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High Performance, Low Tension: Perform Better While Suffering Less

Shane Melaugh
August 20, 2021

This is one of those "I wish someone had told me this years ago" articles.

Much of my adult life has revolved around the question "how can I do/be better?"

This question hasn't only been crucial for my personal life, but also for my entrepreneurial pursuits.

And I can tell you a story about my entrepreneurship that you've heard many times before. You know, the one about working late into the night, being stressed, never taking vacations... the story about all the hard work and stress that led to my eventual success.

Like most people, I thought this was normal and necessary to succeed. As I later learned the hard way, this is not at all true.

Stress Does Not Equal Performance

The mistake I made was to associate stress with performance. I assumed that if I was working super hard, constantly stressed, constantly under great tension, I was doing something right!

I bought into the hustle culture idea of work harder, work longer, never stop.

As it turns out, stress or tension is completely independent from performance. In fact, we can visualize this in a grid, where we look at high and low tension states on one axis and high and low performance on the other:

low performance high tension

Low Performance, High Tension

Your performance and the amount of stress or tension you are under are independent of each other. This simple concept is where hustle culture falls flat on its face. We're all told that "to succeed, you have to work hard", but we fall into a typical thinking trap. Correlation is not causation. And while it is true that most people who succeed also worked hard, it's not the hardness of the work that causes the success.

The truth is, you can be working your fingers to the bone and not accomplishing much at all.

What I've come to realize from my own experience is that most entrepreneurs and knowledge workers are constantly in a state of low performance at high tension.

Meaning: yes, you're stressed, you're under pressure, you're working hard... but you aren't actually performing that well. The meaningful output of all your hard work is not great. The results you get from all your hard work are not great.

And crucially: you can't solve this problem by applying more tension and more stress.

Key Takeaway

Most people wrongly conflate high tension (stress, hard work, suffering) with high performance. If you are under high tension but your performance is lackluster, you cannot improve the situation by applying even more pressure.

high performance high tension

High Performance, High Tension

Okay, so working hard and not achieving anything sucks. We definitely want to avoid that.

When we're working super hard, what we're trying to do is increase our performance. So the goal would be this second option: high performance under high tension.

This is definitely possible, but I think it's less common to find someone who's under high tension and also performing at a high level than to find the low performance examples.

Our culture basically worships a state of high performance under high tension. Because of our values around meritocracy and individualism, we want to see hard working people succeed. But perhaps more than that, we want success to require hard work.

This may be one of the reasons wealthy CEOs love to brag about how hard they work and how little they sleep.

The question is: is this really true? Do all successful people work exceedingly hard? And is it really ideal?

The truth is, high tension is important and useful, but only if it is acute and specific.

Acute as opposed to chronic, never ending. And specific, as in: applied to a specific goal or outcome.

For example, lifting weights is a way to acutely and specifically stress your muscles to induce growth. Similarly, intense learning, deeply focused work sessions, running, cold exposure, sauna and many other activities can be classified as high performance, high tension activities. What they all have in common is that for a short period of time, a stressed state or response is ellicited and in the long term, it leads to growth or improvement of some kind.

Key Takeaway

Tension, by itself, is not an issue. Short burst of specific, purposeful tension can ellicit a beneficial growth response. This is known as hormetic stress. High tension becomes a problem when it is chronic and non-specific.

low performance low tension

Low Performance, Low Tension

What about this combination? Clearly, you can be in a state of very low tension and also not be performing.

This is basically the flip side to chronic high tension: if you want to benefit from high tension states, you need rest and relaxation. Famously, both muscle growth and learning happen primarily during rest periods, not during workout/learning sessions.

A state of low performance and low tension is good for us... unless it's chronic.

If you spend your life relaxing on a couch, you will waste away, physically as well as mentally. If we only ever seek comfort, we miss out on purpose, on accomplishment and on adventure.

Key Takeaway

Low tension and low performance = relaxation and recovery. This is great, as long as it's not the only state we ever find ourselves in.

high performance low tension

High Performance, Low Tension

This brings us to the final quadrant: high performance, low tension.

This is the most important and most underrated of the 4 quadrants. Even just realizing and acknowledging that this state is possible could completely change the way you think about work and success.

