Book notes: Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg & Steve Magness

Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success by Brad Stulberg & Steve Magness book summary.

Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success by Brad Stulberg, Steve Magness



“A few common principles drive performance, regardless of the field or the task at hand. Whether someone is trying to qualify for the Olympics, break ground in mathematical theory or craft an artistic masterpiece, many of the practices that lead to great success are the same.

Peak Performance uncovers new linkages that hold promise as performance enhancers but have been overlooked in our traditionally-siloed ways of thinking. The result is a life-changing book in which listeners will learn how to enhance their performance via myriad ways.

In revealing the science of great performance and the stories of great performers across a wide range of capabilities, Peak Performance uncovers the secrets of success, and coaches listeners on how to use them. If you want to take your game to the next level, whatever “your game” may be, Peak Performance will teach you how.” -Audible

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Opening thoughts:

I think I really just picked this up because it was on recommended list on Audible. Unless this came from another book and it was recommended by it, but I can’t remember. Otherwise, the reviews and the ratings look good, the synopsis sounds interesting, so I picked it up for the month.

In retrospect, this actually is a great book to listen to given the timing because the Olympics is are on right now in Korea for 2018 Winter Olympics. I’m curious to put this contextually with what’s going on right now.

Key notes:

  • Section 1: The growth equation. The secret to sustainable success
  • The key to strengthening any muscle is balancing the right amount of stress with rest
    • Stress + rest = growth
    • The workout is the easy part. What really matters is the rest and recovery between the workouts that make the gains
  • A common process high performers regardless of their field:
    1. Immersion. Total engagement in their work with deep, unremitting focus
    2. Incubation. A period of rest and recovery when they are not at all thinking about their work
    3. Insight. Its the occurrence of a-ha or eureka moments. The emergence of new ideas and growth in their thinking
  • The manner in which great intellectual and creative performers continually grow their minds mirrors the manner in which great physical performers continually grow their bodies
  • Exerting mental energy like resisting eating cookies depletes our mental reserves of willpower and makes subsequent tasks harder
    • In the experiment, the people who ate the cookies, a.k.a. performing in easy task, performed better on subsequent tasks
  • We cannot continuously use our mind without at some point experiencing fatigue. We cannot take on more sizable psychological challenges without first building strength through smaller ones
  • Scientists learned that stress isn’t just harmful, it can also serve as a stimulus for growth and adaptation
    • Once you stress your body, it moves into an anabolic state where it grows and strengthens
    • But if the amount of stress is too large or lasts too long, the body fails to adapt and actually does the opposite of growing stronger, it deteriorates. This is called the exhaustion stage. Or also known as being under “chronic stress”
      • The body rebels and enters what’s called a catabolic process, which is a state of persistent breakdown
    • Rather than signaling for repair then subsiding, elevated inflammation and cortisol linger at toxic levels. The adrenal system constantly on guard becomes overworked and fatigue
      • This is why chronic stress contributes to Myriad health problems. The body can only withstand so much tension before it breaks
  • Study summed up in one phrase: Skills come from struggle
    • Growth comes at the point of resistance. The same thing holds true in academics and athletics
      • The greatest games often follow immense struggle and discomfort
  • Productive failure: The most profound learning occurs when we experience this sort of failure. It is beneficial to be challenged and even to fail. It provides us with an opportunity to learn, grow, and hone a particular skill
    • The best learning occurs when we really have to work for it
  • Studies show no correlation between experience and expertise. The number of years someone spent practicing in their field did not correlate to their level of expertise
    • True top performers and experts practice deliberately and more focused than others
  • Do only one thing at a time. The secret to doing a lot is to do a little. Be a single-tasker, a.k.a. “single tasking”
    • The quality and quantity of our work suffers when we try to multitask
  • Gamblers experience I hit of dopamine right before the results which is the anticipation
    • We are not addicted to winning, we are addicted to the chase
    • Our reaction to smart phones is similar to a drug addiction in that we crave the hit of dopamine get when we check notifications
  • Top performers across all fields are unable to sustain intense work and deep concentration for more than two hours
    • Outside of rare, short-term situations, once this threshold has passed neither the mind nor the body can sustain the workload
  • Great performers work in chunks of 60 to 90 minutes separated by short breaks
    • His initial findings centered around creative like artist and competitor like top athletes. However, we find that this applies to the workplace as well
  • Mindset is a powerful contributor to how we physiologically respond to things such as a healthy protein shake or an unhealthy milkshake. The hormonal response was different based on what we were told
    • Reference to Carol Dweck’s book Mindset
    • A person’s attitude toward stress also affects their longevity and quality of life
