Today I talk with Steve Magness, an elite-level runner, running coach, exercise physiologist, and author.
His latest book, Peak Performance, is a detailed and practical overview of the science of optimizing your mental and physical performance, and in this interview, we discuss some of the key takeaways from the book, including how to use stress and recovery to stimulate progress and growth, how to prime and prepare yourself for optimal performance, and how to avoid overwhelm and burnout.
Here’s a little sneak peek of what we talk about:
4:30 – What is the stress and recovery model and is it effective?
9:00 – How much time should people do deep work per day?
15:09 – What are some recovery strategies we can use in our day-to-day life?
20:52 – How can we change the way we react to stress?
23:53 – What is tend-and-befriend?
28:48 – How does self talk affect our mental and physical state?
30:42 – What is an example of positive self talk?
55:10 – Where can people follow you and find your work?
Mike Matthews: Hey Steve, thanks for coming on the show!
Steve Magness: Yeah, thanks a lot for having me.
Mike Matthews: Absolutely. So I’m excited to talk to you because I read your book, really liked it, and I have a, I do it every two or three weeks or so, I recommend, I write a little book review, of a book that I like that I’ve read recently. Peak Performance was one of them, and I actually heard back from quite a few people who bought it based on my recommendation and liked it.
This topic is popular with a lot of my readers and listeners. And yeah. So I think it’s going to be a good discussion.
Steve Magness: That’s exciting. Really glad to hear that you enjoyed it, and thanks a lot for recommending it to people.
Mike Matthews: Absolutely. So let’s just get right into it. So I put together some talking points, just some specific things that I really liked from the book, that I haven’t particularly spoken about previously, because I’ve had a couple of people on the show to talk about just performance in general, and optimizing performance. And I’ve written a bit about it. So yeah, I think let’s just jump right into the first, which is the kind of I guess the overarching theme of the book, right, which is using stress and recovery to improve, not just I mean. It’s pretty obviously that that’s what you need to do to improve your exercise capacity, whether it’s cardiovascular or strength or whatever. But it’s a good system, it’s a good formula for improving any area of our lives. So I think that’s a good place to start, if you want to break down how that plays out.
Steve Magness: Yeah, sure. You know, I think it’s interesting because you’re familiar, I mean most of, almost all your listeners will be familiar with this applied in the exercise world. Because we’re used to it right. We’re used to like going out, lifting some weights, running, working hard, and then like you know, stepping away or having an easier day, and having a recovery.
Mike Matthews: Although some people don’t actually, I mean go look at, actually funnily enough I’m writing a book proposal for the next book that I’m going to be writing, and I’m doing like right now the chapter by chapter outline. And so I went and looked, it’s funny timing. I went and looked at the hashtag No Days Off, hashtag on Instagram, and right now there’s like 4.9 million posts-
Steve Magness: Wow.
Mike Matthews: And I’m writing an outline to a chapter on like, stop working out every day and do this instead which is basically, stop beating the absolute shit out of yourself and make sure that you have some act of recovery, some rest in there as well.
Steve Magness: Yeah you know, it’s funny. Like I think it’s because of the no pain no gain kind of mantra that exists in our world right. And I get it, like I’ve been there too. Like I’ll train myself into the ground. And if you’re in that world it feels good to do so, when you’re thinking like oh man, this is where I’m getting my gains in, I work hard, I get better.
But you know, the reality is, and what we found, both from the research side and then talking to you know, some elite performers all over the world in different things, is like. You get better on the recovery time, right? Like your body, physically, like repairs all that damage, from the workout, your muscle gets stronger, like the proteins kind of bind together and form a stronger muscle. It doesn’t happen during the workout time. It’s that, that time in between. And what’s interesting enough is that that same principle applies to everything else we do, essentially. Right. So if we looked at you know, we were talking to this world famous mathematician who had developed all these theories which are way too complex for me to understand. And he was sitting there and he was saying like yeah, I go and I like work really hard on this problem, or like you know, go on my blackboard or my whiteboard and go after it. And I can never solve it during that time. It was always when I like stepped away, took a nap, went to sleep, or like went for a nice walk and the answer would come out to me.
And I think that kind of showed that this is an overarching theme, is that while we kind of romanticize the grind, right, the reality is if you want to be productive, yeah, you’ve got to go do difficult stuff, like you’ve got to, you know if you’re writing a book you’ve got to go to town writing for a bit. But you can’t do that all the time. Like to optimize performance, you need these periods where we go really hard, stress ourselves, then we step away, recover, rest, let our mind and body coalesce everything. And if we kind of stagger our life like that, we’ll get better performance, and longer lasting performance versus this kind of grind mentality that we often have.
Mike Matthews: Yeah. You know Cal Newport spoke about that in Deep Work. I think you know, based on the research he did for that book, he found that most top performers are not doing their thing more than maybe four or five hours a day, regardless of what that thing is.
Steve Magness: Yeah, exactly. And I think that’s a big misconception right. Because again, we romanticize the hard work. And we just imagine that you know, the Olympics are on right now and we imagine that these people are training eight, nine, ten hours a day, like doing, their life is nothing but skiing, snowboarding, whatever. And that isn’t the case, it’s not humanly possible for a long, sustained time. And regardless of the domain you see, like there’s a cap. You know, once you get four, five hours of work in in the day, like you can’t do any more. Which you know, begs a question on our work days, why they’re scheduled like they are, but it’s another topic. But you know, it’s something that I think needs more awareness, so that we can start working smarter, and not necessarily just harder.
