Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Zone of Peak Performance

I had a day at the pool today!  I'm really lucky because as part of my school's "Softening Mumbai" package we get an extended benefit that we can use towards a club membership.  India is an amazing and fascinating country - but it's not all easy living here and there are times when you really need to "get away" from everything.  My getaway is my local Taj Lands End.

As I have been determined to finish my holiday read before my actual holiday (the idea of backpacking with a hardback book is not appealing - especially as I have hand luggage only flights), I took the book along with me to read and reflect on.  I managed to get through 6 chapters, interspersed with swimming, lunch, the jacuzzi and a nap.  So this post is a reflection on these 6 chapters - starting with the one on peak performance.

Performance and stress
Studies have shown that performance is poor at low and high levels of stress.  It seems there is a sweet spot somewhere in the middle.  I was interested to read that the word stress actually just means emphasise - and that this can be positive (in which case it's known as eustress).  This type of stress is associated with more focused attention - and so our performance would actually decrease if this type of stress was removed, and we would become bored (which also explains why I can only cope with so many hours at the pool before getting restless).  Basically this is because of the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in our brains;  norepinephrine brings an urgency to our thinking at the times when we need to be highly alert.  We can artificially increase our brain's supply of this chemical by visualizing an activity and by imagining something going wrong - but obviously there's a tricky balance between producing enough of the chemical to get motivated to do something, but not producing too much so that you end up fearful!  Dopamine seems to. be a better chemical to try to stimulate:  this is what spikes our interest in something - for example when something is new or unexpected.  The good news is that telling jokes increases dopamine, as does anticipating a positive event.

Often, however, the issue isn't that we need motivating, but simply that we have information overload, with too much stimulation coming at us from all sides.  As mentioned in a previous post, one way of coping with this is to get the information out of our heads and onto paper.  Another strategy is to focus on the sounds around you or to do something physical such as take a walk.  As I read this I immediately thought about the mindfulness apps I was experimenting with last summer, as I would take regular "time outs" from living with my mother, who has dementia, to go for a walk several times a day.  Some of these apps did ask for me to pay more attention to the senses, in particular to sound.

I thought a lot about mindfulness today at the pool.  Basically this involves paying close attention to the present and being aware of experiences as they occur.  I want to develop more ability to pause before reacting to something - as this will give me the space to consider and choose between various options.  We've been lucky to have a focus on mindfulness at ASB, and I've also explored more about meditation during my yoga classes.  I know it is a matter of turning off the internal dialogue, not thinking about the past or the future but simply experiencing what is happening right now.  This allows more sensory information to get to the brain and lets you be more flexible in how you respond as events unfold.

My reading today also made me think more about cognitive coaching.  One sentence really stood out: "By understanding your brain, you increase your capacity to change your brain".

Feeling emotional
Later in the book I read a chapter about emotions.  In this chapter I read about the 3 options we have once our emotions kick in.  We can express our emotions, suppress our emotions, or undergo cognitive change by labelling and reappraising our emotions which can change our interpretation of events.  Suppressing emotions is hard - it takes mental energy, leaving less for paying attention to what is going on.  Suppressing emotions makes other people feel uncomfortable as well.  In Cognitive Coaching we have learned to name and acknowledge the emotion and then to move on to the desired state.  It's important to describe it in a word or two (this actually reduces the emotion), but not to dwell on it as this tends to increase it.  I was interested to read that many people in leadership positions do just this to stay cool under pressure:  they name this emotion and turn it into eustress.

Autonomy and agency
Agency has been a word I've been thinking about a lot in recent weeks.  It's going to be really important in the review of the PYP that will be published next year.  When you experience a lack of agency you feel helpless to influence outcomes - yet it is the perception of control over a stressor that can diminish the impact of the stress.  I was interested to read that low-level employees experience more stress than senior executives, as they have less sense of choice or control.  In a nutshell, when you feel you have choices, something that used to be stressful can feel more manageable.  Having autonomy and agency also makes you happier - and people perform better when they are happy.  According to Rock, "happy people perceive a wider range of data, solve more problems, and come up with more new ideas for actions to take in a situation".

I've now read 2/3rds of the book and am ready to start on the next section which is about collaboration.  I'm really keen to read this section as most of my work involves collaborating with my colleagues as they integrate technology into their lessons - and we all know that technology can be a huge distraction.  Hopefully I'll be blogging about the final part of this book before the end of school on Friday.

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