Have you noticed that when we’re working we don’t realize we are coming to the end of our capacity until we’re overdrawn? It is often not until we’re tired, irritable, distractible, or restless that we recognize we need a break. And too often, we keep going even when the signs that we should stop are apparent to others. Do you want your surgeon to be stressed and tired when she operates on you?  Do you want your accountant to do your taxes at 3:00 AM?

Optimal Performance

When we push ourselves too far, this means we are working beyond the point of our peak performance. As you can see in this simple model, our optimal performance comes when we are experiencing eustress, a term coined by endrocrinologist Hans Selye, which means “good stress.” Stress that is healthy gives us a positive feeling of meaning and accomplishment. When we are operating at our peak it typically feels great. We are creatively engaged, confident in the quality of our work, feeling appropriately challenged. The negative emotions are associated with distress and eventually exhaustion.


The trick is to stay in the zone of optimal performance; neither bored, nor exhausted. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has coined the term “flow” to describe the feeling that accompanies optimal performance. We might talk about it as being “in the zone,” “wired in,” or “having our head in the game.” Have you experienced that recently in your work?  When we’re in that state, time seems irrelevant, we are focused and immersed in the pleasure of our work.  The result is that we feel energized rather than drained by our work.

When we work in a situation of extreme high demand, we often become careless about preserving our capacity to work at peak performance. Instead of paying attention to our capacity, we focus on all the work that is waiting to be done or meeting the expectations of a unforgiving supervisor. We keep going, unaware of the decline in the efficiency and quality of our work. We cut corners, lose our concentration, let things slip, settle for good enough. We lose the pleasure of work.

How can you stay in the zone?

  1. Become more finely tuned to the emotional cues of eustress vs distress.
  2. Take breaks every few hours, even if you think you don’t need one. Stretch, breath deeply, look at something beautiful, listen to music you love, read some poetry.
  3. Ensure that you have sufficient tools, resources and support to do your best work.
  4. Develop your creativity in important ways outside of your work.
  5. When you know you have to operate in a capacity stretching manner, buttress yourself with energizing activities before and after.
  6. At the very least, be aware of the behavioral cues that signal your capacity is starting to get  low. Give others permission to let you know when they perceive you as running on empty.

You might find encouragement in an article in Harvard Business Review on how Sony has had great success improving their employee productivity by implementing an energy management training program. More than 90% of the participants say they have more energy for their work everyday. Who can argue with results like that!

Do you find staying in the zone a challenge? Let us know what helps you get and stay there.

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