Mike Matthews: Yeah, have you found that to be true for yourself personally? Because I would say it depends like what kind of work we’re talking about. In Newport’s case he was talking about particularly what he calls Deep Work right, so work that requires basically all of your focus, all of your attention. And due to the nature of the book, he was speaking again more about like abstract stuff, not necessarily digging ditches. But mental work that requires a fair amount of exertion, and controlling your attention, controlling your focus and so forth. And I guess I could say myself, yeah, I mean I can see performance maybe starting to drop off. Writing is a good example of that, because if you’re going to do a good job at it you really have to focus, and you’re really trying to pay attention to every word and every sentence, and trying to make connections and blah blah blah.
So yeah, I mean I think I would generally agree with that. Probably myself, I mean sure, I have spent more than four hours in a day writing, but I can see performance maybe starting to decline. I think it also, again I’m curious as to your experiences with this. I think it kind of depends on what I’m working on as well. If I’m able to like write for a few hours on one project, and then switch to something else that is different. I feel like I can go longer, and be really fully there, and high energy and high output. As opposed to you know, yesterday I worked six hours on this book proposal. And book proposals are boring by their very nature, I mean this is something I am actually just grinding out. And by that sixth hour I actually was like I’ve had enough of this, I’m going to go write an article or something, I’m done writing on the book proposal. But in terms of just work, I think that anyone is capable of more than four to five hours of just work per day. And not only capable of, but can handle it without much stress or blow back. What are your thoughts?
Steve Magness: Yeah. So there’s a lot of nuance in this stuff. So we have to look at how engaged you are when you’re doing the work. Right. So in Newport’s terminology, is it deep work, is it [inaudible 00:10:09], is it deliberate practice? Right. Like how much attention and focus are we assigning to this. You mentioned writing, I mentioned writing. When you’re really deep into writing, like every sentence almost becomes like, not torture, but to a degree it does. Like you’re thinking of the words, you’re thinking of the sentence.
Mike Matthews: You’re never quite saying things the way that you want to.
Steve Magness: Exactly. Right? So you have to be highly engaged right. Other things I can do like maybe answer an email, right, which I hate doing but I can do that without being completely engaged. Right, I can just kind of get in a little zone and get that done and like it doesn’t take that much mental energy. So there’s an engagement part, and the same is with exercise right. If I go out and say hey I’m going to go out and run an easy five mile run and just go slow? Like that’s not that hard right, because I’m taking it easy, it doesn’t take much energy. If I take that same time period and I say hey I’m going to go down to the track, and blister some 400 meter repeats? Like that’s going to drain me a lot more, even though the time component is about the same. That engagement is number one.
And then I think the other part that you hit on and it’s entirely true is, the almost like the motivation and enjoyment of it right. If we’re enjoying the activity, we’re going to be able to last longer at it, right. If I’m in the zone and I’m writing something and really having fun with it, then I can press that further than if I didn’t, and if it’s the grind. So I think that is another component that we have to consider. And those come down to like, there’s an ability to switch between things when we’re working throughout a day, and that’s one of the things that we mentioned a lot in the book. Is that similar to how I wouldn’t go work out, and I wouldn’t go run, you know, 15 miles every day if I was trying to train. One day I might run fast, one day I might run slow. One day I might lift weights, one day I might cross train.
Like that changing up of the stimulus, just enough, even though it’s work, can prolong what you can do. So you know, I might write for blocks of an hour, and total three or four hours in the day. But then I might go, record a podcast right. Or I might go work on some presentation I’m going to give. Because it changes that stimulus just enough, where it’s like yes it’s work. But it’s a different kind of work. And if we can kind of periodize our day, for lack of a better term. Then I think we can get more quality, and longer work out of it, if that’s the goal.
Mike Matthews: Yeah. And that’s what I do, I’m sure you do the same thing. You block your time out, and you base it on, you know, probably primarily on your energy levels, mental energy and physical energy and you know. If you do your best work, if you seem to be most focused and kind of in tune with whatever you need to be in tune with to write will, the ethereal muse if that’s the morning for you then you do it in the morning. Or if that’s the night for you, do that at night. And you work around your natural rhythms.
Steve Magness: Exactly. I think that’s a brilliant piece of advice there is that like, you need to work around your natural rhythms, and realize that there’s no one set grand secret to like hey, this is how I need my day to be, right. Which I think sometimes gets lost, as people are looking for like the magical you know, routine, to get done.
Mike Matthews: Yeah, like how to have the perfect day, and here’s the one size that fits all that you know, based on in some cases it’s just anecdotes.
Steve Magness: Exactly.
Mike Matthews: In other cases it’s misinterpreted or misrepresented research, where they’re trying to force people into a strait-jacket, or at least that’s what it feels like for some people.
Steve Magness:Exactly. And you know, you and I can both speak on it all the time, but we probably have different periods of the day where you know, I can work really well and I can’t. And like I just have to acknowledge and recognize that, and kind of build my day around that.
Mike Matthews: Cool, yeah. And let’s talk about recovery now. So obviously in the case of exercise it’s pretty obvious, there’s not exercising, that’s one way to recover. Or some sort of active recovery, it could be you know, light cardio walking, biking, or it could be like I like yoga for active recovery. For its other benefits as well. What are some good recovery strategies that we can use more in our day to day life. And I’d say again, because you know, and this is something I want to get to, is mental fatigue is real obviously. And it can even affect physical performance. What are, even if it’s just your personal recovery strategies, or if it’s things that you know, you came across in your research, and also just your work with elite athletes. What helps them best refresh, not just their bodies, but you know their minds?
