High Performance When You’re on the Hook – Personal Reflections and Takeaways

The reflections after tunneling.

Congratulations! We’ve made it through the tunnel. Now I’ll share some of my personal reflections as the finale for the the Tunneling series.

This is meant more of as a reflection exercise for myself. It can serve as an illustration for how I relate new experiences to old. This means that what follows is very personal and individualized to me. But perhaps my experience may be useful to others.

Integrating This All With My Past Experience

Here are some higher-level lessons I’ve learned when integrating my time in the tunnel with my past experience.

1. The Power of Creative Freedom

One of the more familiar lessons I’ve learned from my experience in the tunnel as a Developer Lead was my drive for freedom.

Coming into the role of taking care of deploying code, communicating with other teams, and organizing developer activities from the role of a Developer provided me a lot of power. I felt like I had the power to solve problems, implement code, and deploy it between environments at will. I had the knowledge of the system and code-base enough to solve bugs and deploy the fixes to Production myself.

Normally in the Software Development Cycle, there’s a lot of checks and balances. From code reviews to testing, each involving many people. These dependencies can greatly slow down the process. However, they are very useful.

The experience I had in all areas of this Development Cycle gave me a very strong sense of freedom. I felt like “I can do it all”. I could stay late, address all outstanding tasks, and deploy/test them myself. This is a terrible practice in the software world, but the point is that this feeling of freedom is intoxicating.

I’m a very independent individual who exercises every option of solving a problem myself before asking for help. Even when I do ask for help, I lay out a detailed, long list of items that I’ve tried and the results in a message. This is like a last attempt to stumble across the answer as I explain it “out loud” before sending the question to a coworker. I want to be able to solve problems and build things from scratch, with as little external help as possible. This transfers into my everyday life through being “resourceful”, such as limiting my use of utilities (e.g. water, paper towels,) or always having self-supplied water or food available. I like to be self-sufficient.

So, the first big reflection point for me was positioning myself in a state of control. This pattern can be seen in my efforts to migrate to a self-hosted site to be able to manage my site at all levels, from the operating system to the style and functionality of the site. I’ll use this insight in my new job to learn as many of the individual responsibilities that go into my work as possible. I perform my best when I have a strong understanding at all relevant levels for the task.

2. What You Get Is That Which You Want Most

I have a wide range of interests. The side effect is conflicting aspects of my life. I want to optimize my performance through sleep and nutrition, but I also want to make necessary sacrifices to have a meaningful impact on the world through solving hard problems. Getting lost in the moment and being fully present is tough when I’ve conditioned my mind to always analyze my state objectively to look for areas I can improve. I call this “meta-thinking”.

For example, I want to fast for long periods of time for health and clarity of mind (I think better without food). But I also want to eat enough calories to gain weight and build muscle. This leads me to eating a LOT of food in a short period of time, which leaves me in a sub-optimal state for mental performance. I want to avoid eating before bed to optimize my sleep but also work out in the morning so I can ensure I tie my exercise habits to a consistent morning routine. So now I need to eat all this food in the morning, which consist of what should be my most productive hours of the day. Additionally, I want to wake up early, so I go to bed early. I also want to improve my social habits and connect with people. But I work during the day and want time for passion projects. Most people go out at night, at which time I’m already asleep and would want to limit bright light exposure.

As you can see, the conflicts are real. I’ve wrestled to find balance between these for the past 5 years. There has been considerable progress. Nevertheless, while in the tunnel as Developer Lead, I realized my willingness to put off my eating habits, posture, and proximity to computer screen (for eye health). The way I’ve rationalized this was that due to the necessity the tunnel brought, I wanted to solve the project-specific problem so bad, that I was willing to put everything else on the back burner.

I found similar experiences while tubing on a lake. I am very good at remaining on the tube, even when the driver of the boat actively tries to throw me off. This stems from a very strong desire to not go into the water, motivated a bit by fear and a bit my the challenge.

In other words… What you get is that which you want most.

If I want to eat more than i want to work, then I’ll constantly be distracted while working and perform in my work poorly. This is about commitment and aligning what you value most with what you do in life. Decide what you value and then construct a life that aligns with it.

The key is aligning desire to what you do. Even exercise. If I want health or even to not be unhealthy, as long as the desire is MORE intense than the desire for any conscious distraction then the performance can be optimal. I emphasize “conscious” distraction because if something is out of sight, it is out of mind. It’s sufficient to not know better or the distraction is just relatively less exciting. This is powerful because now you can manipulate experiences to your will.

Consider the common weight loss advice of “not having junk food in the house”. It’s easier to say no when it’s out of sight. Want to improve focus and thus performance on writing? Do the work in an environment ONLY for writing with your phone out of sight. Manipulate the environment to make what needs done relatively easier to recognize and that which is distracting harder to recall.

