Hard Work vs. High Performance

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Hard Work vs. High Performance

Chandler Stevens


What’s the difference between those individuals who wear themselves down with long hours, battling against fatigue and lack of focus, making little headway on their goals…

And those who seem to effortlessly perform at a high level, accomplishing far more in a week than most do in a month, with plenty left “in the tank” to truly enjoy their success?

By the time you finish reading this, you’ll know exactly what that difference is (and the three things that factor into it), but before we get too far ahead of ourselves let me share an unusual idea with you that will help you make a lot more sense of the situation.

Do you know what your bones are for?

Their primary job is to provide support for the body, offering a reliable way to resist the downward force of gravity. There’s a reason every terrestrial animal above a certain size has a skeleton: at that scale it takes too much energy to move around without one.

What the skeleton offers is leverage to overcome the force of gravity. It allows the maximum functional output with minimum energetic expenditure. When well-aligned and supported by the skeleton, powerful movements become easy, but when the support is lacking (or not being used effectively), then every movement feels like a chore.

You can prove this to yourself right now.

First, sit upright.

Notice the weight of your head on top of your neck.

Now slowly begin to shift your head forward in space, bit by bit. You’ll probably notice that your head feels heavier and heavier and that the muscles of your neck and shoulders have to work harder and harder to keep you upright. All of that muscle contraction is essentially wasted effort. It’s energy spent doing something that could be done much more easily – but only when you have a sense of the leverage available to you.

In a nutshell this is what separates high performers from everybody else.


High Performers Know How To Identify — And Act On — The Highest Leverage Activities

This isn’t to say that high performers don’t work hard. Hard work and high performance aren’t mutually exclusive. On the contrary, the highest performing individuals on the planet invest an incredible amount into their ability to get the job done well. But they don’t rely on or glorify hard work when improved skill or better tools would suffice.

As a result they’re able to get the maximum output from a minimal expenditure of resources (time, energy, attention, cash, etc). Just as you wouldn’t want to make your way through the day with your body slumped over in a heap, you wouldn’t want to burn your resources without getting some improvement in return.

Unfortunately most people aren’t skillful either in the way they move or the way they approach their work.

It’s not their fault, of course.

Most of us simply are never taught how.

As a result we get caught up in comparison games, trying to copy the externals that we see without understanding the internal principles underlying those external manifestations.

For example, you can mimic a world class acrobat all you want, but it’s likely not going to have Cirque du Soleil calling any time soon. Likewise you can copy the external habits of successful business leaders, but without an appreciation of their internal state, it’s going to offer you superficial rewards at best.

Leverage depends entirely on the individual and the situation in which they find themselves. That means your morning routine probably shouldn’t look like Elon Musk’s or Warren Buffet’s because you aren’t them, and you aren’t in the same situations that they are.

Generic advice recommendations are good for only one thing: generic results.

The task is to identify your highest leverage activities based on your unique situation. This is much easier when you have an appreciation of the three elements that are involved.


The Three Elements Involved In High Leverage Activity

I’m going to borrow a distinction from the work of mind/body educator Dr. Moshé Feldenkrais. In his description of movement, he said that there are three elements involved in every action:

  • Orientation

  • Timing

  • Manipulation

This offers a valuable lens with which you can identify those tasks are will allow you to accomplish far more with far less wasted effort. Let’s examine each in turn.


Orientation refers to your sense of where you are relative to what you want. In movement it’s primarily your sense of up and down, left and right, front and back. All of these help you situate yourself relative to whatever it is you’re trying to do. In very similar in terms of performance. Your actions depend entirely on your current circumstances (as well as needs and preferences) relative to your desired circumstances.

For example, if you were told that all high performers drink green smoothies, but you’re allergic to green smoothies, then it would be terrible advice to tell you to drink green smoothies. Or if you were told that the only way to get rich was to build a high-ticket webinar funnel, but your dream is to run a brick and mortar business, then that advice wouldn’t be applicable to where you want to end up.

Most people neglect the context-dependence of their activity. They apply general recommendations to their situation, overlooking the fact that their unique situation isn’t average – it’s highly specific.

If we want to aim for no wasted effort, then we must be very clear on what qualifies as wasted effort. Wasted effort would be any energy you expend that doesn’t move you closer to the end goal you’re seeking. The problem is that most of us simply get so accustomed to to wasted effort that we don’t even notice it anymore. Case in point: are your shoulders up by your ears? Are you squeezing the muscles of your back?

If we can’t even notice wasted effort in the body, it’s difficult to notice when we’re wasting it in our work.

The first step then is to take a thorough inventory of where you are now relative to where you’d like to be. Right away you’ll have a good heuristic for when you’re engaged in high leverage activities. These are the things that move you far closer to your goals with far less effort. You’ll likewise notice the primary constraints on your progress. Those are the things you do that don’t contribute to the change you’re trying to make in any discernible way.


Timing refers to the sequence of actions.

Effective action depends on taking the right next step now, followed by the next right step later. For most of the things we seek to achieve there’s an order of operations that lends itself to greater outputs.

For example, a profitable business likely prioritizes client retention rather than client acquisition. Focus goes first to the client experience. Later it goes to marketing. Or when reaching for a cup of coffee, I’d do well to close my fingers after grabbing the handle unless I’m interested in punching my drink across my desk. Most of the time I take my clothes off before getting into the shower (but hey, I won’t knock the alternative).

Given that you’ve already identified where you are now relative to where you’d like to end up, it’s possible to invert the usual order of operations and work backwards from your goal. What needs to fall into place immediately before you achieve it? And what happens right before that? And so on. Working backwards often clues us into hidden opportunities that we might otherwise overlook.

As indicated above, it also helps us avoid doing the wrong things, which may be even more important.



It’s a loaded word, I know, but it has a specific meaning in this case. Manipulation refers to the use of whatever is available and necessary for the task at the moment. It’s the actual organization of activity. Currently I’m manipulating my fingers and keyboard in order to type these words. Manipulation is the actual expenditure of energy.

When you’re oriented to your current situation and aware of the order of operations, then it’s time to act.

However, we often run into problems here. Even if we know what to do and when, we can encounter internal obstacles to our effective action. We may inhibit ourselves, disrupting our ability to accomplish what we set out to do.

In such cases it’s wise to consider one of the core ideas in the depth psychological tradition, which claims that even bungled actions are successful from the viewpoint of the unconscious. Rather than rely on willpower or hard-headed discipline to overpower ourselves (burning even more energy in the process), we may be able to figure out what the underlying motivation is for such resistance and remove it with far less effort.


The Feedback Loop Of High Performance

Together these three elements create a feedback loop that supports continued high performance. Each successful completion of orientation, timing, and manipulation sets the stage for the next, and when we reflect and make use of feedback loops such as this, we’re able to amplify our results even further.

In these cases we don’t simply learn a new trick.

We learn how to learn.

Doing so, we’re able to apply our talents to a broader set of challenges with more ease.

Of course, these three elements also provide a useful way to identify where it is that you’re getting stuck at your current level and rate of progress. Do you have an accurate assessment of your current circumstances? Are you clear on where you’d like to end up and the desired time frame? Do you know what to do and in what order? Are your actions in alignment with your intentions, or do you unconsciously deviate from what you know is necessary?

Careful consideration of these questions will help you identify precisely where it is that you’re getting caught, and with that understanding you’re able to direct your resources towards resolution of the problem much more effectively.

High performers know that they’re able to make much more progress with much greater ease in the absence of constraints. Removing those is your first step towards increased leverage and performance.

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