Top 10 tips for exam performance

Top 10 tips for exam performance

Exam Time can be one of the most traumatic experiences in our life and can leave a scar on our consciousness. Remember that nightmare when you’ve got an exam in the morning and forgot to study. I still get chills thinking about it.

Here are my top 10 tips for exam performance. I wish someone had shown me how to prepare myself in body, heart and mind for the best performance on the day.

Since joining the Resilience Institute last year and working with businesses everyday, I’m constantly asked for advice from participants/parents to help their kids and themselves have fewer sleepless nights.  Here they are:

  1. Manage your sleep. Aim for 8 or 9 hours and don’t study late in the night. The brain needs time to recharge and rejuvenate. Deep sleep during the early part of the night (10 pm to 2am) is essential. Allow the body to cool down and relax before sleep. Switch off the devices at least an hour before bed time. No phone, TV or computer in the bedroom. Ever!sleep
  1. Exercise every day. Try building up a sweat with vigorous exercise like skipping or a short sprint at top speed. Stand up regularly while studying. Do some fun stretches or balancing exercises. A brain-stimulating balancing exercise is to stand on one leg for 30 seconds with your eyes closed. Then try the other side. This engages both sides of the brain. Google Sun salutation and try it out. A 20 minute brisk walk is also beneficial.
  1. Short bursts of study. Break your study into intense, focused bursts. Find the optimal time for your bursts (may be 20 to 60 minutes). Set specific goals and do plenty of old exam papers. Exams are the application of knowledge so practice this. Keep it challenging. Reward yourself in short breaks of 10 minutes between bursts.
  1. Eat well and resist junk food. Processed carbohydrates, sweets and carbonated drinks will fire up your energy and then dump you. You need sustained mental energy for optimal exam performance. Seek nuts, eggs, and whole fat dairy for protein. Veggies give you sustainable energy and protect your brain. Blueberries, beetroot and fish are serious brain food. Healthy and useful fats include avocado, olive oil and nuts. Coffee is a safe stimulant during the morning. Stick to water in the afternoon. Eat lightly in the
  1. Plan your study week. Set specific goals. Test yourself with harder questions. Compete with a buddy and review together.
  1. Take regular breaks. Don’t be distracted by devices. Take quality rest – good food, activity, play, and sunshine. Regular breaks build your capacity to focus. The average person can only focus for 3 to 5 minutes and it gets worse through the day. Work at extending your periods of intense focus. Good posture helps.
  1. Practice your breathing. Sitting with a light and long spine, exhale completely and then slowly fill your lower ribs and upper belly. Repeat slowly. Aim for 4 seconds of inhalation and 6 seconds of exhalation. Breathe through the nose.You have just triggered tactical calm. Your body is more relaxed, your energy will return and your focus has improved. You can use this slow diaphragmatic breathing to improve exam performance, get to sleep quickly or to sustain your mental focus.
  1. Be Present. It is really easy to find yourself worrying about a future exam or beating yourself up for a past exam. Worry and regret have no value. PAY ATTENTION (by focusing on your breath) and save the day. Know that the solution will come from being relaxed alertness. Never panic!
  1. Read the instructions. Carefully review the requirement section first. Then read the body of the question. Check the requirements again. Subconsciously your brain will be working on a plan and you will avoid silly errors.pen-paper
  1. Apply the “80/20 rule”. Having helped many students through exams in different topics; there is one universal rule to remember – the 80/20 rule – focus on what counts. Allocate the appropriate time to each question. Do your favourite topic first. When the time for a question is up, move on to the next question. Leave plenty of space in case you have time at the end to review and improve. Believe it or not you will already have achieved at least 80% of the marks you are going to get from that question. Don’t sweat over the other 20% and trying to collect every last mark.

Good luck with your exam performance and remember the better you plan, the luckier you will be.

5 Practical Steps to Spiritual Growth

5 Practical Steps to Spiritual Growth

After food, sleep, love and work arises the question: “who am I and why am I here?” This is the voice of the soul seeking identity and connection.

The quote above, from BKS Iyengar (Light on the Yoga Sutras), states that it is the only question and the only reality.

meaningHumans sense the presence of soul and spirit. It is tricky to experience and define. In the hyperactive, consumption-driven world of today, the contemplative life is a distant dream. Or, more kindly, the flood of shallow nonsense keeps us so bloated there is simply no time left.

What are we to do with the nagging hunger for meaning?

