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Dr. Jennifer B. Bernstein

(516) 362-1929

What’s Your Zone for Peak Academic Performance?

Last September, I plunged into a two-month research project on an entirely new field of study.

As many of you know, I’m a college English professor.

What you might not know is that I specialize in the relationship between epistemology (the study of the nature of knowledge) and aesthetics (the conditions of “sensuous apprehension”) in early American literature, philosophy, and religion.

I’m especially fascinated with Jonathan Edwards’ conception of the “sense of the heart,” which Perry Miller describes as the “living pulsating state in which a word is vividly, fully identified with its sensation.”

When you experience the “sense of the heart,” you do more than just intellectually understand the truth or excellence of the word you’re reading or the concept you’re studying.  You’re filled with a palpable sense of its “beauty, amiableness, or sweetness. . .; so that the heart is sensible of pleasure and delight in [its] presence.”

However, until very recently I had a very rudimentary understanding of the actual anatomy of the heart.

That all changed when our four-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect.

All of a sudden, I was studying the basic structure of the heart, atrial septal defects, and mitral valve clefts; researching the success rates of pediatric cardiac surgeons and hospitals; setting up consultations with surgeons and their teams; visiting the hospitals; and having long late-night conversations with my husband to absorb all the details and make the best possible decision.

We wound up selecting Dr. Emile Bacha (Chief of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center), and our daughter had her open heart surgery a few weeks ago. Now she’s back to her bubbly, energetic self.

What does any of this have to do with finding your zone for peak academic performance?

Well, after leaving the hospital, I wanted to learn more about Dr. Bacha—something beyond all the technical details.

So I did what most of us do.

I Googled him and came across a brief interview in which he describes what he considers the ideal intellectual and emotional zone for surgeons, a state in which you can maintain “complete focus, concentration, and equanimity so that nothing distracts you from the task at hand.”

I want you to read “In the Zone: A Day in the Life of a Pediatric Cardiac Surgeon” and watch the video.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a student or a parent. Even your academic and professional interests are not that important.

We all need to discover, clarify, and work in our own zones for peak performance.

The point of learning about other people’s descriptions of their zones isn’t to copy them.

It’s to use them as sources that inspire use to engage in the contemplation and experimentation which lead us into uncovering what we need in order to perform at the highest, most effective level.

There’s no one-size-fits-all performance-enhancing formula that everyone can follow.

We all have our own rhythms and quirks, and we need to respect our complexities rather than trying to force ourselves into some overly simplistic cookie-cutter blueprint for success.

So what I want to offer you this week are a few steps you can take to begin becoming aware of what it takes for you to perform at your optimal level.

Once you recognize what is (and is not) working for you, you can start tweaking and experimenting with your schedule.


1.  Read “In the Zone: A Day in the Life of a Pediatric Cardiac Surgeon,” watch the video, and think about your responses to the questions listed below.

  • What are the key elements of the zone he believes successful surgeons need to be in when they’re in the operating room?
  • Would any elements of these zones work well for you?  Why?  Why not?

2.  Observe your study habits over the course of the week.

  • When do you do your best work in each of your subjects?  What is it about these times that make them ideal for you? (It’s possible that you might need to be in one zone for studying biology and another for writing essays for English class.)
  • What are bad times for you to be studying certain subjects?  Why aren’t these good times for you to be focusing on this type of material?
  • What are the ideal environments for doing your best academic work?  What is it about these places that help you concentrate on the tasks at hand?
  • How long is each of your study sessions?  Would you do better with shorter or longer study periods?  Why?  Why not?
  • Do you find yourself procrastinating when it comes to certain types of schoolwork? If so, what is it that causes you to put off doing this work?

Stay tuned.

In upcoming weeks, I’ll be showing you how you can tweak and experiment with your studying based on your initial observations, taking you behind the scenes to reveal my own ideal zone for writing, connecting these zone issues back to introversion and extroversion, and introducing you to some tools that can help you track your success.



Blog post image used: ©Kodo34/