High-performance work, part 2: The Four Pillars

Updated: Nov 15, 2021

Last week, we talked about the four sections energy/emotion equation: performance, survival, burnout, and recovery. Today, we'll share how to help yourself avoid the survival and burnout states.

The Four Pillars

I’m a big fan of the film Dead Poets Society, which takes place at a boys’ school that has its own four pillars for success. But today we’re talking about the four pillars of high-performance work, and how you can build up yours to do your best work – not just more work.

The Physical

Your body does more than just carry your head from place to place. How you treat it determines everything else in your life.

  • A good night’s sleep is foundational. Did you know that not getting enough sleep has some truly horrible effects on your health? I have personally suffered from insomnia for over 15 years and have only started sleeping well in the past year (at least one good thing came from Covid for me!) My successful sleep routine includes some basic but essential ingredients: a hot bath, room darkening blinds or a sleep masksleep mask, high quality ear plugs, pre-bedtime electronics detox - at least 30 min - except for listening to Insight Timer meditations or storytime - and finally, an antihistamine. I recently learned that I have three seasons of allergies and a simple bedtime antihistemine has been life changing. Apparently it's important to breath at night! I appreciate that sounds like a big checklist (and I didn't mention my special pillow and linen sheets) but it's better than the alternative, which is exhaustion, foggy brain and health risks like heart attacks and diabetes, increased production of cortisol, the stress hormone, and weight gain. Not only that, but not sleeping enough impairs brain function: it affects how well you can do math, use logic, learn, remember, use language, be creative, and use your judgment. Driving while overtired is comparable to driving drunk.

  • Getting at least 150 minutes of moderately intense physical activity each week, besides being good for body health, is also good for brain health and cognition, according to the World Health Organization.

  • We all know that feeling when we get so absorbed by a task that we forget to eat or drink or decide to squeeze in some extra work instead of taking our lunch break. But around 70 per cent of your body is made of water, and your brain is made of around 85 per cent water. Even a drop of only one to two per cent in your hydration can cause fatigue, memory issues, and brain fog.

  • Being hungry also affects your brain. For something that only makes up two per cent of a person’s total mass, it consumes a ton of energy: 20 per cent! “During a typical day, a person uses about 320 calories just to think,” according to this article. Doing intense cognitive activities over long periods burns even more – chess grandmasters can burn as many as 6,000 calories a day during tournaments. So make sure you’re fuelling your brain with healthy meals and snacks.

  • Finally, recovery is incredibly important after you’ve been working hard. Just as professional athletes schedule rest into their training to allow their muscles to recover and grow, you need to schedule breaks throughout your workday and from your work. If you don’t pick a day to relax, your body will pick it for you.

The Mental

Like I said above, brains consume a ton of our daily energy, but you can make sure that energy is used well.

  • Plan your work in daily, weekly, and 60-90 day cycles. Planning your work will help you protect your time, figure out how long your tasks take, and prevent work from encroaching on other areas of your life. We’ve all checked our work email after hours or on weekends, but setting aside designated work time will help stop that habit.

  • Perform high-value tasks when you know you have the most energy. If you know something needs your best work, do it when you feel like you’re functioning at 100 per cent and save easier tasks for when your energy starts to flag.

  • Preserve your attention and focus by working without distractions.

The Emotional

Some stress can be healthy (it’s a motivator and we’d never do anything without it), but too much of it affects your memory, attention, and thinking, as well as being bad for your body.

  • Deep breathing and meditation – even just five minutes a day! – can reduce stress and increase your focus and productivity.

  • Listing just three things that you’re grateful for each day over a long period of time can improve mental health and increase sensitivity in the part of the brain “associated with learning and decision making,” according to this article.

The Spiritual

You don’t have to be religious to direct attention to your spirituality.

  • Have regular check-ins with your personal and professional purpose, goals, and core values, and align your everyday activities with them. Is your professional goal to help people with a problem? Structure your daily work to support that goal.

  • Prioritize time and energy toward what you truly value. Work is important, but it isn’t everything. Make time for family, friends, and hobbies to increase your wellbeing.

The moral of this story? Be proactive about looking after yourself. Self-care is more than just a trendy phrase or buzzword; it’s vital.


Dawn O’Connor

I have over 30 years of experience working with more than 10,000 clients in helping people unlock their productivity potential. Personal productivity is my passion! Every day I am curious and excited to learn what people are working on. I can’t wait to see you in a Bubble!

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