“Who am I?” is the question of identity. At your deepest, purest and simplest expression sits the soul. Rarely do we give it much attention. Mindless activity, cravings, anxiety and distraction overwhelm the experience and voice of soul. We must search.

“ Why am I here?” is a question of connection to spirit (or God). Spirit is the manifest reality of the moment and the universe. We connect to spirit through our breath, physical presence, emotional resonance and intellect. With identity and love, creation begins.

The spiritual journey is thus a two-fold path of discovery. First, can we discern and present the soul to consciousness? Second, through the experience of soul can we connect to Spirit?

We have a well-tested method to create a better life and better business. If this journey up the spiral continues we will find ourselves “knocking on heaven’s door.”

A Framework for Spiritual Growth

Simply resting your attention on the spiral evokes a “YES” to more altitude. No one wants to suffer. We seek calm, energy, positivity and clarity. We can all agree that the capacity to bounce out of adversity and move up towards more healthy, positive and constructive states of being is intuitively right. This is vertical growth rather than the horizontal dash for food, qualifications, jobs, houses and wealth. When we ask the question “who am I?” we want to define ourselves in the upper spirals.


Insight helps us recognise our altitude and to detect the subtle currents moving us up and down. Insight within the framework triggers an impulse to move up. We want it! This is the beginning of desire and the source of motivation to grow up.

It is important to distinguish temporary states from stages. A state occurs with bad news (downwards) or good news or drugs (upwards). Chaotic state change happens in bipolar depression. It is traumatic for all as the patient lurches from hope, excitement, super-confidence and mania back down to despair and depression.

We seek stage development. While not every stage is equally important, we have no doubt they all contribute in a logical progression. Mastery is the practice of moving upwards in a progressive, skilful and stable way. We start with physiology and work through body, emotion and mind. There are five stages to master:

1. Master Stress

Here we become competent at bounce and mastering a calm, focused and connected state. Sourced in prayer and contemplation, every spiritual tradition has a well-articulated method. If we can achieve this on demand and in critical moments we are on the spiritual journey. Posture, exhalation, muscular relaxation and parasympathetic activity are very concrete tools we can learn, practice and master.

2. Energise Body

When calm we sleep better. A relaxed body eats with natural wisdom. The cravings for sugars, salts and stimulants settle. The human being is a moving system and the body is our most concrete tool for practice. By working attentively with our muscles we stimulate awareness, health and vitality. This level has been missed from many spiritual traditions and remains the challenge of our time. Most importantly, it is through physical discipline that we build capacity to master the more slippery and subtle emotions and mind.

3. Engage Emotion

Emotion bridges body and mind. Emotion moves both body and mind. Destructive emotions like anger, fear and sadness send us – and those we travel with – spiralling down. Neurobiologist Antonio Damasio casts emotion as the central character in the journey to spirit. Positive energy feeds constructive emotion. Constructive emotions – peace, joy, contentment, love and gratitude shine brightly in the enlightened. It is this resonance that we seek more than anything.

As your emotional literacy and mastery increase, you become more calm and healthy. The key is recognition that emotion drives the mind. In destructive emotion we lose control of the mind and thereby our actions. Constructive emotion enables clear thinking, decisiveness, compassion and agility.

4. Train Mind

We are inclined to mindless thoughts. While initiated by emotion, chaotic thinking can quickly become habit. For example, fear and anxiety trigger cycles of worry. Worry then becomes a habit and recycles the fear in a never-ending loop. Mostly, thinking causes suffering and removes us from the experience of life as it unfolds in the moment. The spiritual journey requires calm, clear and steady attention. On the strong base built from 1,2 and 3, the mind becomes strong and agile. We can then see and realise soul.

5. Spirit in Action

When body, heart and mind are trained and mastered, the lens of spirit is clear and focused. We experience ourselves with clarity. “Who am I?” becomes evident. How we express the soul becomes obvious. Now we begin to see the world more clearly. “Why am I here?” becomes obvious. We align our highest self, through skilful means with a worthy purpose. Soul and spirit are always present. We have to take the inward journey of insight and mastery to see this creative impulse of your life.

Nothing is more important.

