Here’s a myth: Elite performers devote every single waking hour to getting better at what they do. They have no down time, they get obsessed, and have zero time or patience to devote to anything else.
There are some obvious things that set high performers apart from under-performers: work ethic, self-control, dedication. But there are also some very subtle differences that you wouldn’t expect. Sometimes the smallest thing makes the biggest difference.
In fact, in a particular area that takes unbelievable discipline, devotion and dedication, the people who really make it actually have more downtime than those that don’t quite get there. Would you like to perform better and have more free time? Well, here’s how they do it. And here’s what we can all learn:
A few years ago, researchers chose an interesting vocation to explore the differences between elite performers and sub-elite performers: Playing the violin.
They separated these violinists into two different groups: an Elite group and a Sub-Elite group. Now, let me be clear here - all of these violinists are some of the best in the world. They are not comparing concert violinists with beginners. The Elite group go on to be some of the best in the world, while the Sub-Elite group only just miss out.
When I explain this research to people, they think that I am going to tell them that the elite group spend more time practicing. They are wrong. Both groups spend about 50 hours a week.
People also guess that the Elite group devote every waking hour to practicing and improving, becoming obsessive and neglecting every other area of their life. We couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, as mentioned earlier, it turns out that the elite group has more free time than the sub-elite group.
Here are the findings that matter to us:
There are two main differences between the elite group and the sub-elite group.
Difference #1 - Deliberate Practice
The elite group does something that requires a lot of effort: they do things that are hard, rather than things that are easy.
That is, they stretch themselves, they practice things that are just out of their grasp, they work on things they aren’t good at and spend less time on things in which they are already competent.
The sub-elite group don’t do this quite so much. They tend to do things that they are already good at, spend less time on their weaknesses and remain comfortable for most of their practice time.
Put simply, the elite group tend to do The Harder Thing more often.
Difference #2 - Focus
I said before that the elite players actually have more downtime. HEre’s how they do it.
They devote laser-focussed blocks of training to their deliberate practice. They carve out a two to three-hour window where they practice with complete commitment. No distractions, no answering the phone, no ducking outside to get the washing off the line. Nothing else matters in that short window.
Then they go away. They go away and they do something else, usually something completely unrelated to playing the violin. But later on, they come back and they hit that high level of focus again, with the same dedication.
Now, on the other hand, here’s what our sub-elite group do:
They practice with a lot less intensity.
They do a bit, then get distracted, then do a bit more. Maybe they answer some emails, read an article online, then do a bit more.
Their block of practice lasts most of the day. In the end, they only get the same amount of practice done, but they do it in bits and pieces.
What does all this mean for us?
Think about when you are most productive. Most likely it is early morning, in the office, before anyone else gets there. If you’re like most workers, then you might find that you get almost as much work done between 7 am and 9 am as you do for the next five or six hours.
Or maybe it’s when you have a deadline. Maybe something big is due in a few hours, or maybe there’s a bunch of stuff you have to do before you pick the kids up from school. I bet you find that those few hours, with the looming deadline, are more productive than the other 65% of your day.
You’ll notice in these moments when we get focussed and productive, it is the result of external forces. Either there’s no one around, so we can get more done, or someone has set us a difficult deadline, so we increase our attention and work a little harder into that Performance Zone.
This is what the elite violin players are essentially re-creating. But they do it for themselves, with no outside influences making it happen for them. They get more done, it is more beneficial, and they learn faster and more intently along the way.
I know I’ve mentioned this before. But when we can create blocks of focus - instead of multitasking and flitting from one distraction to another. We get more done and we create more time in between these periods of high intensity to stop, reflect and recharge.
** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert focussed on helping leaders build the environment for high performance. His insights into performance science and it's application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology and combines the two for a different perspective. He is also the author of Jack and the Team that Couldn't See and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.