The best performers in the world share a few key habits, and a new book helps you implement them
Michael Joyner, a physician and researcher at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minneapolis, is one of the most productive humans alive. Joyner, an expert on physiology and human performance, has published more than 350 scientific articles, was recently named the distinguished investigator at the Mayo Clinic, and was awarded a grant through the Fulbright Scholar Program. In addition to his research, Joyner, an anesthesiologist by trade, sees patients regularly and is a mentor to countless up-and-comers, informally running what he calls “my own version of a Montessori school.” He writes for Sports Illustrated and is frequently cited as an expert in other leading publications. Joyner, who’s 58 and married with young kids, is also still a dedicated athlete himself, completing near-daily 60-to-75-minute workouts.
Joyner doesn’t have a special genetic mutation that gives him endless energy, nor does he work 12-hour days. Instead, he has deliberately designed not just his days but, really, his entire life, around eliminating distractions and extraneous decisions. For example, he protects dedicated time for deep-focus work (early in the morning, before his family rises), prepacks his gym bag and lunch with the same contents every day, and even deliberately moved to be within a 15-minute bike commute from his office. In doing so, he reserves energy and willpower for the activities that are critically important to him.
Great performers like Joyner choose where to focus their energy and protect it from everything else that could encroach upon it. This includes even seemingly simple things, like deciding what style of shirt to wear. And Joyner isn’t alone. In the reporting for our new book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, nearly every great performer we spoke with developed daily routines to eliminate the trivial and maximize time spent on important things. In other words, to be a maximalist in a particular field, the world’s best are minimalists in nearly everything else. Here’s what you can learn from them.
They Avoid Decision Fatigue
At the end of 2014, in Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s first-ever public Q&A session, he was famously asked, “Why do you wear the same thing every day?” in reference to his nearly ubiquitous uniform of blue jeans, a gray T-shirt, and a hooded sweatshirt.
“I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community,” he replied. He went on to explain that, when taken together, small decisions—like choosing what to wear—add up and can be quite tiring. “I’m in this really lucky position, where I get to wake up every day and help serve more than a billion people. And I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life,” he said.
Zuckerberg isn’t the first genius to simplify his wardrobe. Albert Einstein had a closet filled with multiple same gray suits. Steve Jobs almost exclusively wore a black mock turtleneck, blue jeans, and New Balance sneakers. President Barack Obama recently told Vanity Fairthat he only wears gray or blue suits. But can removing such simple choices—blue shirt or red shirt, Apple Jacks or Cheerios—really affect performance and make us more productive?
Research shows that we all have a limited reservoir of mental energy, which, over the course of a day, depletes as we use it. For example, one study found that judges granted prisoners parole 65 percent of the time at the beginning of the day, but nearly zero percent of the time at the end of the day, succumbing to something called “decision fatigue.” As the decisions they were forced to make accumulated, the judges became mentally tired and thus had less energy to think critically about cases, opting instead for the easier default choice of no parole. Additionally, a recent study found that physicians make significantly more prescribing errors later in the day. Jeffrey Linder, lead author on the study, told the New York Times, “The radical notion here is that doctors are people too, and we may be fatigued and make worse decisions toward the end of our clinic sessions.”
Without doubt, evaluating whether to grant parole or examining a sick patient requires a lot more thought than deciding what color shirt to wear. Nonetheless, even seemingly trivial decisions deplete us. Experiments show that people who were forced to make choices among a range of consumer goods—like color of T-shirt, type of scented candle, or brand of shampoo—performed worse than those who were presented with only one option on a series of tests that covered everything from physical stamina to persistence to problem-solving. The subjects who were confronted with multiple choices also procrastinated more, researchers found, concluding that even when it comes to the simplest things, “making many decisions leaves a person in a depleted state,” impairing his performance on future activities.
This doesn’t mean that you should live on autopilot. But it does mean you should realize that you have limited energy and devote it only to things that really matter, making a routine out of just about everything that is not core to your mission.