Dr Maike Neuhaus
3 Strategies to maximise your potential
Are you the best version of yourself? Living your best possible life?
Because it seems that that’s what everyone is talking about these days. Don’t get me wrong – I love a good vision! I just prefer them when they come with instructions, practical advice. What does it even mean to be the best version of yourself?
What we’re talking about here is the idea of maximum potential.
Potential means currently unrealised ability. It’s the sum of your currently somewhat dormant qualities that can be developed and lead to success in the future. Think caterpillars, cocoons, butterflies. I’m yet to meet a person who would love to be a caterpillar forever (and I think many of us are getting a good taste of the cocoon version during the current pandemic).
So how to you live up to your potential?
I think it’s good to start by differentiating the outcome from the process of living to your maximum potential.
If you imagine what your life would look like if you were your best possible self, then that’s an outcome. It’s a vision you can contemplate to gain clarification on what is most important to you in life, what your values are and your purpose. It’s a great way to dream big about how you would live if no obstacles were ever to cross your path.
But living up to your potential is also a process of daily habits, a lifestyle. And to me, this is even more interesting, because in your every day behaviour lies your power to create change; to create that best possible self and make your vision come alive. The thing is that when you maximise your potential every day, you will inevitably create the best version of yourself.
There are three key processes:
1) Living a healthy lifestyle
I've written about the importance of living a healthy lifestyle for efficient self-leadership before. Living up to your potential requires (physical) energy. If you've ever gone to school/ uni/ work after a big night out you know what I'm talking about. Or, if you've tried to write a complex and important report after a big, heavy meal - or at the end of a ten-hour day.
A healthy lifestyle includes, at a minimum, sufficient and good quality sleep, a work - rest balance, daily exercise and limited sedentary time, and a healthy diet. It's not only associated with physical and mental health and happiness, but also with optimal performance, endurance and willpower.
2) Regulating your emotions
Optimal performance means getting the most out of your genius apparatus that makes us human - our brain, or more specifically: our prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the area in our brain, where rational thinking, complex planning, decision making and reasoning happens. Enough reason to ensure that it can function well, right?
The problem is that it's the exact area that becomes overpowered and shut down every now an then. Have you heard of the amygdala hijack before? The amygdala is a different part of our brain. It’s where our strong emotions are given meaning. When we feel frightened or threatened, the amygdala takes over control of your body by sending out stress signals and releasing hormones to get our body ready for the infamous fight or flight reaction. In doing so, it overrides (or hijacks) our prefrontal cortex - clearly it's more important to move those legs or swing those fists than to solve arithmetic operations. Thousands of years ago, this phenomenon was the reason we survived. Nowadays, it can pose a problem, because the amygdala doesn't distinguish between physical and psychological threat (e.g. when you're being put on the spot in front of others).
So unless you’re actually in a dangerous situation or being threatened, you can avoid this by learning to calm your nerves when feeling threatened. There are many ways to regulate your emotions, for example by finding alternative interpretations of the situation (i.e. cognitive reframing), distraction, talking it out ('venting') or relaxation techniques. So, the next time your prefrontal cortex is needlessly hijacked, try taking some deep breaths and calming yourself down before getting back to the task at hand.
3) Cultivating constructive thought
Once you're good at avoiding amygdala hijacks, it's time to focus on getting the most out of that prefrontal cortex of yours. Wouldn't it be awesome, if you could always make good decisions and think constructively?
Constructive thought starts with an understanding of what shapes our perception and how to develop a strong focus (hint: through a healthy lifestyle and mindfulness practice). It includes the ability to take different perspectives, including a meta-perspective, fostering a growth mindset, and understanding cognitive bias. And, it includes an intentional positivity practice in order to create optimal condition for creativity (I've written about the phenomenon that happiness precedes success here).
So, ask yourself what your life would look like if you lived to your full potential and then identify some actionable steps you can take to unlock it in your everyday life.
Across the three strategies, which one is your strong point? Where do you see your biggest hurdle to living to your full potential?