  • When under stress, you want to release more DHEA than cortisol. This ratio is named the growth index of stress
    • If you frame stressors as challenges, you’ll release more DHEA than cortisol, and as a result, your growth index of stress will be higher and you’ll actually experience health benefits
    • Challenge yourself to view stress productively, and even to welcome it. You will not only perform better, you will also improve your health
  • The benefits of meditation and mindfulness in the rest and relaxation part of rest and recovery
    • Mindfulness not only helps you focus on the task at hand instead of worrying about the stress, it also helps you turn it off and transition into a more restful state
    • For practicing meditation, frequency trumps duration
  • Your creative insight usually comes at rest, such as on a walk, in the shower, or after a nap. It is when your mind is at rest and on the other side of things
    • The subconscious mind is always running in the background. It’s only when we turn off the conscious mind and shifting into a state of rest that insights from the subconscious mind can surface
  • After months of training, Roger Bannister rested for two weeks in the mountain and a few more days after he returned before his record-setting run. He let his mind and body completely turn off from running
  • How to rest like the best: walking breaks
    • Reference to the book The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
    • Walking tends to be more effective at fostering creativity than other movements that require more focus and coordination like dancing or lifting weights
    • Walking occupies us just enough to help us stop thinking about whatever it is we were working on, but not too much as to prevent mind wondering. It’s the perfect gateway into the subconscious mind and for stimulating creative insight to help us overcome mental gridlock
    • Taking a two minute walk every hour is protective against sittings many ill effects
  • Greek philosophers did not separate physical from intellectual education and development. Sound mind and sound body go hand-in-hand as we are now rediscovering
    • Study shows that nature inherently makes us feel good and improves our mood. Thereby hastening our transition from stressful hard work to a more restful state. It also promotes mind wandering and subsequent creativity
    • When you’re feeling down, put yourself in the way of beauty, particularly nature
  • Feeling connected to others literally fixes a broken heart. Social recovery in a relaxed environment is most effective (similar to ideas in Tribe by Sebastian Junger)
  • We think we miss out by sleeping, but in fact we miss out by not sleeping
    • Sleep is one of the most productive things we can do. We don’t grow when we’re at the gym or immersed in our work, we grow in our sleep
    • We assess, consolidate, and retaining information in our sleep. Sleep isn’t just necessary for processing intellectual knowledge, but for how we encode emotional experiences too
    • Sleep not only helps you get the most out of what you did today, but also gives you the energy and will power for the challenges you aspire to take on tomorrow
  • REM sleep is the most beneficial, and the longer we sleep, the more frequency of these REM cycles. Therefore, getting 7 to 9 hours is critical to getting more REM
    • No matter their differences in diet, all top athletes prioritize sleep as much as they do their training regimen
  • When we introduce stress, our body enters a catabolic state which makes as sore and tired. Our body is breaking down at a micro level. If we allow the body to rest, it shifts from a catabolic to anabolic state in which the body repairs and rebuilds so that it can come back stronger
    • Following stress with rest is when growth and adaptation occurs
    • Footnote: study show that eating 20 to 30 g of protein prior to sleep increases protein synthesis over night
  • The benefits of sleep also increase the longer we sleep. With each additional sleep cycle, we receive another pulse of powerful anabolic hormones
    • Napping does not make up for insufficient night time sleep. You can’t nap your way to growth, be at physical or psychological
      • That said, napping does help restore energy and concentration during mid day lulls, so it is a strategy worth considering for long and intense days
      • For naps, anything under 30 minutes is good enough. Anything over 30 minutes will give you sleep inertia and make you feel groggier than before
  • Hard work only becomes smart and sustainable work when it’s supported by rest. The irony is that resting hard often takes more guts than working hard
  • Great performers never just hope they will be on top of their game, rather they actively create the specific conditions that will elicit their personal best, priming themselves for performance
    • Nearly all elite athletes have well-practiced warm-up routines that are orchestrated down to the minute
  • You can improve performance by priming yourself into a positive mood prior to important work that involves problem solving and creative thinking. Something as simple as watching funny cat videos can enhance subsequent performance on demanding cognitive tasks
  • Latest science suggests it is extremely hard to perform well at work if other elements of your life are not in harmony
    • Be kind to yourself and others who are going through challenging times, and recognize that disconnecting work from life is an illusion
    • Mood has profound effects on performance deep inside our brains and bodies
  • Prime yourself for performance by readying your mind and or body prior to key activities
    • Test and refine various priming techniques, eventually developing custom routines
    • Be consistent and use the same routine each and every time you engage in the activity to which it is linked
  • We are not as separate from our surroundings as we may think, instead our brains are engaged in an intricate conversation with the objects that surround us and the more they converse, the tighter the back-and-forth becomes