Steve Magness: Yeah. You know, I think that mental recovery is probably one of the most neglected things that we have.
Mike Matthews: Especially now with you know, the 24/7 world that we live in, and the constant fear of what am I missing out on.
Steve Magness: Right. And you also think like you know, maybe ten, 15 years ago, when you recovered, when you stepped away from work et cetera, like you were actually stepped away. Now, like our minds are always active, our phones are always on, like we’re always checking that. We’re always available. So like when we step away, we’re not really, truly stepping away and recovering. And I think from a mental standpoint that really affects things. So, what I found in research, and also in working with some world class athletes is, that the best thing is actually what I’d call social recovery. Where you step away from what you’re doing, but like engage with other individuals, other people, you enjoy talking with.
Like there’s some really interesting and cool research that shows that you know, after a hard workout for example, if I spend the next 15, 20 minutes like shooting the shit with my friends who I was working out with. Like my recovery profile will switch right. I’ll go from super stressed, with high cortisol levels and stress hormones, to like that will drop immediately, and recovery hormones like testosterone will go up. Just based on if I’m interacting socially after I’m done, right. There’s a really cool study that took a bunch of elite rugby players, and had them either like go on the bus after the game, and sit there and be on their phones individually. Or, have dinner in the locker room where they’re interacting with each other without phones. And the research showed quite clearly that there was a hormonal change, but more importantly, that the players who had that social interaction, played better in the next game like three days later. It was significant.
So you look at things like that and you’re just like wow, this is blown away. And you know, it also fits with anecdotes. Gregg Popovitch of the Spurs is famous for having his athletes go have dinner together, and making scheduled dinners after important games. And you know, they’ll feast on good food and wine, and all this stuff which you might think like, okay, wine, alcohol, is that best for recovery? Well he doesn’t really care, because he knows that if he can get that like social component going, like they’re going to be recovered way better the next day. So I think you know, that’s number one for me. And then the other thing that I think that really you can take advantage of, is there’s a lot of research on like nature. Or just going for walks outside, maybe a ten minute walk outside as your break instead of sitting in your cubicle. Like that impacts mental recovery entirely, and gives you better creativity and performance throughout the day. So just like building that into your day, if you have somewhere you can walk around afterwards is great. And surprisingly or not, the research shows that even just looking at nature can kind of bring that on, and improve recovery.
So if you’re stuck in a drab, dreary place, like get some good posters of some nice scenery, and that actually can help.
Mike Matthews: Yeah. I mean you, in the book you discussed some research right that showed that just on a computer like a background, like nature pictures in the background, it has positive benefits, physiologically.
Steve Magness: Yeah. Exactly. Which is kind of mind blowing when you think of it, you’re just like oh. Like why just-
Mike Matthews: I mean I guess though, you feel good, I mean I could see that. You look at it and you feel good, and maybe that’s your only experience with it. Even with the social interactions and that stuff, yeah, if you go spend time with people you like, and you have interesting conversations, you leave feeling good. That’s just how it probably, you wouldn’t really analyze it more than that. But then you go okay. So why do you feel good, physiologically what’s going on? Oh, it makes the you know, what chemicals most influence our feelings, oh hormones. And you know, we see positive changes in hormone profiles to these things. Oh, that makes sense.
Steve Magness: Exactly. 100%. You know, I was talking to a good friend in researching this book, who worked with a couple of Olympic teams, field hockey teams, who medalled at the Olympics. And he did all of this measuring of like all these hormones, trying to figure out like how to get his athletes like primed for performance and then how to recover off of it. And he was doing all these blood and saliva tests. And I asked him, like okay, what did you find? He said very simply, he was like, whatever your athletes say makes them feel good, is going to help. So if like they are convinced that you know, doing this crazy ritual like makes them feel good? Let them do it. Because like it’s directly tied to performance. So I think that’s like a very simple rule of thumb, is that like hey, if that gives you some experience of awe or feeling good, then that’s probably benefiting you.
Mike Matthews: Yeah I mean of course, that can easily go in the wrong direction, but yeah, I think the essence of it is absolutely correct. If it’s something that hopefully isn’t just outright destructive, that also makes you feel good, then it’s going to be essentially good for recovering. Whether it’s physical or mental.
Let’s move to stress now, because most people obviously feel, well I mean if you just look at like, I think it’s every year, is it the APA, you know the American Psychological or Psychiatric Association does it, you know a survey, kind of a census. And stress levels are basically at a highest point now since they started doing this. And most people probably, just instinctively associate the word stress with just negative feelings and you know, something that’s bad, something that’s destructive. That though can be changed. And you talk about that in the book, in that sure, some types of things are stressful and bad, and there’s no question. But how you respond to them and how you view them matters, right?
Steve Magness: Exactly. Yeah. I think it’s interesting, because we have this almost built in negative view of what stress is, and if you look at stress, it’s actually just like a stimulus right. Lifting weights is a stress right. But it only becomes a negative stress if we do it too much and like break down and all that good stuff. So in our lives it’s almost the same, like anything that feels like stress becomes instantly negative. But what researchers have found, is that how we view that, if we view stress as a threat, right? Then we’re going to have a negative reaction to it.
