Why are we so bad at optimising our form?


There are 3 main reasons that we tend not to be great at optimising our form. The first reason is that, in general, we don’t think it is a problem that needs solving. We tend to only become aware of our form at the extremes, when it is very low or very high, and because we only experience these real extremes quite rarely (these only occur ~10% of the time) we assume the other 90% of the time everything is fine.

The second reason we aren’t great at managing our form is that to do it optimally involves taking a big-picture, long-term view and instead we tend to focus on the short term, on things which have an immediate pay off. When it comes to a choice between propping ourselves up to hit a deadline tonight vs optimising the subsequent chain of events required to make us feel better over the rest of the week, human nature is to focus on survival, and that is to get through today!

The final reason we don’t act optimally with regard to how we need to live to optimise our form, is that we have lots of other competing priorities. Sometimes, looking after our mental state can compete with other priorities such to losing weight, saving money, fitting in (not being perceived to be boring, at work or socially), and of course to having fun and deriving pleasure from life as we go. All valid reasons.

Let’s look at each of these reasons in a bit more detail.

1: The False Assumptions About Our Form

A: Assumption: Our Form Is Relatively Constant (other than at the extremes)

By only having awareness of when we are on very low form or when we are on excellent form, we implicitly assume that the rest of the time our form is relatively constant and that our performance is not materially affected. The reality is that this is simply not the case, our form, our ability to perform cognitively, moves up and down gradually and at any point in time it is somewhere on a scale between barely able to function and absolutely peak performance.

In our research, we provide people with a framework to understand different aspects of their cognitive performance and a scale to calibrate each metric in real time, so that every week each person captures over 200 measurements of their relative cognitive performance. The results show that although we spend very little time at the extremes, what happens in between is not constant and is very worthwhile managing. The average person spends about 7% of their time really struggling (operating at less than 37.5% of their mental capacity), and more time on ‘Low Form’ (24%) than on ‘Great Form’ (23%). In total, we spend nearly of a third of our time in a transactional state which we call ‘Getting By’. See Figure 1 below.

Reality: Our form is not constant. We only spend roughly a third of our time on ‘Normal’ form.

Figure 1: Distribution of people’s 4RMTM during OwnLife Tracking

B: Assumption: Our Form is Random & Out of Our Control

Our lives are complex, and because the feedback our bodies give us from how we eat, sleep, drink and exercise are all jumbled up, and that they manifest in overlapping time frames, the standard assumption we have is that our form is random. We may notice a few patterns but because we (a) don’t really know what level of form we are on most of the time and (b) don’t have a good awareness of our habits either, our experience is that there is only a very loose link between how we behave and how we are able to perform.

This is further muddled by a related assumption that our form is determined by external events. For example, we can often assume that our form is determined by how bad our commute was, or based on whether what we are working on is going well or not. Apart from in real extremes, form is not determined by external events, by how our day is going. This is a confusion between form and mood. Our mood is very sensitive to how are day is going and to many events out of our control such as being stuck in traffic or having a disagreement at work, however, these things will rarely impact our underlying ability to perform mentally.

Our research clearly shows, for the vast majority of people, form is not random at all, it is actually quite predictable and determined by how we live, by our routine. We will be on our best form and worst form at similar times of the day and we have certain days of the week when we tend to be on better form and other days when we are on lower form. Not only that, but in almost all cases, there will be at least two strong links between specific lifestyle factors and our cognitive performance, our form. For some people it will be sleep, for others nutrition, exercise, caffeine or alcohol. Sometimes the relationship is positive, sometimes it is negative, and the strength and combination of relationships is unique to each person, but our form is not random, and it is not completely unrelated to our behaviour!

C: Assumption: We Can’t Change, This Is How We Are

It is very easy to assume that how we are now, that the things we need to do to get us through the day is a fixed function of our DNA and therefore something that we can’t change even if we wanted to, so there is no need to try. It is very easy to think ‘I am a coffee person, I simple need it to get going in the morning’, or ‘I can’t do any strenuous exercise because I feel bad afterwards’, or ‘I need sugary snack to give me energy’, or even, ‘meditation just doesn’t work for me’.

The reality is that we have become a function of our repeated behaviour, and very slowly and imperceivably over time our bodies and minds have adapted to a fixed way of doings things. How we are now is a real phenomenon. If someone who had a coffee every morning for 5 years didn’t have one, they would feel worse. If someone who hadn’t got their heart rate above 100 bpm since they can remember suddenly goes for a run, they will feel bad afterwards. If someone who has never tried meditation is stressed and tries sitting still with their eyes closed for 20 minutes they are going to get frustrated. These are all features of our physiological adaptation, but just because they are very real, validatable realities it doesn’t mean they are fixed. Just as you adapted to become the person you are today, your body can and will adapt again if you undertake sustained behavioural change. The key to being able to make changes you desire is to adapt a growth mindset and (a) develop a tool-kit to update your psychological patterns and (b) understand the adaptation change curve – how long it takes for your body to physiologically adapt to a new way of living.