What you get is that which you want most.
What you get is that which you want most.

3. Everything is Relative

What follows will help illustrate my point that neurochemistry is fundamental to Effective Living and that you can 100% influence it. It is a bit cringey as I talk a lot about myself, but I feel it is valuable for the point I am trying to make. Which is the subtle variation in how we view reality when emotionally intoxicated vs emotionally sober. Because we only have one instance of consciousness, which is also under the emotional experience, we have a lot of biases and blind spots. Not recognizing this variation can make our past successes seem distant and the excuse of “getting old” too easy to lean on.

Have you ever been genuinely surprised by a past phase in your life when you pushed hard and made incredible progress in what seemed like rapid times? Ever wonder why you have a hard time repeating that? You may even chop that previous success up to “I was younger”.

Well, maybe it isn’t anything about age of the body and more about the age of your habits. Maybe the same neurochemistry could be reproduced and yield similar performance.

Consider what I’ll lay out here. See if you had these principles at play during that period of your life. Notice how age is left out entirely!

I’ve repeatedly experienced this realization of a past peak performance that feels impossible to reproduce. Despite the doubt, I pushed on in a stubborn, lean-in, manner. This is what brought me to the realization that emotions and all sensations follow a wave-like pattern.

One example, is this past December. I used up a lot of saved vacation, working only 7 days during the entire month and about 20 days between November and December. During this time I remember feeling “how could I ever have worked full time, for so long, and so hard?” But once I returned to normal-hours in January, the pace picked back up and it felt fine/neutral and even a bit enjoyable. This is similar to Parkinson’s Law, which states that time is like a gas, it inflates to fill it’s container. Similarly, things that seem impossible to complete on time can suddenly be accomplished once placed in the tunnel’s scope of necessity.

It’s vital to build experiences that prove this to yourself. Moments when you felt like you can’t go any further or repeat a past performance but stubbornly stuck it out until you did. Whether it is pushing through waves of exhaustion while running a marathon or the weight of inertia when focusing intensely while sleep deprived. There are always additional winds you will catch. The more of these you experience, the more you’ll get caught in an upward spiral of being able to struggle well. You’ll believe in yourself more.

Another example is during my marathon training. I would run 4 miles worth of sprint intervals to near knee-collapse exhaustion followed by 5-10 seconds of jogging in an almost walking-like manner (falling forward, really…) I did this every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday (after my 9-5, in 80-90 degree weather), for 2 months. During this time I also did 2 10-20 mile runs over the weekend, totaling between 30-50 miles a week for 2 months. Yes, my knees were entirely jacked up for months after. I got big into yoga, stretching, and self-love after this, and strangely, breath work.

On top of this, I continued lifting weights (within 10 minutes of waking at 4:45 AM, before my full time job, 5 days a week) in a highly intense manner (every set, beyond failure, stubbornly punishing myself often until the weights literally slip out of my hands).

This can serve as a qualifier for my article on Struggling Well and Discipline. I wrote this to capture my findings of how to struggle effectively and get through the pain.

My original “Ultimate Guide” articles on Meaning, Clarity, Intensity of Stimulus, etc. in the Effective Living series, go into the EXACT psychological thought patterns and habits I developed to cope with this level of stress, so I will leave that aside for now.

The point here, is that looking back at that period of my life, I still sometimes wonder how I could do all this WHILE working 40 hours a week as a Software Engineer. This was just a year ago that I was doing this! So certainly not age. In a few words, I’d say it comes down to Purpose and Identity. These are developed through rewarding the effort process. Setting milestones. Rewarding effort and progress. Avoid focusing on the final destination.

The punch line here, is absorption. During this period of my life, I structured my daily routine to live and breathe my training. After a few weeks, it was my new norm. I didn’t have video games, pleasure foods, or TV to cause the struggle to feel far worse, relatively.

Excellence demands all of oneself.

Similar experiences can be seen when sexually aroused, hungry, angry, in pain (e.g. stomach ache), comedy, being happy, etc. In each of these states, it feels all consuming, as if they are all that exists and matters. The whole world is filtered now through the neurochemicals these states brings. When angry, even kind gestures are easily seen with negative intent. When sexually aroused, crude activities seem justifiable. It is as if once in this mental state, the brain biases pulling on relevant current-situation-supporting past experiences to justify the biological survival mechanism at play.

So much about high performance and Effective Living comes down to leveraging the right neurochemicals. So the point I’m making is to beware of the extremist/absolute thoughts and doubts that come during any of these mindsets. It is just an emotional state, taking captive your biology, while your conscious, logical mind is forced to observe.

A part of being a conscious human being is knowing when to think and when NOT to think, and what to think about and what NOT to think about. I call this “Discipline in Thought“.