So our body will have a bad hormonal reaction to it, like we’ll have bad consequences if we have enough of it, like our health will decline. But interestingly enough, if we view it as a positive, or as something, a challenge or as a stimulus to adapt to, or something that we can grow from. Then the hormonal profile switches, and then also the consequences of the stress can change as well. Which is again, pretty fascinating. But the reason is pretty simple, in the sense that our body partially determines like our reactions to stress based on like our expectations of it. So if we’re always walking around saying like oh man, I’m super stressed today, or like, I’m late and this is stressing me out, then the body’s going to follow the suit and say okay, he’s having a negative reaction, so this is a bad thing, so let’s prepare for that.
Mike Matthews: Yeah, fight of flight right.
Steve Magness: Exactly.
Mike Matthews: Like what’s going on, what are we getting ready for?
Steve Magness: Exactly. And in a modern world, where everything, your body almost goes into this hyperactive fight or flight right. But if instead you see it as like a challenge, your body switches from a fight or flight response to a more positive one. Whether that’s like preparing, kind of a preparation phase, or also what they call attend and befriend phase of stress and recovery. It just changes things. So I think you know, the kind of take away message is while stress can be thought of as a negative, is like you have to start seeing it in a light of okay, this can be a positive. This can be a challenge, this can be something that I adapt and grow from.
Mike Matthews: Right. Can you tell us more about the preparatory attend befriend? Like what are those things, what are those strategies?
Steve Magness: Yeah. So what happens is like that traditional fight or flight response is your body just gets flooded with like cortisol and stress hormones, right. And like the other phase is like a preparatory or attend and befriend, what happens is your body doesn’t get as much cortisol, and instead it gets releases of like these other hormones like oxytocin, and to a degree a little bit of dopamine. And what happens is you’re in a position to essentially grow and adapt to things. So you stop seeing everything as a threat, right. So it’s not like oh, I need to overcome this, or this is going to set me back. Instead it’s just another part of life that happens and you can grow and adapt from if that makes sense.
Mike Matthews: Yeah. And what are some ways that like, do you have some examples, some stories, personal stories or just stories again working with athletes or whoever. Like on a day to day, because I could maybe see some people listening thinking that you know, that might make sense in a highly structured type of physical activity, like you said running, you know 400 meter sprints, or however many, that’s not a sprint I guess or maybe it would be I don’t know. I don’t know endurance exercise at all. But okay, you’re working your 400 meter time. I could see them going okay, I could see that you know. This is going to suck, this is going to be really hard, my muscles are going to hurt, and burn, but I’m doing this for a purpose so you know, I know that if I can just push myself, I’m going to grow.
But I think it’s a little bit harder to take that perspective if it’s just random fuckery in life, you know what I mean? Like you’re running late for the day because of who knows what in the morning, and you maybe had a presentation that you’re you know, you’re supposed to be giving in the morning, and maybe you’re not going to be late for it, but now you don’t have time to prepare, you know, just stuff that the everyday, kind of it just seems like it’s the entropy of life, random chaotic things that get in our way that stress people out.
Steve Magness: Yeah, I hear you. And I think the answer to that is twofold. Is one, it’s that we have an overreaction to stress right. Especially in the modern world.
Mike Matthews: Right.
Steve Magness: So like, if you’re running two minutes late to a meeting or whatever. What happens is during that, during those 15 minutes leading up to that, like you’re freaked out. You’re like super stressed and panicked, and like you’re starting to sweat. You’re like oh my gosh, I’m super late et cetera. And that’s normally an overreaction, right. I mean if you show up to a meeting a minute or two late, like yeah, it’s not good, it’s not great. But normally it’s not life or death. But your body almost prepares for it like it’s life or death right. So you’ve had this overreaction to something that is fairly minimal.
And if you look at most of the stress in our life, in the big picture it’s fairly minimal, right. It’s just as you said, the overall fuckery of life. Like does it really matter in the big picture? Probably not that much. And I think that’s where a little bit of perspective should come in, is that yes, it’s okay to be stressed and anxious over these things, and maybe like slightly missing a deadline or having something, or not responding to email when you’re supposed to, or whatever it is that is stressing you out.
But you probably have an overreaction to it. So like having the awareness to step back and be like okay, is this life or death, is this like going to really, truly end my day? Probably not. And then why am I freaking out. And the other part of it is like looking at it in a positive standpoint. Is maybe not for running late and things like that, but looking at other stressors, like if you’re a student and you do bad on a paper, or you’re stressed out because you’re afraid of like failing this, or doing poorly at this presentation. Like instead of seeing those as like fear of failure. If you see those as like hey, like this is a challenge to figure out where my strengths and weaknesses are. You’re going to have a better reaction to it, and you’re going to grow from it right. And we can see this, again, I like using athletic examples, but we can see this in athletics. In terms of people who watch like, who play a game and then watch their post game tape.
And football or basketball or whatever. You know, if you go in there and you say like aw shit, look how many times I screwed up. Then that game just became a waste, right. But if you go and you say yeah, I screwed up here, here and here. But these are opportunities to grow? Then it becomes something that you’re better prepared for next time. So, in a lot of ways, like all of this stuff, even with stress and recovery, is about how you’re framing it. And that actually effects like the body and what your reaction and adaptation is.
Mike Matthews: And yeah, I mean you had mentioned something about basically self talk, and it’s something you talk about in the book. And I think that a lot of people don’t appreciate how much that matters. You’re saying like if you’re telling yourself, I’m so stressed out because I spilled some coffee on my car seat, or I’m two minutes late or whatever. What can you tell us about that, in terms of negative versus positive self talk, and how that can influence our, not just our mood and our psychology, but also our ability to perform physically.
