition and behaviour. Incorporating music into your workout can have a positive impact on your mood as well as enjoying your exercise. Choose music that uplifts you and puts you in a good place. Make your own playlist. Play music that means something to you. Try to choose music where you had positive and happy experiences. This could be music that was playing during a positive life event, a holiday, or go back to the music you were listening to during your college days and relive those memories. By doing this, you are also practicing positive psychology and going back to work feeling energized, optimistic and having a positive impact on people you work with.


A constant surge of e-mails, text messages, phone calls and meetings produces a sense of continuous emergency, triggering an ongoing stress response in the brain. This constant pressure has a damaging effect on the way we think and feel.

By exercising, we can disconnect and escape from the daily grind. Stop thinking about work and concentrate on a physical activity to break from all the stress. And walking away from the problem helps us see the problem with a new perspective when we come back to it.

Jump start the mind for better memory and creativity

The best approach to jump starting the mind is to strain the body.

We know that exercise improves mood. Recent studies have found that a regular workout regime is an even more powerful mood elevator than prescription antidepressants. What is less well known, however, is the profound impact exercise has on learning, memory and creativity.

To understand how exercise can influence your productivity and performance at work, it helps to look at what our bodies were originally designed to do. As physician John J. Ratey points out in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, the human body was built to expend a great deal of energy on a daily basis. Our ancient ancestors had to walk between five to ten miles a day just to find enough food to survive. Today, most of us spend the majority of our day sitting in front of a computer. And that relative lack of mobility creates an imbalance in the body's functioning.

That is not the only way we differ from our ancestors. Our environment is no longer plagued by free-roaming predators, but the number of stressors we are exposed to on a daily basis has increased exponentially. Many of us have very little control over our schedule. We face deadlines on a constant basis.

With a lot more on our plate, tension builds up. Encountering stressful events activates a fight-or-flight response, releasing chemicals into the bloodstream that steer our body to move into action. When we deny this instinct, we risk developing side effects that include anxiety, attention deficits and depression.

Exercise restores the balance. The body was designed to burn off excess energy through physical exertion. And the best way to burn off emotional buildup is through physiological relief.

When we exercise, we not only heighten our moods with endorphins but also prime our brains to absorb more information. Neurological studies show that when we exert ourselves physically, we produce a protein that encourages the growth of neurons, especially in the memory regions of the brain.

Why does exercise promote better memory? Ratey summarizes it nicely:

"The body was designed to be pushed, and in pushing our bodies we push our brains too. Learning and memory evolved in concert with motor functions that allowed our ancestors to track down food, so as far as our brain is concerned, if we are not moving, there is no real need to learn anything."

A number of organizations have looked for ways of incorporating exercise while working, but people multitasking physical activities is rarely an effective strategy. A wiser approach involves finding opportunities for employees to exercise away from their computers, in ways that allow them to work out their bodies without jeopardizing the quality of their workplace performance.

The gym is not the only place employees can get their exercise fix. Aussie software developer Atlassian, for example, keeps bikes in the lobby of their San Francisco office so that employees can go for a ride during lunch.

So, we can see exercise does not just improve your health, it gives you a mental edge. Many of us neglect exercising as we are concerned about falling behind at work. But what recent research shows is that regular exercise can boost your memory, elevate your creativity and improve your efficiency. The more complexity you deal with at work, the more value you can derive from keeping your body physically fit.

Conscious & Unconscious Thinking

When making a difficult decision, is it better to think long and hard about the problem or to distract yourself by doing something else?

Let us assume you are preparing an important client presentation and you have narrowed your approach down to several alternatives. You have an hour or two to decide which one to go with. Surely it is best to direct your full attention to the problem and carefully analyze your choices. What good could possibly come from, say, going for a workout instead?

As I had detailed in my previous blog "Fancy Taking A Stroll?", besides going for a walk, distraction can also be in the form of a workout. We have seen that when we refrain from attending to a problem too closely, we reach the best decisions.

Studies by Dutch Psychologists suggest that conscious minds have limited capacity. We can only process so much data at one time. When we are faced with more information than we can handle, or when we need to make complex decisions, we try to simplify our decisions and only focus on a small subset of facts.

The unconscious mind is far better at processing large chunks of information simultaneously. More recent studies have also discovered that unconscious thinking is well equipped for creative problem solving and generating innovative ideas.

Our health and well-being is the key contributor to our joy in work. Without it, even being part of the most thriving organization or system will not suffice. In Dr W Edwards Deming's words "Joy on the job comes not so much from the result, the product, but from contribution to optimization of the system in which everybody wins". You may enjoy your work, the organization and your team but if your health and happiness is suffering, your joy is also suffering.

My next blog will be looking at the next factor that will improve your performance. Stay tuned.