  • Being intentional about our surroundings is essential in eliciting our best performance
    • The things we work among becomes expansions of the self, things the mind can use to create harmony and experience
    • By working in the same environment consistently and repeatedly, the bond between us and our surroundings tightens
  • More testosterone helps increase performance across the board, both physically and creatively. Priming before a performance that helps elevate testosterone levels helps with performance
    • Developing a custom routine doesn’t just condition us to perform, it enhances the performance itself
    • If “stress + rest = growth” is the foundation upon which our talent is built, then our routines and environments help us to fully express that talent
  • In order to be a maximalist, you have to be a minimalist
    • You should identify and strive to cut out all the superficial things in your life. You should be fully intentional with how you spend your most precious resource of all, time
    • In order to do great work, you need to say no to a lot of things so that when it’s time to say yes, you can do so with all your energy
  • What Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Albert Einstein have in common is that they donned the same outfit so that they don’t have to spend any mental energy trying to decide what to wear in order to focus those energies towards more productive endeavors
    • Decision fatigue occurs as the day goes on and you’re limited reserves of mental energy diminish
    • Even when it comes to the simplest things, making many decisions leaves a person in a depleted state, impairing his performance on future activities
    • Eliminating nonessential decision making can enhance your performance
      • Practice: reflect on all the decisions you make throughout the day, identify ones that are not important and don’t really matter to you, and automate as many of these as you can
  • People who are more alert in the morning I called larks, and people who are more alert at night are called owls
    • Three questions to see where you fall on the lark owl spectrum and identify your chronotype:
      1. If you were entirely free to set up your evening with no commitments in the morning, what time would you go to sleep?
      2. You have to do two hours of physically hard work. If you are entirely free to plan your day, when would you do this work?
      3. You have to take a two hour test which you know will be mentally exhausting. If you were entirely free to choose, when would you choose to take the test?
    • During our peak hours when we are hyper alert and focused, our conscious mind is dominant
      • But during off-peak hours, as we become fatigued and struggle to focus, our more creative mind has a better opportunity to shine
    • Great performers are highly aware of their unique chrono types, and do everything they can to align their activities with their energy levels
  • The fitness of a squadron was determined by the motivation of the least fit person to improve
    • Their attitude determined the success and fitness gains or lack there of for the rest of the group
    • Not only is motivation contagious, but so is emotion and pain
    • While what you do and when you do it is important, so is who you do it with
    • Peter Drucker: “culture eats strategy for breakfast
  • Great performers are not consistently great, but they are great at being consistent
  • Acts of superhero strength almost always occur in life or death situations, example of a man lifting a 3000 pound car off of someone who was run over
    • Throughout history, when people focus on a self-transcending purpose, or a purpose greater than themselves, they become capable of more than they ever thought was possible
      • This is because when we concentrate deeply on something beyond ourselves, our ego is minimized
  • Physical fatigue doesn’t occur in the body, it occurs in the brain
    • It is not that our muscles wear out, is that our brain shuts them down when they still have a few more percentage points to give
  • The belief that one’s job had a positive impact on others was associated with better performance
    • Other research suggests purpose reduces burn out, and even helps with adherence to challenging health behaviors like dieting or quitting smoking
    • To the extent you can, link your activities to a greater purpose in order to overcome the egos self-protecting mechanism
  • We constantly weigh our perception of effort’s associated with an activity against our motivation to do that activity. We either slow down or ease up until both are balanced
    • The more motivated we are, the greater the perception of effort we are willing to tolerate
  • Purpose fosters motivation. Motivation lets us endure a greater perception of effort
    • Enduring a greater perception of effort often results in better performance
    • Grit and the willingness to push through adversity can be cultivated. Strong example can be the Holocaust survivors who managed to make it out
      • Reference to the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
      • Victor Frankel’s story shows that being motivated by self transcending purpose allows one to endure even the toughest and most horrific situations
  • You should focus on helping others, which activates reward and pleasure centers in the brain
    • Not only does this make you feel better, but it also helps to re-associate positive emotions with your pursuit
    • Reference to the book Give and Take by Adam Grant
  • Practice: Select your top five core values
    • Using your customized core values sentences, create your purpose statement
  • If you only get one thing out of this book: once you’ve developed a purpose, do whatever it is you can to build a life that allows you to fulfill it
    • The closer in alignment you can live with your purpose, the better, happier, and healthier you will be