Steve Magness: Yeah, sure. So self talk is incredibly important I think. And I think you know, a good coach, a good coach in the world of track and field, Dan Pfaff, who’s world famous. Once said that most people, when they’re looking at a good self talk, they create an outline. And when they’re looking at bad self talk, they create a novel. And I think that’s generally true right. We begin to like rationalize our way out of the good, and tend towards the bad stuff. And I think we need to like work on how to flip that equation. And then if we balance ourselves out, with more positive self talk than negative, then like our mind set, our world view et cetera, will all be shifted into this view. And we’ll start appraising things in a better light. So we might start appraising that presentation, that meeting that we’re about to go to, instead of in a negative anxiety state, instead as something like okay, yes, this is going to be difficult, this is going to kind of suck. But like, I need to do it, I’m going to be better at it.
And I think, if you look at the world of athletics, you see this very clearly, in terms of like a pre game anxiety, right. And those, or if you’re watching the Olympics, like the pre game anxiety, if you have a lot of negative self talk, then you’re almost setting yourself, you’re priming your body for like disaster and failure. Whereas if you can rationalize and create that positive self talk, then you’re setting yourself up to let your body do what it knows to do.
Mike Matthews: And how does that play out specifically? So I mean we can all come up with negative scripts, we’ve all experienced it. You know, we haven’t been to the Olympics, but we’ve all experienced the pre performance anxiety of one kind or another. What would be like an effective, positive script, how might that sound?
Steve Magness: Yeah. You know, I think what we found is that it comes down to your reason for why you’re doing things. And like the work you’ve put in, right. So for example, I’ll give you an example from my own. Like writing is not my natural forte, like it’s not like I grew up in high school and college and thought like oh, I’m going to become a writer. So, I have a lot of negative self talk, I’m like oh, especially when I’m struggling through things, of like oh, this kind of really sucks. Like I don’t know how to do this very well. The same goes with like public speaking, like I grew up as like an introvert, so like giving talks and such is somewhat of a negative. So it’s easy to let that come out. And what I try and do for myself is do two things. Is first, I try to remind myself of all the work I’ve done to get to this point. Right.
So I’m almost like counter balancing the negative by saying okay, yeah writing might not be my thing, but like I’ve now written a book, or I’ve had all these articles published in this, or I’ve written you know hundreds of blog posts. And I’ve studied this. Like okay, I’m reinforcing the positive there, to remind myself of the work I’ve done, and I do the same in athletics, right. I remind myself in a race of like all the work I’ve put in. And then the other side of it is like the purpose section point of it. Which is like the why I’m doing this. Right. So I’m writing, why, because I feel this information is pertinent and valuable, and it needs to get out there. Or I’m giving this talk to this group, why is it important I’m doing that, because it will help you know, A, B, and C people.
And when you’re looking at like your why, it really helps. Research clearly shows to make it something that isn’t just for like personal gain right. So your positive self talk on like oh, I’m doing this to make money. That doesn’t work very well. It doesn’t. Because it just isn’t a very good motivator. I mean, for a very short term, sure it seems like one, but when push comes to shove, it doesn’t work very well under high stress situations. You tend to cave.
So if you look at it in terms of all right, I’m doing this to support others, to get to fight for a cause that I feel strongly for. Or even from an informational standpoint, like people need to hear about like why they’re feeling burnt out, over stressed, and maybe I can save someone from like going through this whole process that I’ve been through. So really thinking beyond yourself. And giving yourself like that positive reaffirmation, in that sense of why you’re doing it, can really help.
Mike Matthews: Yeah, that’s a great tip. And you know, you also said something on the point of, you’ve put in the work and you’re reminding yourself, so you’re almost having a dialogue with yourself right, or some part of yourself. I guess resistance as Steven Pressfield would call it right. It’s an important point to make that if you haven’t, let’s say you hadn’t put in a lot of work though. And let’s say you’re new and just starting out with something. I don’t think it’s necessarily productive to try to delude yourself into trying to pretend like you are further than you are, or better than you are.
And the reason I bring that up is, I guess I feel like I just see a fair amount of that in the, I guess you could say the self help, or self development space. Especially as it relates to affirmations. Where I think, if you take that too far to where you have a hard time believing what you’re even saying, probably not going to be very helpful.
Steve Magness: Yeah, exactly, 100%. I think that’s, it hits the nail on the head, is that you can’t, if your positive self talk, your affirmations, depend on stuff that isn’t true. Like your mind is smarter than like your faking self talk is. It’s going to be like no, no. That’s bullshit. Like that, nope, that’s not going to work. And it doesn’t. Like if you look at contests of like extreme endurance, like if you sit there and say oh, I’m prepared I’m prepared, like I’ve done this, and you really haven’t? Like your performance suffers. Because your mind can sort through the bullshit.
And it’s the same regardless of anything. So I always encourage people like hey, like you’re not faking your way through it. You’re not like giving some you know, pseudo, feel good, like oh I’m prepared and I’m ready.
Mike Matthews: Or like I’m the best, I’m the best runner in the world. Yeah but you’re not.
Steve Magness: Exactly. Like that stuff only works if you actually like truly deep down believe it. Right. And the same with like doing stuff for others. Like you can’t say like oh, I’m doing this for children of cancer or something. If you don’t really feel a connection to it.
Mike Matthews: Or even to change the world, unless, you’ve got to really believe that.
