Fun, Fear, Focus: Recipe for Peak Performance

Full video on YouTube: Fun, Fear, Focus: Recipe for Peak Performance at Work by Friederike Fabritius


  • Your prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive function, critical thinking but is easily distracted and quickly overloaded. By contrast, your basal ganglia retains your memories and habits and engages when you’re on auto-pilot. Your brain is lazy and will delegate to the basal ganglia whenever possible. For peak performance at difficult tasks that matter, you need to be able to engage your prefrontal cortex.
  • During both boredom and stress, your brain will delegate to your basal ganglia. During boredom, we’re disengaged and on auto-pilot. Under stress, we rely on our instincts and habits. It’s why we overtrain police, military, and doctors.
  • During peak performance, we are fully present in the moment and lose track of time. Peak performance is generally a joyful state where performance goes up 5x. Getting to this state requires three ingredients: fun, fear, and focus. If you can get the right combination of fun and fear, the focus will focus.
  • Fun at work is not about games or happy hours. It’s about truly enjoying the work itself. Having fun releases dopamine which improves brain performance. It’s no coincidence that world-class athletes and musicians love what they do. Surprise, purpose, and novelty also release dopamine.
  • Fear is about being slightly over-challenged by the task. Peak performance is not when the task matches your ability, it’s when the task slightly exceeds it.
  • When you’re in your comfort zone, you’re on auto-pilot. Does your work push you beyond your comfort zone? Are your people being pushed past theirs? When there’s no deadline, challenge, or scrutiny, you will remain in your comfort zone, and you will underperform your potential.
  • Your brain is lazy. If you stay in your comfort zone for too long, your brain will discover it can rely on your basal ganglia and will stop engaging the prefrontal cortex, which will lead to underperformance.
  • Short-term fear produces noradrenaline which is a positive stress hormone that gives you a positive push to rise to the challenge and succeed. In contrast, cortisol is a negative stress hormone caused by chronic stress. While positive hormones produce a short-term benefit, negative hormones can stay with you forever. Excessive cortisol over the long-term will cause your prefrontal cortex and hippocampus to shrink, and your amygdala to enlarge.
  • Autonomy is a key differentiator between noradrenaline vs cortisol. A business owner or executive who chooses to work until 3 AM or give up a vacation can avoid burnout, but that’s not the same for someone required to do so. To avoid excessive cortisol, take control of the situation. Instead of being a victim, take a more active role.
  • It’s impossible to reach peak performance without full focus and being fully present in the moment. There’s a reason peak athletes aren’t checking their emails or notifications during the match. There’s a reason world-class musicians don’t do so during their concerts. Why do business people routinely do so on the job? Multi-tasking increases errors by 50% and takes 50% longer to complete tasks. When fully focused, the brain releases acetylcholine, which is important for muscle control, learning, memory, and attention.
  • Your prefrontal cortex is a limited resource. If you’re distracted, you’ve already lost. Lock your office door. Turn off notifications. Put the phone away. Schedule “meetings of one” where you’re unavailable for interruptions. Eliminating distractions is good, but it often isn’t enough. Brain scans of people on their phones resemble brain scans of people on drugs. When we’re bored, tired, or stressed, we will give into those distractions.
  • Instead of merely limiting distractions, optimize for fun (work you enjoy) + fear (stakes that matter). Get those two in place, and the focus will follow. For example, when people engage in a group activity like walking across broken glass or fire, you won’t find a single person distracted or checking their notifications.
  • Recognize you can’t maintain peak performance all day. It’s ok to rely on your basal ganglia for less important tasks. Professional athletes train and prepare for about two hours of focus per week for the stakes that matter most. The rest of their time is training, preparation, and downtime. Positive hormones provide a burst of energy, but they’re short-term. Use them for a positive push when you need it most.

Copyright © 2023 Richard Morgan.