Maximising Performance Through Learning to Manage Expectations

by | Jun 2, 2024


Whatever field we operate in, we surely want to be able to perform at a consistently high level. We want to be able to get the most out of our abilities time and time again. I would like to present evidence for how we can aim for that by learning to consciously manage our expectations.

Before we are required to perform – whatever that might mean to each individual – ie. take on a challenge where the outcomes are not certain (ie. it could go well or could go badly), the subconscious has already created a set of expectations. These expectations are drawn from three areas of evidence: relevant past experience, recent state of being and current state of being. So for example, if an athlete was about to race, the subconscious will have all past racing experience to draw on, especially experience relevant to this particular race, eg. the venue, similar occasions, the distance, the other competitors, etc. The subconscious will also be aware of how well recent training and racing has been going. It will also be aware of how the runner feels now/today. It is able to use all this information to form a prediction/expectation. The brain is programmed to make predictions all the time so it can apportion appropriate amounts of energy to tasks and not get caught short.

If there is any evidence of poor performance or lack of ability in our past experience, our recent state or our current state, the brain will naturally adjust the expectations downwards. We may become aware of a feeling of lack of confidence and may start to fear the challenge ahead. It is very difficult to override the subconscious awareness of past experience, recent state and current state. No amount of trying to convince ourselves that everything will be fine, through our positive thinking, can convince the subconscious that what it knows is not relevant.

So, for those rare individuals, who have not had any previous negative experience, and whose recent state has been nothing but positive and whose current state is good, all the evidence is positive, so they can go in to the challenge with high expectations and are likely to perform at an optimum level. But for most of us, it is highly likely, that in at least one of the three areas of evidence, there will be something negative that the brain may use to lower its expectations. If we want to consistently perform at an optimum level and that can only happen if there is no negative experience in any of the three areas of evidence, then it is impossible for the vast majority, or arguably, any of us. So, is there a way to give ourselves a better chance of optimum performance?

To perform optimally would mean to perform above what we would expect based on the evidence from the three areas of evidence. It would mean that we get the best out of our current state. Therefore, past experience and recent state of being need to become irrelevant. And actually, even our current state needs to become irrelevant. To perform at an optimal level requires all our energy and our focus on the task, so any of our attention focused on past experience, recent state and current state is energy wasted.

For our performance to be exceptional, we cannot waste energy on any distractions. All available energy is needed to keep us in the present moment. We need complete calm focus. We need to enter a state of flow. We need to find and remain in the perfect sweet spot. Therefore, we do not need to be thinking of the past or the future, unless it is completely relevant to the perfect execution of the task. Being in the present moment means we are completely focused on the task. We may need to think ahead or think back in time but only if it helps us execute the task better. Perfect execution means not being distracted by anything outside of the task, and making maximum use of our current available energy.

We always have reserves of energy stored for emergencies. If we are worried or have doubts about our current state of being, that will prevent access to available reserves. If we have doubts about our recent state of being, that will affect our ability to produce an exceptional performance. If we have negative evidence about our past experience, that will have a negative impact on current performance the moment there is a pattern-match to anything going wrong.

So therefore, the only useful expectation to have is that, the more we can stay calm and focused, the better chance we have of executing an exceptional performance. Just because past performance, recent state or current state aren’t at optimum, doesn’t mean there can’t be surprises. If we accept that we can’t always predict the future, is there any point using energy trying to? If perfect/optimal execution, with what we currently have available, is what we are seeking, we know we need complete focus moment by moment.

If we have created a set of expectations, the brain will be constantly assessing our performance against them moment by moment rather than actually being in the flow of the task itself. If we notice we are performing below our expectations, we will start to worry, and take ourselves out of the present moment. Once we start thinking with feelings of disappointment, annoyance, defeat, we have lost complete focus and energy is being wasted.

Having a set of expectations can even disrupt us if we find ourselves overperforming. The surprise and shock we will feel if we are performing above our expectations may be enough to make us start doubting in our ability to sustain this performance and hence take us out of the present moment and again, have us wasting valuable energy.

Therefore, in conclusion, to maximise the chance of producing an exceptional performance, we need to consciously clear out our expectations. The only expectations we need to consciously entertain are: that we are aiming to stay as calm, focused and locked into the present moment as we can for the whole performance; and also, that there is every possibility that today may bring a surprise, and today may be one of those days where we do better than all the evidence suggests if, when needed, we are able to draw on our hidden energy reserves that we have available.