Steve Magness: Right, exactly. Like it only works-
Mike Matthews: And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with going small on that kind of stuff either. What might feel small, like yeah not everybody has to try to change the world. Maybe if you just want to change, if you can just change a few people’s lives, and if then you can get more behind that emotionally, and actually really see it, and be like no, I really do think, like take your book. Your book has definitely changed people’s lives. Has it changed the world, no. Has any of my work changed the world, no. But we’ve changed some people’s lives, and that is, I think, it’s more satisfying to think about it as it is than as maybe we wish it were.
Steve Magness: Exactly. And I think you know, one of the suggestions I always have is, when you’re looking at this, like think of it in terms of like hey, am I helping like one of my friends that I know. Like is this work that I’m doing, like is that going to help that person. And a lot of times it can, and if it helps, like if our book you know, changes like a couple of friend’s you know, view on things, and maybe makes them where they can handle their life and stress and work balance a lot better? Then great. Like it was worth it, versus saying like oh man, this is going to revolutionize the world, and I’m going to change everything. Like that won’t get me very far, but knowing that I impacted that person who I know, or can visualize or conceptualize? That will.
Mike Matthews: Yeah. And you know, I don’t know about you but I’ve personally found it satisfying to stay in touch with a lot of readers. Like I still, I get a lot of emails everyday and social media messages, it’s cool still to hear from people that share their stories. In my case you know, I’m just teaching the fundamentals of diet and exercise, and how to build muscle, lose fat, get healthy and so forth. And it’s always nice though, to see first hand and hear first hand, in the day to day grind I’m sitting in my office you know, I’m like a hermit in my office most of the time just researching things, writing things, or recording things.
And it’s easy to kind of lose touch with what am I really doing this for, you know what I mean? Like you said money, yeah money’s fine up to a certain point. And then its utility value just kind of plummets, and the diminishing return kicks in, and it just doesn’t really matter anymore. So that’s not a very motivating thing. Even the idea of like you know, making a lot of money with something isn’t that motivating. It’s just sure fine, I mean I’d rather have the lot of money than not have it, but that doesn’t really fire me up. So you know. Actually being able to see the impact that you’re having, even if it’s, again, even if it’s just five people that week, you heard from five people that week who shared their stories, I think that’s pretty cool.
Steve Magness: Yeah, exactly. And I think that’s a good tip. Because like we’re all going to go through struggles right. We’re all going to go through things where it’s like aw, this really sucks, to write this or you know, talk to this person, or you know, grind away at whatever we’re grinding away at. And like the more you can set yourself up with reminders, like the better you are. I save a lot of the best feedback that comes in, from like writing, from others, who say like hey, you really changed my life, or impacted my life, and this way great. I have an email folder like saved with those, and like when I really don’t want to do something, sometimes I’ll go click on that email folder and be like oh. Oh yeah. Like this is part of the reason why I do it. Like I’m actually helping people. And if that’s only a handful of people, well it still makes a difference. So I think it’s important to like have those reminders in there, just in case like, things go bad, or when things are a struggle.
Mike Matthews: Absolutely. And so if we’re talking about pushing through pain, pushing through discomfort, so you have the why, are there any other strategies that we can use to get through? Because you know, I actually do the same thing, I have not just emails, but I have, like that are stored in my gmails that are the ones that, same concept. And then I have a lot of, I have like a whole Google photos folder from, I guess it’s mainly from, I don’t use social media that much but it’s Instagram, so people will DM me all the time their stories, and they’ll send me pictures before and afters and stuff. And so I have those saved as well. I use it in the same way.
What else can we do though to help us, just get through, and again it could be physical pain, if you’re trying to hit a PR on your bike or whatever it is you’re doing, or I guess maybe some psychological or emotional pain, or at least where it feels, it’s drudgery. No matter what you’re doing, there’s always drudgery. What are some things that we can do, to make it through the drudgery better?
Steve Magness: Yeah, that’s a good question, I wish I had all the answers on that. But I think the first step is acknowledging that you’re going to go through it. And that it isn’t unusual right. I think sometimes people have this expectation that like the best people in their fields like never go through these things. Whether that’s like you know, the best writer or artist, or you know, athlete, whatever. Well they do. And like acknowledging that is number one. And then I think all those reminders that you talked about. Like finding something that like triggers you to remember why you do it. You know, what is the purpose of it. Is incredibly important.
I had a team once who all wore the same color wristbands, they were a bunch of runners, and all wear the same color wristbands to remind themselves like, when it hurt to look down at your wrists and be like oh yeah, I’ve got you know, seven other guys who are counting on me, to run fast and finish this race. And it’s just, it sounds you know, retrospectively it sounds like oh, it’s like just a wristband. But in that moment, when it’s like push comes to shove, it was a way for them to like, recenter their mind on like okay, it’s not just me out here, like if I slow down no one cares except for me. But like other people are relying on me, and other people are dependent. So whether that’s a wristband, whether that’s photos, whether that’s one of my good friends who worked in the drudgery of healthcare, and had to do all these reports. Like wrote a sticky note and reminded himself.
He was like, what you are doing is saving lives. Now all he was doing was filling out reports on like, you know, health of patients and different treatments, and it was just a long excel spreadsheet that kind of sucked to do. But he had to remind himself like hey, the end goal of this, is this is going to change healthcare like treatments and policy, which will impact people. So while it seems like a mindless spreadsheet that I’m creating, like its end goal is going to have a big effect. So creating things like that for your work is incredibly important.