Practice Tips:

  • Spirit in Action sits waiting. Understand what is holding you back. Focus here.
  • We all have strengths. Build your spiritual practice through your strengths – relaxation, physicality, positivity, and meditation.
  • Learn to soften your consciousness down into the body and emotions as you exhale
  • Activate the spine and energise as you inhale
  • Seek moments to sense beauty, appreciate the ride and act with kindness
  • Find your rhythm of deliberate practice and compassionate release (let it be)
  • As you see yourself more clearly, your talents and skills are the catalyst that drives connection. When your talents match the right challenge in the state of flow you will realise spirit.
  • Be playful
  • Be resolute
  • Be kind


The future of leadership training

The future of leadership training

  1. The problem

HBR October 2016 article “Why Leadership Training Fails” by Beer, Finnstrom and Scrhrader poses a radical rethink on training. Organisations spent US$356 billion on training in 2015 with questionable returns. The implications are uncomfortable. We take it seriously. To serve our clients we have to work at this.

In a nutshell, training does not stick. People revert to what they have done in the past. The organisational context – the system – pushes them back. Their conclusion is:

  1. Senior executives must attend to organisational design – system change, and
  2. Link training to unit-by-unit, strategic initiatives that demand new behaviour

This research should send cold shivers down many spines. Intuitively, we know it is right. Yet the solution is complex and difficult work. Leaders and training professionals will duck for cover. The current approach to leadership training simply requires us to match an identified need with a suitable course. Once complete the “box is ticked” and we can move on with confidence.

We are kidding ourselves, wasting money and confusing people.

  1. Solutions start at the top

The CEO and executive team define the strategic goals of each business unit AND the new behaviours required. Business unit leaders have to own this, modelling these new behaviours themselves AND demanding these behaviours from others.

Imagine the resistance – passive and active – at the executive table? We think; “much easier to send difficult people to training to be fixed.”

We have only begun. New behaviours will be clunky, awkward and slow. Business, despite the endless clamour for change, transformation or creativity, rarely considers how to cultivate expertise in these new behaviours.

  1. Enter the science of expert performance

Let’s imagine we want to take an elite squash player and teach them to play top-level tennis. We start by moving them from squash to tennis court (system change). Next they have to learn the rules and process. Then on to the basic elements of a game – serving, volley, backhand, forehand, etc. Imagine how many times a grand slam champion has practiced a cross-court backhand? And this is before they get into a real game. Putting all of these “behaviours” into a game plan to win…? We are tired just thinking about it.

How easy it is under pressure for this athlete to revert to a squash behaviour?

Welcome to the world of deliberate practice – specific goals, focused repetition, expert coaching and feedback. Much of this practice is done way outside of the comfort zone. So demanding is the cultivation of new behaviours that these experts have elaborate support systems to ensure that they can survive the process.

Can this work in an organisation?

  1. What is required of us?
  • Fix the obvious

Organisational life is neither rational nor sustainable. In short, people are sleep deprived, unfit, anxious, overloaded, frustrated and cynical. If we are serious about leadership, transformation and success, there is low hanging fruit to gather. Courage is needed to create an organisational environment that demands people be at their best. We have to treat our people – leaders included – more like we would athletes or our children.

  • Leaders must step up

Great leadership is transformative. Bad leadership can destroy a business unit. There is too much variability. Some leaders are hopelessly overloaded, some just cruising on past success. Few leadership teams are deliberate in defining the exact behaviours required. As above, leaders must explicitly model the resilience, empathy, focus and creativity required of their teams. Leadership must be measured on how well their people demonstrate these behaviours.

  • Get serious about skill

The acceleration in the science and practice of elite performance has transformed sport and art. The 10,000-hour rule of specific, purposeful, deliberate and demanding practice has yet to hit the business world. We relegate training to a workshop or two over the year. What if we spent 10 years practicing to perfection a good coaching conversation; a team meeting; or client pitch? Methodological, long-term pursuit of excellence in the key behaviours  will define whether your business thrives or fades.

  • Support the heck out of people

Elite performers need proper support. Consider the All Blacks whose leadership is split three ways. Coaching of specific skills in each position, player wellbeing to secure optimal vitality and player logistics to get everyone to the right place in the right state. This may be the fastest growing job opportunity in the next 20 years. Successful organisations will need teams of experts to extract – through coaching in deliberate practice – the best from people.

  • Patience

Transformation takes time – strategy, structure, leadership focus, support systems and measurement. In short, we must move from the workshop to a multi-year adaptive programme that engages every leader and person in the team in the behaviour of excellence. It is not for everyone. It is inescapable for those organisations seeking greatness.

  • Relentless curiosity

Lot to study, practice, learn and adjust to. There are so many ways. We are at the beginning of the journey to master our wellbeing, our emotions and our minds.

