Control your physiology and improve your performance

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Written by Dr Alan Watkins on 18 August 2014 in Features

Addressing 500 HR directors and business leaders at Changeboard’s Future of Talent conference last month, Dr Alan Watkins revealed the secret science behind brilliant leadership 

The secret hinges on the fact that the quality of your thinking, and therefore, your ability to make decisions, innovate the future and beat the competition, is dependent on the quality of your physiology. More specifically if your heart rate is fluctuating wildly because you are under pressure your brain stops working properly. The good news is if you learn to create a more coherent heart rate pattern your brain works better and you can be exceptional every day.

Coherence is the biological basis of what athletes refer to as ‘being in the zone’. Most leaders can be exceptional sometimes; the problem is knowing how to be brilliant every single day. Understanding the biology of brilliance is a critical first step to delivering your ‘A’ game all the time. Leaders can learn to ‘be in the zone’ in every meeting if they know how to be coherent.

During the Future Talent Conference, I proved this in a demonstration – using a volunteer from the audience who came up on stage and had a heart rate sensor clipped to his ear. The audience saw that when the volunteer was asked to do some simple maths he failed because his physiology was in chaos. So when the subject’s heart rate was fluctuating wildly the signal from his heart to his brain was chaotic and this caused a ‘DIY lobotomy’ – his brain shut down.

However, by teaching the volunteer to breathe properly his physiology completely changed – within a minute he had become coherent, turning his brain back on. This was all done with the volunteer’s eyes open, in front of 500 people! So it turns out you don’t need to be a yogic master and train for months to learn to control your physiology. You just need to know exactly what to do and do it.

So the first step is getting your breathing under control. Knowing which of the 12 different aspects of your breathing you need to control to generate coherent physiology and turn your brain back on, requires guidance. It turns out that the adage ‘take a few deep breaths’ before a meeting doesn’t help. When people say deep breaths they actually mean large volume breaths, so they are confused. It was obvious from the live demonstration that what we really need to do is take a few rhythmic breaths to turn our brain back on.

So whether you are genuinely coherent, or just claiming to be, can easily be seen by plugging yourself into the CardioSense Trainer™ biofeedback equipment or iPhone app; you can’t fake it, you are either coherent or not. It takes only a few minutes of practice a day for coherence to become your default state. With consistent daily practice it is possible to maintain your coherence and keep your brain switched on, even under the most intense pressure.

So although we are wired to give ourselves a lobotomy under pressure we don’t have to go blank in front of our boss, on stage, or whilst presenting. We can avoid looking like we’ve taken the stupid pills. Such brain shut down used to have a survival advantage; when humans were wandering the prairie 200,000 years ago and then encountered a bear we didn’t need smart thinking. In fact if we had started to try to be clever, the bear would certainly have eaten us, so we developed a mechanism for shutting our brains down and going binary – fight/flight or play dead. The problem today is that we do not encounter bears in the office, we encounter each other but we still have the same survival mechanism built into our physiology. We have 200,000-year-old software and we have never had an upgrade. This is why smart people do stupid things; we are wired that way.

Once you have your physiology under control, through learning to breathe rhythmically and evenly, the next step is to learn to control your emotional state. Again this takes practice. Most people think how they feel is down to someone else – the kind of ‘you made me feel bad’, ‘you did it to me’ idea. But when we get angry no-one injects us with the chemicals that make up anger. We generate those chemicals ourselves in our own bodies in response to someone’s behaviour. So if we are the ones creating these chemicals then we are the ones that can learn how to not create them.

In fact, I believe of all the thousands of lessons people teach on the self-development journey, this is the single most important lesson; taking ownership of our emotions. We can learn to control our response and become response-able. We don’t have to feel anything we don’t want to feel ever again. We can wake up every day of our lives and only feel the emotions we want to feel. We don’t have to be a victim of others. This is a complete game changer. We can be happier, more fulfilled, more enthusiastic, more focused, more determined, more optimistic – whatever we want. Once we realise that this is possible then the fun starts, as we learn how to turn on any positive emotional state that we want or the situation demands.

So what’s really driving our performance and success is our physiology. Learning to get our physiology under control through rhythmic breathing is the first step. The second step is to realise that we can own our emotions, and the third step is learning to turn on any emotion whenever we want. Follow these three steps and it turns out you can be brilliant every day.   



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