2: Short-Termism & Our Survival Instinct

The second big reason that we don’t do a good job at optimising our form is that via evolution, we have developed mechanisms that promote survival over everything else. They favour short-term guaranteed results at the cost of long-term balance. Some of these mechanisms are conscious and some of these mechanisms are sub-conscious.

One of the core human needs is for certainty and this tends to make us risk averse and to consciously prioritise things which have a clearly defined benefit in the very short term. Unfortunately, when it comes to form, lots of behaviours that have a short-term reward also have a negative effect long term. A good example of this is that whenever we are time-poor and up against a deadline, we tend to sacrifice our self-care, whether that be going to bed on time, doing some exercise or taking a break in order to work or get more done. The truly rational, course of action that will enable us to thrive and be more productive is often to go to bed on time or go for a run and then come back to what we were working on, but unless we have developed really good self-awareness, our survival tendency gets in the way and favours the certainty of getting more work done now, vs the possibility of getting more work done later.

In addition there are primitive, subconscious, habit-related processes driving our behaviour which also favour surviving in the short term, at the cost of thriving in the long run. These are especially noticeable in relation to our consumption of sugar, caffeine and alcohol.

For example, if we are feeling signs of a low in blood sugar, our bodies can create an urge within us to consume something sugary, as subconsciously it knows that sugar will satisfy the immediate imbalance and make us feel better. It isn’t as sophisticated a mechanism as to make us crave something with a lower glycemic index that will enable us to avoid another sugar low in a few hours, our body just wants maximum short-term impact to correct the current imbalance and sugar is the best immediate fix. This is what can trigger a cycle of hormone imbalances that leads to ongoing sugar craving.

Similarly, if we are repeatedly tired, and repeatedly consume coffee to wake ourselves up, our bodies will simply crave caffeine when we are tired without being concerned that it is 8pm in the evening and a cup of coffee now will stop us sleeping so well. Or if we repeatedly drink alcohol to make us feel more relaxed when we are stressed, over time our bodies will crave alcohol when we are stressed, even if consuming alcohol sets off a chain of events that is going to be quite negative for optimising our form over the next few hours and into the next day.

These primitive survival mechanisms don’t have the ability to see the bigger picture, to reward behaviours that allow us to thrive long term. They are driven by imbalances at the hormone and neurochemical level based on what is going on inside of us NOW. They are just interested in survival, in getting through the next few hours, and getting through the day and they work on several levels.

With understanding, we can develop strategies that leverage a conscious awareness of the future negative implications of our actions to counter the immediate urge so we make better in-the-moment decisions around our behaviours, but this will not happen naturally of its own accord.

3: We Have Competing Priorities

The final thing that gets in the way of us optimising our form is that we have lots of other competing priorities. Whilst maximising your form should be your number one priority in life (as it is the things which underpins everything you do and experience), we all have a plethora of other priorities which will pull us in different directions. As such, we need to recognise that we aren’t trying to maximise our form but to optimise it.

As we covered a bit already, often what we need to do to maximise our form will compete with everything else we do because it takes time. The regular maintenance required for us to be on our best form requires time to go to the gym, to take the mental exercise needed to preserve our headspace, whether it be to go for a walk, meditate, do some yoga or just take a break. Often, eating healthily also takes more time, as does getting a decent night sleep.

Another big competing priority is sensory pleasure and indulgence. Whilst I am the first to point out that in general maximising your form will maximise your experience of life, there are times when each of us values indulging in things that give us pleasure more highly than being on our best form. Nobody needs to be on good form 100% of the time, and almost everybody gets pleasure from some things which will have some negative impact on their form – whether it be a late night out with friends, a heavy meal, a delicious treat or an extra glass of wine.

Each of us will have a very long list of other priorities that compete with maximising our form other than just time and pleasure. These range from saving money, to fitting in socially or at work, to ethical values and everything in between. The first step to being able to make your form a priority, is to understand the context and situations of the things it is competing with.


As humans, there are many and varied reasons as to why we aren’t naturally very good at optimising our form. All of which make it completely acceptable that we haven’t got it 100% right so far, but none of which mean that, given the insight, it is acceptable to not make optimising form one of the top priorities in our lives.

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