For example, when I am engaging in a brutal workout, doubts or thoughts of “this isn’t worth it” would come up. To counter this, I would just begin lifting the weight in a “mindless” (or barbaric) manner, as if in a state of anger. I’d leverage adrenaline and induce a neurological state. This is what self-motivation is about. I channel my energy.

Alternatively, I would have a feeling (i.e. not an explicit thought, but more of an awareness) that I would interpret as “I can think about that later, now’s not the time”. This kept doubts away that once take hold can drain you of energy instantly, causing you to quit amidst the struggle. This drain of energy is literal, I’ve experienced it as the weight literally feeling heavier. It’s as if adrenaline was just flushed out of my system. Moments like these prove to me it’s all a mind game about neurochemistry, which we have direct influence over.

“I’ll think about it later”, “I’m in it for the long haul”, “this can’t hurt me” are THE EXACT thoughts (feelings, really) I find bubbling up while engaging in struggle. I’ve repeatedly engaged in hardship, voluntarily, enough times to have wired my brain to operate this way. And so can you!

Note that these to me are experienced as feelings more than explicit thoughts. The words are just how I’ve come to interpret that feeling. I’ve found it difficult to “fight mind with mind”. Trying to think logically during high-stress situations is a fools-errand. The thoughts are too slippery and once any thought comes up, the pain and struggle makes it too easy for high-momentum negative thoughts to follow. There is merit in developing your mental ability to do this, but most the time it is best to avoid trying to control behavior with thoughts. Taking the tough action before a thought can surface will, in turn, influence the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. The brain will rationalize the action. Hesitation causes diminishing intent.

This is SUCH A BIG IDEA THAT I’M STRUGGLING TO FIND THE WORDS TO EXPRESS IT.

For example, the “I’m in it for the long haul” was the exact awareness I frequently had during long runs. During my first marathon, this thought found its way into my awareness. Again, not in an explicit form, just as a feeling or sensation, as if I just “looked at the words”. This helped me relax into the moment or at least kept me pushing on through the current wave of struggle/discomfort/pain. The survival of that burst of peak discomfort and hardship reinforced my identity that “I can do hard things” and deepened my resolve in stubbornly persevering. I was building up PROOF that I CAN.

Thoughts like these, and their associated (very subtle) one-second decisions, repeated over and over is what creates the identity and habits that shape a “hardened” individual that can go the distance (in anything). This is the FOUNDATION of grit. The best way I can summarize how it feels and the cue to use is “Lean-In”.

Sharing this is just illustrate and support the importance of leveraging neurochemistry. The tunneling I’ve described previously is one way to stimulate a mental state that is optimal for certain actions.

To wrap this thought up: The answer to “how did I do all that” when reflecting on past phases of my life where you endured continual hardship (including periods of social isolation, relationship stress, early abuse, etc.) is to not think, just do. In other words, “Discipline in Thought”. As David Goggins would put it, “Callus Your Mind”. To be tougher, you have to do the tough things.

I’d suspect each of those times when you were left surprised by your past performance that you were in some way tossed into the situation. There was necessity. You didn’t have time to second guess. This is often why when we are in training, we achieve and push ourselves far more than we would outside of training. Whether it is for a sports team you’re on, pushing for good grades in school, or training for a big event.

By the principle of relativity, when you’re in that hardship, repeatedly, day in and day out, you get used to it. When I was on vacation, I got used to a new routine of not going to work but staying home and doing other things. When I came back to work, I had some initial inertia because of the nature of change, but an old familiar routine quickly took over. This is fundamental to behavior change. Leveraging it is key to “hacking success” in any objectively hard endeavor.

If you frequently dabble in pleasure on the stimulus spectrum, you’ll always have a recent experience in your mind of how wonderful things can be. So when engaging in struggle, it’s too easy for that recent experience to take over and thus you quit. But if you lean-in and go all in, all you know is the struggle, then you will find yourself achieving a LOT more than you thought was possible. The first few times is the hardest, but once you acquire experience, engaging in the hard becomes the norm.

Upon the initial urge to quit, stick with it, this is the MOST IMPORTANT TIME to push through. It is the most identity reinforcing and confidence boosting. Do this the first time, then the second time, and no matter how unsustainable it seems, if you keep at it, you’ll surprise yourself with how far you’ve gone before you know it. Avoid dwelling on technique or other “meta” thoughts, just engage and do. Be absorbed.

Now are you beginning to see why meaning and purpose are important? Why those who achieve great things REALLY wanted it? Excellence demands all of oneself. Find a meaningful mission and pursue it. The struggle is guaranteed, success is not. So that mission better be something worth pursuing. Those who enjoy the effort process are those who succeed the most. That is what it means to have a growth mindset. To enjoy the struggle for its own sake. Enjoying the feeling of wonder that comes with being puzzled or challenged.