So, I guess the question is: does this exist? Can you perform well at low tension? Can you be doing your best work without stress, overwhelm and suffering?

Yes!

In fact, you have little hope of ever doing your best work unless you tap into High Performance, Low Tension states.

This is best characterized by flow states. Flow is a state of total immersion in an activity. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was the first to study this phenomenon (he also coined the term and wrote a book of the same name: Flow).

The reason Csikszentmihalyi's research made such a splash was because of the counterintutivie finding that people were performing better in this relaxed, flowy state than under high tension. In many cases far better.

Steven Kotler, a prominent author who has specialized in deconstructing extreme performance has come to the same conclusion. High Performance at Low Tension isn't just possible it seems to be the key to extraordinary performance.

Key Takeaway

High performance is not only possible at low tension, research shows that humans perform at their very best under low tension. It is a mistake to try and solve the problem of low performance by trying to apply more tension and more pressure.

Okay, But How?

Alright, if you're still with me, then you probably realize that High Performance, Low Tension is awesome. We definitely want more of this in our lives!

But how exactly do we do this?

Here's what I can share from my experience. I believe that there are 2 keys to unlocking High Performance, Low Tension States.

Key Nr. 1: Awareness

The first key is simple, but important: awareness.

If we aren't aware of the fact that high performance at low tension is even possible, we're unlikely to achieve it. Make it a goal to do good work without being stressed out. Let yourself do your work without tensing up.

Even just the reminder can make a difference.

On the ikario team, Abhi had a strong tendency to put loads of pressure on himself. Here's what he had to say about the difference it made for him, to just be aware of High Performance, Low Tension:

Abhi Chand

“What resonated most with me was the comparison to a high performance athlete. The athlete doesn't go train for 8 hours and destroy himself in the gym the day before the big game, he's focused on being relaxed and mentally ready.

There's no such thing as last minute cramming if you're a high performing individual. On the day of the big game, you've either done the work or you haven't. No amount of stress and tension on that day will make up for work you didn't do in advance.

The biggest change for me is that I now see my work sessions as intense training sessions.”

Abhi Chand

Abhi is also hinting at the second key to High Performance, Low Tension:

Key Nr. 2: Do Things Fully

To explain this, we need to first look at how excellence - in any discipline - comes about.

Whatever your work is, whatever you want to perform exellently at - short bursts of intense training, followed by periods or rest and recuperation will lead to the best performance.

In their book Peak Performance, authors Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness put it this way: “Without fail, regardless of industry or job description, chunks of hard work followed by short breaks yielded the best performance.”

If you're under constant tension, you aren't optimally developing skills, knowledge or capability. Too many of us spend all of our time in a grey zone: we're always multitasking, always distracted, dreaming of being at home and relaxing while we're working and thinking about work when we're at home...

This is the worst possible state to be in because we're not being productive and we're not learning or growing, either.

Exit the grey zone. Give yourself the space and time to do things fully. When you're working, immerse yourself in a single task. When you're exercising, give yourself fully to exercise. When you're relaxing, truly leave your work and obligations behind and fully relax.

It is this cycle of intensity and rest that unlocks our full potential.

Create a habit of doing things fully, create a habit of single tasking and you will find that you develop skills faster than ever before.

And what does this have to do with the concept of High Performance, Low Tension?

Here's what you'll discover when you try this out: tension usually comes from all the "other" and "external" stuff. You can be doing challenging work and be deeply focused, but feel almost no tension. When you give yourself fully to a task, you disappear into that task.

Tension comes from not being fully involved. It comes from working on something while also worrying about something unrelated or doing one thing while also internally resisting it and trying to escape.

Over to You

Alright, that's enough theorizing. The real value of what we've covered here lies in implementation.

I encourage you to experiment with this. What happens if you remind yourself that the goal is High Performance at Low Tension and you try to do things fully, with no distractions? What does it feel like? And what happens to your productivity and performance?

Give it a try and let me know how it goes!


Shane Melaugh

About the author

Shane is a serial entrepreneur with a long-standing obsession for personal development and life optimization. He has a habit of buying more books than he can ever read. During his childhood his worldview was significantly influenced by Jackie Chan movies, the Vorkosigan Saga and the writings of Miyamoto Musashi.

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