What Makes a High Performer

What makes a high performer? Why do some people achieve greatness and others get left floundering behind. Psychologists have determined that the ability to get into FLOW is one of the most important aspects of high performance. FLOW is a term first used by prominent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. FLOW is also know as being "In the Zone", it is a state where everything seems easy, you are very efficient, you have positive emotion, there is zero stress, it is a state of authentic happiness and you feel invigorated after it.

While I was working with elite athletes in Australia and in America, armed forces, some high profile people in the entertainment industry and more recently with high performers in corporate organizations, I noticed that these high performers regularly go into this FLOW state.

The characteristics of FLOW are:

1. Goals are clear

2. Feedback is immediate – you are aware of your environment

3. There is a balance between opportunity and capacity – you are up to the task

4. You are deeply focused

5. You are in the present – only focused on what you are presently doing

6. You feel in control of the situation

7. Your sense of time is altered

8. You have no ego – you are not worried about others judging your performance

Actors on stage describe a FLOW moment where everything comes together and they nail the performance. Sales people describe a FLOW meeting where they overcome every objection with ease and build rapport with the buyer. While people in admin roles or PA's say FLOW is where they feel in control of all their tasks, complete everything they needed to do and feel invigorated at the end of the day rather than exhausted.

The beautiful thing about FLOW is that it is a state of zero of stress and allows us to work hard without burning out. I recently saw a great example of someone who lives in this FLOW state. I had the pleasure of spending the day with Dr Fiona Wood. This woman is a revelation; she is the burns surgeon from Perth who was the 2005 Australian of the year. She is Director of the Royal Perth Hospital Burns Unit, a leading researcher, one of the best burn surgeons on the planet, a member of a number of health boards, leader of a cell culture business that employs 20 people and a mother of six who exercises for one hour a day. Dr Wood fits all this in without a hint of burn out.

So how do we get more FLOW? The good news is that it is not all about talent, ability and potential, it's more to do with how people execute on a daily basis. Two of the most important principles that help you get into FLOW is the ability to focus deeply on the tasks that you perform and keep your mind in the present.

As a society we are losing our ability to focus. It seems like the whole world has ADHD. There are three main reasons for this. 1. Attention deficit habit (ADH). ADH is a condition where the habits in our day are sapping our ability to focus. For example most people leave their email open and every time it alerts us to a new email we stop what we are doing and we go off and check it. Also we leave our phone on constantly during the day even when we are writing a report or meeting with someone. These habits actually set ourselves up to be distracted and train us to have poor focus. New research tells us that the average employee in an office environment is interrupted 11 times in an hour. Sounds a lot but when you think about it most people are constantly responding to their email alert, answering the phone, having people come into their office, suddenly remembering things that they should have done and dealing with noise from open plan offices. What's the fall out of all these interruptions? The fall out is a massive reduction in productivity and creativity. A study by Basex found that office distractions take up 2.1 hours of the average day (28%) with workers taking an average of 5 minutes to recover from a distraction and re-focus on the original task. This message is important for the leaders of the business. Due to distractions and interruptions people rarely get the time to think creatively and come up with innovative ideas.

2. Information Obesity

This is the result of shifting from a physical economy to a digital economy. We are overloaded with information and we have so much information coming at us we don't have to focus on one thing for too long before something else will come and take our attention away. A recent report released by Proud Foot consulting said that information overload was responsible for a 10% decrease in productivity.

3. Multi-tasking

The greatest enemy of focus is this idea of multitasking, multitasking suggests that you can focus on many things at once. Reality is multi tasking is a very inefficient process and in reality all you are doing is focusing poorly on a number of tasks rather than focusing well on one thing. In fact a recent study conducted by The Institute of Psychiatry at King's college London, compared the cognitive ability of people who had been multi tasking and people who had just smoked marijuana. Who came out on top? The drug affected workers. The reason why is that multitasking is incredibly stressful on the brain, it impairs short term memory and concentration. The result is that the brain is left in an impaired state.

So what is the solution how do we improve our focus? Well there are three simple techniques we can use to have the focus of a high performer.

1. Control Your Environment.

Set up your external world to support focus. Most people are bullied by their environment and they are constantly reacting to things. At certain parts of your day when you are completing an important task control the technology around you by turning off the email and the phone. Also educate the people around you on when you are not to be interrupted. Push back on the environment, don't be a slave to your environment.

2. Be Present.

During the day practice focusing your attention on what ever is in front of you. Lose yourself in what ever you are doing. If you are writing a report focus entirely on that report without thinking of the other things you need to do later in the day. Likewise if you are having a conversation with someone totally immerse yourself in that conversation don't let your mind drift. So often we have conversations and we are not really present. Business is built on relationships, the greatest complement you can give another person is your undivided attention. However we all have a highly tuned BS detector, and we know when people are not truly engaged with us. Some people believe that being present is the key to team building. Malcome Gladwell in his book "Blink" examined the determining factor between surgeons that go sued after they made a mistake and those that didn't get sued after a similar mistake. The number one factor was how present the doctor was during the consultation. If a surgeon was present in their interaction with a patient they didn't get sued.

Being present is also essential for leadership. In a large Telco I am working with the CEo is Universially loved by the staff, when asked about the reason fro this admiration the most common response was "because when he talks to me I feel important and I know he is actually interested in what I have to say". Being present also affects how our customers feel about us. Professor Boris Groysberg at Harvard in his research found that male high performers when they moved to a new organization saw a dramatic decline in performance. Specifically 46% of top male performers saw a 20% decrease in performance. Incidentally this did not recover within the 5 year study period. The only exception to this was the female top performers, when they moved to another organization their performance stayed stable and tended to increase. Why? Professor Groysberg found that the females in the study were often denied access to the internal peer groups in the male dominated industry. In a nut shell they were excluded from the "boys club". With few people to network with who did they form relationships with?

Their customers and suppliers!

The result was that while their internal network was weak their external network was incredibly strong. In comparison their male colleagues had a very strong internal network however their external network was lacking. Which one is portable? The external.

When the customers were asked why they followed them to the new organization, they listed the fact that they "pay attention and give a damn, when I talk to them".

Being Present can also dramatically peoples stress levels. Stress is when we doubt our ability to handle a future event, this triggers a stress response which results in fatigue, negative emotion and poor performance. Craig Hassard from Monash University took a group of medical students in their final year. The measured their stress levels, depression index and anxiety levels. The students then practiced being present at every moment of the day (when studying, spending time with friends and talking to patients) as well as 5 mins of meditation in the morning and night. They retested the students 2 weeks before their final exam (the most stressful time of the year) and found dramatic reductions in stress, depression and anxiety (some of these reduced up to 30%).

In affect the students workload was climbing but their stress, depression and anxiety levels were dropping. All it took was a bit of real time practice and 10 mins a day. Not a bad return on investment.

There you have it to get more flow control your attention to be in the present and go forth and focus!