Protocols and Peak Performance

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Last week, the popular podcast host Andrew Huberman went on the Tonight Show. During his appearance, he ​said​ that getting sufficient low-angle morning sunlight is “the single best thing you can do for your physical and mental health, believe it or not.”

This, of course, is patently false.

To be sure, getting outside early in the day is very likely helpful to your circadian rhythm, or your natural sleep and wake cycle. It is a good thing to do! Steve and I wrote as much in the chapter on sleep in our 2017 book, Peak Performance. Yet it’s also true that there are plenty of people who do just fine without getting natural light upon waking, let alone at a specific angle.

But you know what most people do not get on just fine without? Physical activity and social connections. Though it is admittedly reductionist to say there is any “single best thing” for mental and physical health, if your hand was being forced, you’d probably list physical activity followed by meaningful relationships, and that would be based not on ​extrapolated​ ​mechanistic​ ​research​, but on decades of ​large-scale​ ​studies​ where the end-points were physical and mental health.

(To be super explicit, because people get fired up about this topic: getting morning sunlight is probably good for you if you can swing it! It’s what our species has done forever. Worrying about a specific timing and angle, however, may be overkill; our ancestors certainly didn’t do that. Just try to spend some time outside early in the day!)

Next, Huberman led the audience through a simple ​breathing exercise​ to reduce stress. Again, there is nothing wrong with this. Breathing exercises can reduce stress. They are generally good! But it’s also true that they pale in comparison to the hard work of ​acceptance and commitment​, engaging with a skilled therapist, physical activity, and meaningful relationships. It’s also true that getting too caught up on breathing your way out of stress and anxiety is actually a surefire way to ​increase stress and anxiety​!

I don’t want to sit here and harp on Andrew Huberman. I’m sure the Tonight Show was stoked to have these relatively quick fixes for all that ails us! Perhaps they even requested them. And to be clear, nothing Huberman said was harmful. It all makes sense, even if the importance was inflated.

What’s worth pointing out, however, is just how much of the performance, health, and longevity world has moved in the direction of supplements, cold plunges, box breathing, physiological sighs, morning sunlight, and other “protocols.”

These supplements and similar topics have garnered greater time and attention on the airwaves. They sound cool and fancy. They promise big benefits for fairly little energy. And they almost universally fall short.

The truth is that anyone who is being honest and is worth their salt will tell you that peak performance is not about supplements, cold plunges, or fancy protocols. It’s about a steadfast commitment to nailing the fundamentals of your craft for years and having the right people around you.

With consistency and community, you can become very good at nearly anything. At the tippy top, it’s also about having the right genetics. Few professional athletes wake up at 5 AM to cold plunge and gaze at the sun.

The same goes for health. It’s shocking the number of bizarre things people do to “optimize” their health and longevity and yet they don’t exercise regularly, eat fruits and veggies, build community, commit to meaningful relationships, or ever relax. They obsess over the 0.1% but not the 99.9%.

There is also a real trap in chasing some sort of perfect routine or feeling, and doing everything under the sun to optimize for it. Elite performance is not about achieving perfection or always being in flow. It’s certainly not about striving for full predictability or control. It’s about doing what you can in sustainable ways to prime yourself to be your best, and then not freaking out when you are not feeling your best. In practice, this generally means mastery of the fundamentals, the confidence to rely on that mastery in diverse situations, and a supportive community to help you learn and grow.

Tennis legend Roger Federer recently ​told us as much​. In a commencement address at Dartmouth, he reminded the audience that “perfection was impossible.” Yes, try to master the hard moments and focus intently on the point at hand, but you’ve also got to be able to let go quickly whether it’s a great shot or a horrible one. As he pointed out, he only won 54% of the points he played. The way to mastering his craft wasn’t some rigid pursuit of perfection, it was acknowledging the messiness and figuring out how to navigate it.

The overarching point is that we’ve got to resist the temptation to major in the minors and instead focus on what actually matters.

To be sure, there are layers and layers of understanding—of science, art, and practice— when it comes to the things that actually matter. It’s why I write ​books​! But the starting point ought to be some version of what am I trying to do here, how might such and such intervention work in service of those goals, and to what extent will it actually bend the needle? What actually matters?

For most people who are serious about their health and performance, what is most valuable will likely be less about new protocols and quick fixes, and more about new ways of understanding yourself and your craft; language that helps you to name the many feelings and experiences on your journey; and mindsets (and encouragement) to foster genuine consistency and community. These are not bright and shiny objects, but they are the stuff of genuine progress, satisfaction, and fulfillment.

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