How high performance habits can help leaders build high performance cultures

By Marty Parker

At Waterstone, we build great organizations by working with clients to help align their culture to their team and to their business strategy in order to drive peak performance. And as part of our work with CEOs and other corporate leaders, we inevitably get asked about some of the best practices or trends that we’re seeing when it comes to incorporating high performance mindsets and habits into peoples’ personal and professional lives.

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to speak to Dr. Greg Wells of Wells Performance about his new book Rest, Refocus, Recharge. As part of that conversation, we explored some important habits that leaders can incorporate into their routines to help structure their work and their thinking in a way that will optimize their productivity and help them build and nurture high performance corporate cultures.

The interview has been edited for length, but you can listen to the full conversation here.

Marty Parker:
So much about this book, and it really starts this way, is about recovery. You talk a lot about recovering deliberately. Take us through that and what you think the key attributes are of deliberate recovery.

Greg Wells:
Yeah, that’s a really interesting idea. And as a physiologist for the Olympic team, that was my primary job, “How do I help people get from one event to the next? Or from one day to the next? Or get through this training camp? Or rest up for the Olympics?” And so recovery was one of my primary jobs for many, many years with the Olympic team. And it was interesting to watch with athletes in the 80s and 90s, the philosophy was just train as hard as you can, whoever does the highest volume wins.

And that has totally changed, where now the focus in high performance sports, probably best personified by Kawhi Leonard last year with the Toronto Raptors, really revolves around load management, making sure that you’re training at the highest level, you’re managing your physiology and your health to not get injured. You’re getting enough rest so that when the playoffs come around, you’re able to elevate your performance to a new level.

So it’s a different approach to training. And that is what I want people to try to do in the business world now as well. And that revolves for me, first and foremost around making sure that people are sleeping well. And if we are sleeping well, that sets us up to do everything else better. The cleaning of the brain, the recovering and regeneration of the brain then enables the brain do what it does best during the day, creativity, problem solving, agile thinking, learning. And so if we’re able to recover deliberately beginning of course, with making sure that we’re sleeping well, then everything else in our life gets better. And we can actually reach our potential in whatever it is that we care about the most.

Marty Parker:
It’s fascinating to think that it all starts with slowing things down and rehabilitating the body. But you then go on and talk about rehabilitating and training the mind. So talk about the whole area of what you call thinking about how you think.

Greg Wells:
I always believe in having a scientific foundation for anything that I’m talking about. And the scientific foundation for this book revolves around the states of being, for the brain that create brainwaves, which can be measured on EEG. So if you put electrodes on the head, you can measure brainwaves. And there are different brainwaves associated with different states of being.

So when you’re sleeping, you create delta brainwaves, which are very, very slow big waves, like huge waves that you might have out in the middle of the ocean that are so big, you might not even notice that you’re in a wave. Then you go a little bit smaller, the waves get a little bit smaller, tiny bit faster, those are theta waves when we’re creative. A little bit smaller, a little bit faster, those are alpha waves when we’re able to learn and do strategic thinking. A little bit smaller, a little bit faster, those are beta waves when we’re hustling and performing and executing. And then even smaller and faster than that and the entire brain gets activated at the same time are gamma waves when we’re at those transcendent moments of high performance that actually put our lives on two different trajectories.

If we go right back to the beginning of that, theta waves and alpha waves are when we’re creative and when we’re strategic thinking. And so that’s a state where we are reflective, that’s the state when we are contemplative, that’s the state when we are daydreaming, that’s the state when we’re ideating. And you have to slow down in order for that to happen. You can’t be in hustle mode, you can’t be in perform mode. You can’t be checking email and get a new idea at the same time.

So by slowing down, we are able to speed up which is very counterintuitive in this era of constant unrelenting distraction and go, go, go, go, go and hustle and execute mode. And I think that by slowing down, we can get better ideas, we can be a lot more strategic. We can chart new courses forwards and come up with new solutions to old problems and think in an agile manner, which is the currency of the future, I believe.

Marty Parker:
But how do you take the knowledge, understanding what these states are and organize your time? Plan your day around how you optimize, either putting yourself in or your natural cadence, let’s call it, to get into those states. How do you go about that?

Greg Wells:
The way to organize this around your day is as follows: I think that we need to take radical control of our days. And by that I mean, radical being complete and thorough. So often we are on other people’s agendas, and we do busy work instead of important work. And I want us to, as leaders, make sure that we are doing what is important and what we want to be doing so that we can get done what needs to get done. Not to say that you shouldn’t take phone calls or check your email or anything like that, but I believe we need to block things. And the way to get started is to think about when are you at your best. So naturally on any given day, when do you feel fantastic? When can you focus deeply, when do you have that easy ability to concentrate? And for me that is six until 10:00 AM. That’s my sweet spot for me functioning at the highest possible level.

And so for me, the mornings are theta and alpha, which is creativity and strategic thinking. And my afternoons are based around delta wave work, which is focused execution. And then when I have a key performance moment, that’s what we call gamma states, when you want to be in the zone, when you want to be in that peak experience state, then actually the entire day is built around that.

So the idea of organizing your day and structuring your day in such a way that you are doing what you do best at the time when your circadian rhythms enable you to do that, most easily is a really important idea. And it takes a long time to figure that out. But the rewards when you actually start making it happen are so exponential that I think that it alters not just your ability to perform at the highest level, but also your health as well. You feel better, more energetic, you accomplish more in less time. It’s much less of a struggle. But it’s exquisitely high performance. This isn’t just where we’re not punting it, we’re not doing less, we’re not saying, “I’m not up for that,” it’s just like you’re just doing what you do best at the best time of day for you. And that’s really what it all revolves around.

Marty Parker:
And it’s really about, as you said, radical control and radical attention, before you can optimize the states that you want, based around your own, I would say physiology and some best scientific practices, right?

Greg Wells:
I love that word, radical attention. Radical control of your attention is so huge, eliminate the distractions, turn off the email, audio alerts, turn your phone over or better, put it away. You don’t need multiple screens open, you only need to have available to you what you need to get done. The ability to get into deep focus right now, the ability to get into radical attention is so important, and really is a game changer in terms of us getting done what we need to get done.

Marty Parker:
And I might add something to that and that is, as executives there are all sorts of reasons for distractions. And people want your time. So you need, I would argue, to train and develop in a radical way your support network. Whether it’s your team members, your administrative help to ensure you get those blocks. And I think, and I don’t mean to make this sound, in any way, like it’s bigger than it is, but I think other people will see more impact from you. And as a result, they’ll want to do the same.

Greg Wells:
I agree with you completely. And so once people understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and that you want other people to feel free to do the same, then all of a sudden it begins to percolate its way through the entire organization. But it’s because you’re doing it yourself that it’s able to move out through the organization.

So it’s very important for there to be radical authenticity in all of this as well, for the leadership and for the organization in order to build that high performance culture. So yeah, you’re absolutely on the right road with that, with what you’re doing and what your team is doing as well.