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Why We Don’t Perform at Our Best and How to Change That

Riley Jenkins, a consultant at an elite firm, prides herself on responding to her clients’ emails within an hour. She works every Saturday. She never takes a flight that doesn’t have internet access, so she can work (and of course attend to her inbox). She stays up late working on clients’ proposals. She always picks work over her personal life. And her face is always in her phone.

But none of this makes her a star employee. And she doesn’t feel any more caught up. Instead, she constantly feels harried.

Instead of performing at her best in all spheres of her life, she’s sinking even lower.

She’s disappointing her closest people. She’s overworking her team (which leads them to be inefficient). She’s very close to being fired, and about to lose an important client. 

Maybe this sounds familiar. The specifics of your situation are no doubt different, but you still feel like you’re constantly behind, have too many emails in your inbox, and not enough time to think, create and explore.

In other words, you, too, feel like you’re not performing at your best.

Riley Jenkins is the heroine in Laura Vanderkam’s new insightful, compelling time management fable, Juliet’s School of Possibilities: A Little Story About the Power of Priorities. And while Riley is a fictional character, Vanderkam has seen similar behaviors, reactions and results with many busy, overwhelmed people.

Like Riley, many of us only deal with the tasks that are right in front of us. We don’t question whether these tasks are actually the right tasks to be doing. Instead, we simply react. We try to do everything (sometimes at once!), and find ourselves exhausted without anything to show for it and without any exciting ideas to entertain.

Like Riley, the problem is that we don’t think about performance holistically, said Vanderkam, also a  journalist, speaker and bestselling author of books on time management, including Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done.

For instance, one reason we don’t get great ideas is because we don’t carve out time to actually think, she said. “Our brains need time to process information, away from the usual inputs. This is often why great ideas come to us when we’re doing something other than sitting at our desks: showering, driving, exercising. Breakthroughs seldom come from banging our heads against the wall.” 

Another mistake we make is trying to wrangle our email, and get to that magical destination known as “inbox zero.” “Many people figure they’ll get to the deep work after they clear the decks, because then they’ll be fully able to focus,” Vanderkam said. “The problem with this is that email expands to fill all available space. You will never be 100 percent on top of your email, because people will respond to what you send out, and then you’ll need to deal with these responses, and the cycle continues.” 

Performing at our best, according to Vanderkam, means doing work we’re proud of, and coming up with creative ideas. This happens when we care for ourselves physically and mentally, she said. Below, you’ll find several suggestions for doing just that.

Prioritize the basics. It’s very hard to perform at your best when you’re sleep deprived and have been sitting in the same space for hours. Vanderkam stressed the importance of getting at least 7 hours of sleep a day  (“almost no one can do their best averaging less than 6”), and moving your body (which can be anything you find enjoyable—from taking a brisk walk around the block to practicing yoga to taking a dance class).

This is not easy to do. Because inevitably when evening arrives, we think I’ll just answer one more email, I’ll just watch one more show, I’ll check out Facebook for a few, and we end up staying up later and later. Or we think I’ll just work through lunch; I can’t afford to take that walk today.

But Vanderkam pointed out that “sleep and exercise don’t take time, they make time. Whatever time you devote to these things, within reason, will be paid back to you in terms of better focus.”

Carve out open space—even in small chunks. “When you’re rushing from thing to thing, you don’t have time to process information and make new connections,” Vanderkam said. Which means you don’t have time to come up with new ideas.

She encouraged readers to create more space in your schedules to simply think. “In Juliet’s School of Possibilities, Riley comes up with her career-saving idea while biking along the boardwalk. It’s the first time in ages that she hasn’t been stuck in her inbox, but the gamble pays off.”

You might carve out 10 minutes after certain appointments or meetings to meditate or stare at the wall (that counts, too!). You might build in a quiet break into your morning or evening routine, so it becomes as automatic as brushing your teeth or drinking your coffee.

Seek out meaningful conversation. Vanderkam emphasized prioritizing conversations with interesting people. “Often these lead to uncharted places. Build enough space in your schedule that you can visit these uncharted places.”

Interesting people can spark interesting ideas and new perspectives. And, in general, genuine conversations are nourishing, providing a much needed break between working and being inside our own heads.

Read widely. “Of course you want to stay on top of what’s going on in your industry, but sometimes people in an entirely different industry have faced similar issues,” Vanderkam said. “Or you might read something in a novel—even a fable!—that nudges you to see things in a different light.”

For instance, Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion inspired Vanderkam to rethink meetings and planning them. (“Books for teachers often have great ideas for managing other people who may no longer be children, but still might not necessarily want to be there,” she said.)

Books on personal finance have given her great ideas on time management, because of the parallels between the two. “I recently wrote a blog post about the ‘time equivalent of an emergency fund’—how we can think about leaving some time open so when emergencies come up, there’s a place for it to go.”

Vanderkam also suggested putting eBooks on your smartphone. This way every time you pick up your phone to scroll social media, you can read an interesting, potentially invaluable book instead.

Performing at our best requires effort. But, interestingly, the ingredients for doing so—prioritizing sleep, movement, space, relationships and reading—are also the ingredients that help us build fulfilling, meaningful lives. 

In other words, it’s worth the effort.

Why We Don’t Perform at Our Best and How to Change That


Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.


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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2019). Why We Don’t Perform at Our Best and How to Change That. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 15, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/why-we-dont-perform-at-our-best-and-how-to-change-that/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 12 Mar 2019
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 12 Mar 2019
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.