“Take a deep breath” is bad advice !

“Take a deep breath” is bad advice !

Taking a deep breath will create arousal, anxiety, distress, and reduce CO2 even more. “Experts”, from physicians to coaches, default to this faulty recommendation.

The science of breathing demonstrates how this advice is scientifically and practically wrong. Rather, apply the correct practice to counter distress, calm, focus and connect to reality.

Basic science to understand:

1. Heart rate changes with breathing. Inhalation accelerates your heart. Exhalation – particularly when sustained longer than inhalation – slows your heart.

2. This is called sinus arrhythmia or heart rate variability. When it follows a sine curve it is a very reliable marker of good health and reduced risk (1).

3. Exaggerating inhalation engages chest muscles shortening and accelerating the breath. This causes CO2 to drop and is part of hyperventilation syndrome (2).

4. Hyperventilation happens when anxious and, if sustained, leads to low CO2 (carbon dioxide) and a range of symptoms including anxiety, pounding heart rate, chest pain, light-headedness. It is estimated to affect 10-30% of otherwise healthy people and can lead to hospitalisation.

5. Arousal, with increased heart rate is associated with the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and calm, with lower heart rate is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS, mediated by the vagus nerve) and called vagal tone or vagal brake (3).

6. Neck and upper chest (secondary) muscles ventilate the upper lung. These are only required in extreme situations of physical effort

7. Diaphragm and intercostal (primary) muscles ventilate lower lung. These muscles facilitate heart rate variability, calm and good health.

When you take a deep breath …

You will activate your chest and neck muscles, trigger the sympathetic system, strain your neck muscles, accelerate your heart, and activate a state of increased arousal. The vagal brake is switched off and you can compromise both muscle and brain function as CO2 falls.

Advice to “breathe in through the nose” further strains secondary breathing muscles. Adding “out through the mouth” causes the loss of CO2 and a shorter exhalation. If you continue to take this advice you can drive your physiology into an acute or chronic case of hyperventilation.

There is no point in voluntarily taking a deep breath. Your neurophysiology takes care of it in the background. Remember the last time you dived under a big wave!

Tactical calm is exhalation…

The first step to calm and focus is to exhale voluntarily through the nose. As you lengthen the outbreath, the diaphragm relaxes, domes upward and the vagus (PNS) nerve activates. Heart rate slows, muscles relax, and blood returns to the prefrontal cortex and empathy circuits.

Whether on stage, in battle, on the court, needing to connect or be creative, experts in all fields have to master this simple technique. Below is a short demonstration of heart rate variability showing these effects.

untitledFigure 1. Heart rate changes through three conditions:

  1. Concern about conflict in a family (heart rate accelerates from 55-60 up to 70 bpm)
  2. Advised to take three deep breaths (irregular pulse, wild acceleration 50 to 70). It counters the natural calming that was taking place prior to advice.
  3. Slow exhalations creates high amplitude heart rate variability and calm

Let’s get practical…

Whenever you notice agitation, worry, fatigue and any distress symptom, simply exhale for 5 or 6 seconds with a pause at the end. Then breathe slowly into the lower ribs and abdomen through the nose for 3 or 4 seconds.

Repeat as needed.

Tactical (square) breathing

All special forces are now taught a variation of this which involves: 4 seconds exhale, 4 seconds hold, 4 seconds inhale and 4 seconds hold. This is used to get combat ready (condition yellow) and effective by being calm, focused an connected.

Nothing new here folks! The yogis have recommended this explicitly for over 2000 years. A simple audio for guided practice can be found here: Breathe out slowly!

(1) Matthew Mackinnon, Psychology Today.

(2) Dinah Bradley, Family Doctor.

(3) Sven Hansen, Breath, Revive, Connect: Insights.

Coaching for Team Flow

Coaching for Team Flow

A practice guide for coaching exceptional teams

We have worked hard to help people be better team members and leaders to be better at supporting their teams. Yet the team is clearly an organism in its own right. Team performance is in the spotlight. We know that team behaviours determine performance. How might the science and practice of team flow help us deliver results without compromising personal wellbeing and resilience?

The Context

First, when a team works well, it achieves extraordinary results. For those who have been part of an effective team the experience is ennobling and the memory is rich. An outstanding team can change the fortunes of an organisation or mission. They have enormous value and they are rare. Many, including MIT and Google, are asking what exactly determines team performance. McKinsey estimates that it is reasonable to expect a doubling of team productivity with a small lift in flow.

