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Achieving your goals through Optimal Performance

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The importance of building rest and recovery into a long-term plan for growth

When it comes to achieving your goals, how much do you think about taking breaks? What if, instead of always driving for new peak levels of performance, you strove for what is “optimal”?

Think back to a time when you worked hard to accomplish something significant in your life. What was your goal and what did it take to accomplish it? When it comes to achieving our goals, we often focus on the countless hours of hard work, dedication, sacrifice, and the challenge and STRESS. What we often forget about is the downtime and the breaks.

When it comes to driving towards your goals, how much do you think about the periods of rest? What if the periods of rest and recovery are just as important as the periods of challenge and stress? What if, in order to achieve new outcomes, we need both the stress AND the rest?

In Peak Performance, Brad Stulberg writes about his research on how high-performing endurance athletes attain peak performance. He calls it the Growth Equation: Stress + Rest = Growth

The premise: In order to improve, all athletes need to undergo a period of stress where they apply themselves to a challenge that pushes them beyond their current capabilities and — crucially — follow this with a period of rest and recovery. Without the rest, the athletes get injured, sick, or burn out.

Related Article — For more on the Growth Equation, see Stress + Rest = Growth — An introduction to the formula behind peak performance

Applying the growth equation to long-term goals

The same principle behind the Growth Equation can be applied to your pursuit of any personal or professional development. Rest is not only important to recover your physical recovery, but also for your mental state.

Diagram of a line chart
Optimal Performance through the Growth Equation

In order to grow, you need some form of challenge, a target that sits outside the zone of what you are currently capable of. In learning theory, this is called the Zone of Proximal Development. Think of your ZPD as the next level up from your current capabilities. It’s more than what you currently know or have the ability to do, but it’s close enough that you can attain it if you are challenged to reach out to it. The challenge is the stressor. Without the stress, you will only repeat what you have done before and you may even get bored. Too little stress, and you won’t grow.

You need the challenge to push you into your zone of proximal development. Too much stress, though, and you will reach the point of overwhelm and burnout.

Enter the period of rest. Here, the rest is not only about recovering, but it can also be about reflecting and recalibrating. As you are challenged to work and think differently, to push focus and attention in new and different ways, there is a key step in consolidating what you’re experiencing and making meaning from what you’re learning.

From “peak” to ”optimal”

When it comes to on-going learning and growth, there is a longer-game horizon here. Rather than trying to constantly push for higher peaks, what if the drive up was interspersed with periods of recovery? This is the fundamental principle behind the Pomodoro Technique, timeboxing, and other practices that improve productivity. This is also the concept behind “optimal” performance over ”peak” performance. Optimal performance is about both the peaks of accomplishment as well as the restorative balance of rest and recovery.

In our pursuit of goals, it’s very easy to set targets that push us through periods of stress. What we often forget, is to bring equal intention to how we build in rest. When it comes to your own goals, where are you building in periods of rest? When and how are you recovering, reflecting, and recalibrating?