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Performance Scientist James Hewitt in Singapore for an Opus by Prudential even

Performance scientist James Hewitt on the secret to reaching your peak.

James Hewitt is fascinated by the human potential to perform extraordinary tasks, both physical and mental, that involve feats of endurance and sustained focus. The renowned human performance scientist and Chief Innovation Officer of Hintsa Performance, a global coaching company, travels the world sharing what he’s learned about how top athletes deliver record-breaking results. What’s truly fascinating, says Hewitt, is that knowledge workers — analysts, innovators, organisers and creatives — who essentially think for a living, can apply the same principles to improve their well-being and performance.

Hewitt recently shared his insights at an exclusive Opus by Prudential client event and revealed the one ‘superpower’ in sport and business: focus. Here’s how we can train our brains to bring out our best.

Surviving our ‘always-on’ society

Hewitt likens knowledge work to a “cognitive endurance activity”, and points out that we face more hurdles than ever in the workplace. Consider this: a University of California study revealed that the average knowledge worker is interrupted once every 11 minutes. A Loughborough University study suggests that many workers check their email every five minutes.

“We’re never resting, we’re rarely focused and we’re always ‘on’ — but we can’t always be ‘on’,” says Hewitt. The solution to manage stress and deliver peak performance, he says, is to plan for cognitive endurance.

Get into gear

Knowing where to focus your energy, when to take some rest, and how to follow your rhythm is key. You may already have an idea of your energy levels and peak productivity times: do you deliver a powerhouse effort in the morning, tend to clear less challenging tasks in the afternoon, or are you most creative at night, for example? A University of Indiana study showed that our cognitive performance varies by 20 percent throughout the day, but we’re missing a trick by not paying attention to our natural rhythms, says Hewitt — and we’re limiting our performance.

Hewitt identifies three cycles that we can ride to our advantage in our professional lives:

High cognitive gear

  • Schedule complex, creative or problem-solving tasks, that require your full focus, during the time of day when you naturally feel most productive
  • Divide your high-gear time into short bursts: spend 25 minutes “on”, then five minutes “off” to reset and refocus
  • Engineer an environment for focus: switch off email alerts, put away your phone or move to a space where you cannot be interrupted

Low cognitive gear

  • This is your time for rest, recovery and reflection: schedule and protect time for rest, even if it’s just a few minutes
  • The most effective breaks are active, social and natural: take movement breaks or enjoy social interactions while in low gear

Middle cognitive gear

  • This is your mode for more menial tasks or your daily admin, transitioning between tasks. Schedule these tasks for the time of day when you generally feel more distracted, and free up focus for moving back into high gear

Rediscover how to recover

“Knowing when to recover is essential — even if you don’t feel like it,” says Hewitt.  “Top performers work hard, but recover harder,” he adds. Choose to take pauses throughout the day, and remember that time in ‘low gear’ is essential. After a burst of intense work, take a quick walk before transitioning to the next task. If you find it impossible to switch off, Hewitt suggests this simple challenge: the next time you have to wait in a queue, don’t pull out your smartphone.

The output of a rested, focused brain is palpable, and working longer hours to tackle an overwhelming workload is counterproductive, Hewitt highlights. If you’ve become accustomed to work days that start at 8am and creep to 2am — and this isn’t rare — you may wish to consider that a University of New South Wales study has revealed that performance after 18 hours of wakefulness results in cognitive performance deficits equivalent to being drunk.

A University of California study has shown that an extra hour of sleep measurably improves cognitive performance. It’s no surprise that getting more sleep is part of the puzzle, but there’s no need to wait until tonight to make a difference. Here is your cue to introduce a power nap into your routine: a 26-minute nap can improve alertness by 54 percent and performance by 34 percent, according to a NASA study.

Hewitt stresses that sleep deprivation is the enemy of sustained high performance. However, if you still think that you only need four hours of sleep each night to function well, he points out that only a fraction of the population is capable of operating at their peak on this amount of sleep. For cynics, he suggests the following: “Try to sleep adequately for a few nights — that means seven hours or more — and note the difference in how you feel.”

Our days, says Hewitt, all come down to decisive moments. Applying the right efforts at the right time can be transformative. Your new mantra, according to Hewitt? “Optimise, don’t maximise” to unlock your potential.

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