Second, as millions of jobs – manual, process and professional – fall to machines and artificial intelligence, good teams are one of the last bastions of human dominance. Those who can work well in teams have a greater chance of finding sustainable roles in society.

Third, working in a highly functional team is massively rewarding. From our hunting and gathering days, human work has often been done in teams. We are designed for teaming. We have survived and thrived as a consequence of the attributes required – self-mastery, empathy and perspective taking. Not surprisingly, to be on a good team is enjoyable, engaging and meaningful. We can become much better coaches of our teams.

Clarify thinking and assumptions

Performance traps: business is in the very early stages of applying the performance sciences. We frequently fall into the trap of performance as “always on”. Long days, missed meals, compromised sleep and abandoned families. Elite performers in sport, combat, arts and chess do not make this mistake. Teams who deliver the goods do not compromise on their foundations. They work in intense bursts and know how to rejuvenate fully. Their coaches (they all have coaches – often a coaching team) help make it possible. Teams must use science and deliberate, purposeful practice to succeed.

Second, elite performance is achieved through flow – not a desperate grind. McKinsey found that executives in flow achieve a five-fold lift in output. What we forget is that a day of flow requires at least a day of rest. Elite performance absolutely depends upon structured recovery, rest phases and careful preparation and conditioning. Teams must learn how to call downtime and enjoy “play-time”.

Third, there is too much focus on psychological safety. I don’t buy it. High performing teams are intense, demanding and vigorous. Read up on Apple, Nike or professional firms. Someone who needs psychological safety will not thrive. Resilience is a far superior mantra. Each individual must be confident that they can bounce, show courage, connect and create. They must be able to trust that team-mates can and will demonstrate resilience. If we focus on resilience, candour, respect, empathy and social skill follow. If we focus on psychological safety, people demand sympathy and justify withholding the truth. We want to think of our colleagues as resilient. Not vulnerable!

The Solution

To coach a team to exceptional performance requires deliberate focus on core skills. These are the skills we believe will accelerate team development in order of priority:

Personal Mastery: every team member must have the basic skills to take care of their life. Wellbeing – physical, emotional and cognitive – is essential. Make sure your teams have the basic skills, metrics and support to cultivate their resilience. Exceptional teams will endure periods of extreme pressure and must know how to maintain themselves through it and take the necessary time to recover and rejuvenate after bursts of intensity. Teams must learn how to support each other. In a pressure-cooker world, personal mastery is tough. Support of each other can make a big difference. Stay fit, sleep consistently, eat well and maintain the ritual. Daily stand-up meetings must be used as a personal check-in before addressing business.

Tactical Calm: every team member must be able to calm and focus through pressure and conflict. Conflict is necessary to extract creative problem solving. When a team member has emotional outbursts empathy, trust and creativity collapse. Teams that can maintain the calm, focused and connected state can thrive through chaos. Just as athletes and soldiers have specific training in how to stay calm in critical moment, so must teams. Pause, breathe out, stay curious and open, and respond calmly and firmly.

Empathy: a range of studies now shows that empathy is the single best predictor of contribution to team performance. We must be specific with our training of empathy. We can build empathy through very specific practices. At the base it requires a degree of cognitive empathy. Teams must increase their emotional literacy learning how to recognise, name and express the different emotions skilfully and appropriately. Second, teams must learn to pay attention and tune into the feelings (affect) of each other. Third, they must practice perspective taking. Learn to explore and express diverse points of view.

Build time in Team Flow: the flow state is super-charged and is the state of exceptional performance. In flow the brain is functioning in a very special condition – focused, immersed, connected and accelerated. Flooded with dopamine, endorphins and anandamide, thinking stops and real-time, accelerated processing takes over. Flow become more likely when teams engage directly and face-to-face. Communication is concise, direct, candid and expressed in short bursts. All team members contribute evenly. No one dominates.

Remember that flow is exhausting. Celebration, rest, rejuvenation and careful conditioning must follow before attempting to deliver another burst of flow.

After action review: well tested in military and team sport, we can apply this to our teams. After key actions, stop, reconnect and review performance with candour. What went well and what can be improved? How can we improve this next time? What specific actions can we each take to prepare, practice and execute next time around?

Time to practice: high performing teams create a culture of deliberate practice. Set specific development goals, make time to practice with support and use coaches to provide specific feedback and skill rehearsal. The focus must be on “how to execute like experts”. Research what experts actually do and learn to master these skills.