Mike Matthews: Yeah that reminds me of a study that I read, it was about job satisfaction in hospitals actually, and what they’ve found is that you had people who were, basically their job was some janitorial, but they were like cleaning bedpans, and you know, when people would throw up and stuff. And some of those people reported very high levels of job satisfaction. They found their jobs very satisfying. And so researchers were curious as to like how the, on the surface that doesn’t, it seems to be a bit counter intuitive obviously. And that’s how they looked at it. They looked at it that they played an integral role in the overall functioning of this organism of you know, of the hospital, which was saving lives and changing lives for the better. And this was something that needed to be done. And somebody needs to do it. And so why not them?
You know, they’re not, they’re in a position where they could be a doctor, or there’s only a certain number of things they can do based on their qualifications and whatever. So when they viewed it that way, you know, that they were able to find joy in that job, and that was the key differentiating factor between other people who did the same type of work who basically hated their jobs.
Steve Magness: Exactly. And you know there’s a good line of research there, including people like trash men, right. And sanitation workers. Where if they change their framing of it like, you know, we’re not picking up trash, but like we’re helping keeping the city clean and functioning, and rolling, and without us like the city literally-
Mike Matthews: Would become a literal shithole.
Steve Magness: Yeah, exactly. And if they change their framing of it, and even if they change like what they call themselves, like there’s job satisfaction and enjoyment you know, went up. And they’re literally picking up trash, but they provide a vital job to society. So sometimes I think like, just that reframing of things right, and seeing yourself in the bigger picture and like what your role is. While it might seem like drudgery to you right now, like it probably has a much more important role that, and there’s a reason you’re doing it.
Mike Matthews: Yeah, coming back to my own gripe on this book proposal. It’s like a 70 page book proposal so far. Yeah I mean it’s a complete drudgery, but I know why I’m doing it, so hey whatever. I’m actually emotionally ambivalent to it. And you know, so I’m going through that right now.
Steve Magness: Exactly. And I think that’s a great example, because the book is going to do great and do great things for people and their lives. But like, to get to that point, sometimes you’ve got to go through some menial drudgery, right. And that’s part of life.
Mike Matthews: And I think that’s also, I mean I guess it’s maybe a stoic kind of, meditations type of concept, but I think that that’s a great skill to cultivate. That’s also how I choose to look at, really I try to take that viewpoint, whenever I’m going through a situation that just doesn’t make me feel good, for whatever reason, right. And it could be something more like that, where it’s not stimulating to me. Writing the book will be more stimulating than the proposal. The proposal is boring to write, straight up. Like that’s my emotion, and I have to like force myself to get interest on it to make sure that it’s not coming across boring. But whatever situation I’m going through, you know, I choose to look at it in a few different ways.
One, I choose to see it as a potential learning situation, so I can take away a lesson, from whatever it is that I’m going through. And also, if nothing else, if I learn nothing from it and it just seems again, like random kind of just lightning striking for no reason, then I can improve my ability to just do shit that sucks and just kind of maybe suffer through something and keep going, and not give in. And I think that’s a skill that applies, it’s like one of those meta skills that allows you to be better at everything.
Steve Magness: Right. Exactly. And I think what you’re displaying right there is that regardless of the situation, there’s something to take away from it, right?
Mike Matthews: Yes.
Steve Magness: And even if it seems like it’s pointless right now maybe, like it does improve your skillset. Right, if I can handle menial, mind-numbing stuff. Then like that’s going to improve my life, because I’m going to go through a lot of mind-numbing stuff, right? And that applies to other things, you know. Although like as a runner, if I’m running 15 miles, a bunch of it is menial, mind-numbing. Like there’s only so much thoughts you can have in your head. Or so much music you can listen to while you do that.
Mike Matthews: Or the scenery is not really changing.
Steve Magness: Exactly. But like if I’ve gone through enough of like, oh yeah, like I’ve been through this grind before this, like torturous thing before, then that helps, right? And it can apply to different parts of life. So I think, again, it kind of all comes down to how we see things, and how we frame things. And a lot of times we’re like taught to see things in a negative light, or not see the benefits that come out of them. And we almost have to like rewire or rethink about our life, similar to a bunch of the stoic philosophy which you referenced. And seeing it in a way that like helps us grow.
Mike Matthews: Yeah, and learn how to not necessarily shrink away from things that seem scary, or seem like they’re going to be tough or difficult or painful. Jordan Peterson, you know the psychology professor from Toronto who’s blowing up, in one of his biblical lectures he was talking about the, he thinks one of our, basically fundamental imperatives as people is to bear as much burden as we can. To take on as much responsibility as we can. And that means of course, even coming back to connecting to other people, and making a difference in other people’s lives, and doing things for other people. And that’s one of his things, if you want to have a better life, find more responsibility, and take it on. Find more, make more commitments, have more people relying on you, and I agree with that, I really agree with that.
I mean of course you could take anything too far, and you can end up crushing yourself. But again, coming back to him, I’m a fan of his work obviously. As he says you know, we don’t know how much we’re individually capable of. We don’t know how much we’re capable of collectively either. We’re capable of a lot more than we’re doing right now, that’s for sure.
Steve Magness: Yeah, I’d agree, and I think it comes down to like the myth that people think like oh, the perfect life is like, sitting on a beach and having nothing to do, and like just enjoying life. But the reality is like we’re not built for that, right. We’re not developed for that. We’re built to like go to work and have some meaning, and actually put effort in. And there’s actually some really cool research in addition to Peterson’s that shows that like effort is a key part of life, right. And we were built to go through and find challenges and like be stressed and like find some way to grow and adapt. And if we’re not, then like we don’t feel satisfied. I mean there’s underlying hormones like dopamine, which are designed to essentially push us to want to do more. Right?