When at this level of engagement, you have no time for meta or to even think. There isn’t room for self doubt. In the tunnel you have HIGH necessity.

In many ways, all that brutal training I engaged in when preparing for my second marathon was because I didn’t want the marathon to be painful. I signed up for it (even before my first marathon!), and my identity includes the integrity of doing what I say I’ll do. So now it was up to me to find a way to be as prepared for the experience as possible. I wasn’t going to walk at all, I wasn’t going to breathe through my mouth at all (and I didn’t). To me, this is what it meant to have “run a marathon”; I had the standard that it meant to run the entire thing. I engaged in this training to ensure I could do so with minimal struggle. This meant I had to get used to the struggle so that, relatively, it felt as if it wasn’t a struggle.

The marathon was a fixed date in the future, I couldn’t change that, and I have a thing about not trusting my future self. So I wanted to do my future self a favor by making the decision to continue running, despite the discomfort, an easy one. I wanted to even be able to relax back knowing I engaged in hell the past few months and this was the last I had to do and I’d have lived up to my expectations I’ve put on my self. It was a relaxing experience as a result.

Now are you beginning to understand the importance of visualizing what you want at some future date and realizing what you have to do to obtain that? It’s like David Goggins and his visualization of graduating as a Navy Seal for the few seconds on stage. He wanted that feeling of accomplishment so bad that he endured Navy Seal training 3 times in a row (the first 2 he was medically discharged). Greatness has a pattern.

Wanting the main performance to be relatively easier is like studying hard for an exam in college so that come game-day, it feels second nature. Furthermore, I know that I could forget about everything on the subject after this point. Sure, I kept pushing after and aimed to retain the information I was studying, but this perspective helped alleviate the anxiety and stress and thus improved my performance. I was more present. I enjoyed the experience more.

If I wanted the marathon to be enjoyable and not hurt as much, then I better work my butt off now. I needed to live and breath the struggle. like David Goggins and his realization of needing to lose 110 pounds in 3 months to qualify for Navy Seals training. His thought was “oh ****, I can’t stop moving!”, he was already committed to being in the seals, it was now just a question of what he had to do to qualify.

The key is “get used to it”, hence the importance of starting SOONER rather than later. Beware “Diminishing Intent”. LEAN IN instead.

THE BIG IDEA: These points are vital experiences to emphasize and bring intensity to. Don’t just let the thought or realization come and go. Really pay it attention. This has a very profound impact on the subconscious and helps shape an identity and a world-view filter. These psychological changes of how you view the world is mostly unconscious, so much so that no one tends to talk about it and thus it flies under the radar for entire lifetimes. We only have one instance of consciousness, and a sample size of one leads to very inaccurate assumptions. Everyone is experiencing the world in vastly different ways and each of us are oblivious to how deep these impacts go.

My objective with my writing is to shine light on how useful going the extra mile, digging deeper into seemingly obvious ideas, can be. So much in life is deceptively simple such that we easily overlook the subtleties.

Summary

Tunneling effectively is an art. If done right, you often won’t know you’re even “tunneling”. You’re just moving with the flow and challenging yourself. This is can trap people in for years on end until they are burnt out. Apply the warning signs mentioned above to build the awareness of when you’re in this state. Over time you can begin minimizing how much baggage you bring with you into the tunnel and how much residue is brought out.

For example, I went through a “Growth Challenge” at my previous employer that consisted of several, self-motivated, challenges to improve our development and deployment process. This lasted 3 months and I worked with my supervisor to provide weekly updates to hold me accountable. This was a tunneling experience. I made sacrifices to hit my targets, I had doubts at times, and I found myself restructuring my schedule to optimize time spent on those tasks.

I didn’t put all the pieces together until afterwards. After the 3 months, I remember reflecting and having a feeling of surprise for how far I went and how much I did. I covered a lot of ground and didn’t really think much about it until after emerging from the tunnel. This reflection helps to add meaning. And suffering ceases to be suffering once meaning is applied.

Note that I wouldn’t of been able to go as far as I did if I kept stopping every few moments during the performance to reflect. I had to set the course beforehand, engage, trust, then during moments of breaks, reflect. This is why the reflection after the performance caused so much surprise, because I was simply less (self-)conscious or self-aware. There wasn’t time to ruminate.

That’s a wrap! I’ve shared insights during my recent experience with high-demand situations. We’ve now explored the Tunnel in depth (;


Featured image by mathias_elle_photography on Pixabay.

2 thoughts on “High Performance When You’re on the Hook – Personal Reflections and Takeaways

  1. Very good insights and best practices! I’m going to try this in my coming week at work, I’ve been struggling!

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