Achieving Brilliance Every Day - Unlocking The Science of Peak Performance

6 min read

How often have you experienced a fluctuating performance - being brilliant one day and ordinary the next? Dr. Alan Watkins argues this variability is due to lack of control over multiple levels within our human system.

Dr. Alan Watkins is a renowned expert in leadership and human performance, recognized for his work in neuroscience, physiology, and systems theory. Dr. Watkins has written several influential books, including "Coherence – The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership" which explores how our biology influences our ability to lead and deliver results. His work has spanned from coaching CEOs to working with the GB Rowing squad for the Olympics. This article is a reinterpretation of Dr. Watkins's two-part lecture series titled "Being Brilliant Every Single Day" [1] [2], incorporating my personal overservation and explanations. Let's dive-in!

We all want to perform at our best, whether in study, sports, business or other areas of life. However, maintaining peak performance on a consistent basis can be challenging. Top athletes and executives may excel one day but struggle the next, experiencing unexpected dips in form.

This variability in performance is actually not a mystery, as it is rooted in our biology. Under some states, our physiology goes into a state of chaos, disrupting our brain function and thinking. For example, when giving a presentation or facing a challenge, our heart rate spikes and we experience physical symptoms of anxiety like sweating palms. This sends a chaotic signal to the brain that impairs our cognition and problem-solving abilities. Suddenly, simple tasks become difficult and we say things we later regret.

Our bodies are programmed this way for survival reasons dating back hundreds of thousands of years. When faced with danger, our brains need to shut down complex thinking and operate in a fight or flight mode. However, in modern life we don’t encounter physical threats, yet this biological response still kicks in during mental or social challenges. As a result, anyone can make us look foolish by triggering our stress response. Often too, we lobotomize ourselves through worrying about our own performance.

Dr. Watkins presented a model identifying different levels that influence our performance and results: actions, thoughts, feelings, emotions, and physiology. To sustain peak performance, one must gain mastery over each level.

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To improve performance, we often focus on changing our actions, try doing things differently. However, this approach only works to a certain extent. The reason is that even when people know what to do, they sometimes don’t do it. Hence, to achieve consistent and lasting change in our actions and behaviors, we need to understand and address the internal factors driving our actions and behaviors.

So, in summary, physiology comprises streams of data from various bodily systems, such as the heart, lungs, and gut. Emotion is the collective energy generated by these systems, constantly in motion. Feelings are the conscious awareness of this energy. By tuning into and controlling our physiology, we can influence our emotions, feelings, thinking, and, ultimately, behavior.

Now, how to control our physiology?

One critical aspect of physiology is heart rate variability (HRV), which predicts energy levels, brain function, and even mortality. Under pressure, HRV becomes chaotic. These chaotic signals travels up the vagus nerve to the brain, causing a phenomenon known as “cortical inhibition” or “DIY lobotomy.” Our frontal lobes shut down, impairing our cognitive abilities and decision-making. This is why we sometimes freeze, say inappropriate things, or perform poorly in high-stress situations. Even simple tasks like subtracting numbers become challenging when our brains are lobotomized by physiological chaos. So, by learning to control HRV, we can maintain optimal brain function under pressure and perform at our best.

The key to controlling our physiology lies on our breathing, specifically the rhythm and smoothness of our breath. By breathing rhythmically and smoothly, we can create coherence in our heart rate, improving brain function and enabling us to think more clearly and perform better under pressure.

The key to mastering our physiology lies in conscious breath control. By rhythmically breathing in a fixed ratio (e.g., 4 seconds in, 6 seconds out) and maintaining smoothness throughout the cycle, we can create coherence in our heart rate in under a minute. This coherent signal sent from the heart to the brain enhances cognitive function, perception, insight, and problem-solving abilities. It’s akin to fueling your brain with high-quality energy, allowing it to operate at its full potential.

The acronym “BREATH” serves as a reminder:

By following this simple technique, even a self-proclaimed “non-yogic master” can quickly transform their physiology from chaotic to coherent within minutes, as demonstrated live during the lecture.

While controlling our physiology, we also need to manage our emotions. Negative emotions like anxiety, anger, and frustration may raise our heart rate, creating an incoherent, disruptive state. In contrast, positive emotions like passion, determination, and focus can elevate our heart rate to the same level, but in a coherent, enhancing state.

The goal, then, is to cultivate the ability to operate from the “positive emotional zone” – a state of contentment, curiosity, and equanimity, characterized by a coherent heart rate pattern, regardless of whether it is high or low.


[1] Tedxportsmouth - dr. Alan watkins - being brilliant every single day(Part 1) (no date). Available at: (Accessed: 10 March 2024).

[2] Tedxportsmouth - dr. Alan watkins - being brilliant every single day(Part 2) (no date). Available at: (Accessed: 10 March 2024).

 Productivity    Personal Development