Main Ideas / Themes:

  • Stress + rest = growth
  • Focus and removing distractions
  • Chunking your work
  • Nurture a growth or challenge mindset
  • Force yourself to rest, prioritizing sleep
  • Power of meditation
  • Take a break and allow your subconscious mind to work and pass on creativity
  • Prime for performance
    • Optimize your routine
  • Mood impacts performance
  • Creating an ideal environment for performance
  • Conditioning/priming yourself to perform
    • Linking key behaviors to specific cues
  • Consistency is key
  • Purposefully design your day
  • Become a minimalist to become a maximalist
  • Match activities to energy levels based on chrono type
  • Surround yourself wisely
  • There is no replacement for showing up
  • Harness the power of purpose and transcend yourself
  • Enhance your motivation using your purpose
  • Give back to avoid burnout
  • Develop and harness your purpose

Closing thoughts:

Loved this book! Definitely going in my top 5, or at least top 10 as I really love a discussion on how to bring out the best in oneself. It was a bit long, but taking a top level view helped to show how much value this book adds.

I think this is the second book in the last few books I’ve read that mentions the book “flow,” so I think I should probably pick it up for next month.

During “single-tasking” section, this reminds me of the book The ONE Thing but I have to revisit that book as it’s been at least three years. I believe it discusses the same thing about doing less to do more and the myth of multitasking. I believe Deep Work also touches on this in its discussion on focus.

In the section on gamblers addicted to the anticipation/chase, I thought it was interesting as I can see in applying to dating and relationships in which people are addicted to the chase, not the actual relationship. Reminds me of the book The Game, which discusses the superficiality of pickup artists, specifically the second/third-order consequences of pursuing the chase instead of a fulfilling, committed relationship.

I really enjoyed how the discussion about interval training relates to and references Josh Waitzkin and his book The Art of Learning. In fact, a good majority of this book parallels the concepts in that book as well as those in The 4-Hour Workweek.

The talk about higher purpose and doing things outside of the ego which results in better performance is exactly discussed in the last book I read Give and Take, which is great. I love it when books I read have reference the same concepts because it edifies the principle. Specifically, it reinforces the idea of the power of generosity and doing things for reasons outside of yourself.


A thorough discussion on various ways to optimize for peak performance. Combination of The 4-Hour Workweek and The Art of Learning.



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