Because we get that hit of dopamine in doing like the craft that we’re doing, not necessarily in terms of like winning the reward. It’s in the effort of doing the task. So I think there’s a lot to be said and learned from like, putting yourself in positions where you’re doing difficult things. And you know, you’re putting a burden on yourself, and if you’re not, then you’re not going to feel like you’re living.
Mike Matthews: That aspect of exerting effort, that’s something again that, I guess that’s the ultimate right. Is if you can learn to love exerting effort just for the sake of exerting effort, who knows what you can do. Who knows what you can’t do, you know what I mean? Because it’s just a theme, you know if you’re into reading biographies of great people or successful people, or whatever, not just successful in business but. People who live extraordinary lives, you just see that over and over and over, where these people were just capable of an extraordinary amount of effort. Long term, consistent effort. And because of that, they were willing to take on things that other people thought were impossible. Strictly because the amount of effort involved seems so overwhelming, how could anybody do that?
Steve Magness: Yeah, exactly. Like they’re game changers right, they challenge the norms and don’t stay in this like comfort zone where it’s like oh, this is what we’re capable of, this is what has been done before. I think that effort piece is, it’s a fundamental skill, right? And I think that’s why you see people who have accomplished great things, aren’t always just good at one thing. And it’s not that they have talent at all these other things, but they’ve mastered the almost secret, which is like hard discipline work. But more importantly is like enjoying the effort of things. Which is a like, if I can put the work in on this topic or this subject, or this job, then I can just as well put in the effort on this other, maybe somewhat related or tangential job or effort. So it’s a skill that can be developed if you let it.
Mike Matthews: Yeah, and that’s one of the reasons why I like exercise, I’m sure you do as well, is I think it’s just a meditative in that sense, where you’re focusing on exerting effort. Over and over and over. And over time, if you’re programming correctly, you’re focused on increasing the amount of effort that you can exert, before failing.
Steve Magness: Right. No that’s why I love exercise, because it’s brilliant and it’s simple. Like regardless, I mean it’s complex, but in reality it’s very simple. Like it’s getting used to ever increasing levels of effort if you do it right. And you get adaptations and gains and like noticeable changes based on that. So you can tie it back directly to the work that you did. And I think part of what hampers us in the rest of life, is a lot of times we can’t see that direct correlation, right? And we don’t know what effort is. Like I know what effort is if I go in the gym. Right. But sometimes we don’t know what effort is, if I’m sitting in my office cubicle and doing some sort of work.
Mike Matthews: Yeah. Yeah that’s a good point. And I think that the more effort you’re willing to exert, though the less you have to worry about, are you exerting the right effort. Like you can muddle your way through a lot of things if you’re willing to work really fucking hard. You know I’ve known quite a few people just in growing up, and in some cases very successful people, who were not particularly bright, not educated, but they could, nobody can out-work these people, and that alone was able to make up for a lot of their deficiencies, more that like. They could have gotten to where they got to faster, if they would have been maybe smarter with their effort. But it just didn’t matter. Because they were capable of so much output, you got a tsunami of output, that eventually you know, it wins.
Steve Magness: Eventually it hits, yeah. Yeah, it’s an interesting phenomenon. And also I think, you see incredibly intelligent, bright, gifted, talented people, who you know maybe don’t accomplish as much. Maybe because they have like that fear of failure, or that like feeling of oh, I don’t know as much so I’m not going to go all in and put all this effort. Because I’m not ready, or I’m not there yet.
Mike Matthews: Yeah, or even maybe a more apathetic, why, you know, what’s the point.
Steve Magness: Right. I think those are interesting cases. Because sometimes like, we can talk, again, going back to self talk, we can talk ourselves out of anything almost.
Mike Matthews: And probably the smarter we are, the better we are at that.
Steve Magness: Yes, exactly. Like the, 100%, the smarter you are, the more you can talk and rationalize yourself out of anything. And sometimes that’s why people who you know, might not be quite as gifted or talented or intellectual, they’ll get shit done. Because like they don’t spend the time contemplating about it, they know like hey, here’s this end goal that I need to get to, or here’s what I want to accomplish, and like I’m going to put in work. And like I’m going to miss on a lot of that work, but if I put in enough work, like something’s going to stick.
Mike Matthews: All right. Well this has been a great discussion, I actually had a few more questions, but that’s fine, I think we’ve pretty much touched on everything. And again, the book is Peak Performance, again I’ve already recommended it on the podcast, you’re actually a little episode on it, but if you didn’t hear that, if you haven’t read the book, I definitely recommend you check it out. Lot of great information. And I’ve read quite a few of these types of books, and this was one of my favorites that I’ve read in a while, I thought it was a really good summary of research and stories, and it was well organized, and it was practical, so. Again, you did a great job Steve, and obviously you did it with Brad, so you guys did a great job. And I highly recommend it. And so what are you working on now, or where’s your hub?
Are you a social media person, do you have a website?
Steve Magness: Yeah, so social media’s probably best, so you can hit me up on Twitter or Instagram. @SteveMagness. Our book website is PeakPerformanceBook.net. You can check things out and yeah, I appreciate you having me on, and glad you enjoyed the book, and this was a fantastic discussion, and keep doing what you’re doing, because you’re sending a great message.
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