If you think about the biggest differences between a high-performing and low-performing day, it's likely that it wasn't physical circumstances that caused the delta, but rather how you responded to them in your own head. Here are five mental skills that will help you remove mindset roadblocks so that you can be at your best more often.
1) Embracing “Unfocusing”
We live in a world beset by distractions. Dings and beeps emanate around the clock from the devices on our desks, on our wrists, and in our pockets, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between what’s important and what’s superfluous, and then concentrate on the former while ignoring the latter. Or if you’re a pretty dialed-in person who can block out all these digital distractions, you might get to the end of each day feeling cognitively depleted because you’ve spent all your mental energy on the tasks in front of you.
In his highly original book Tinker Dabble Doodle Try, Harvard-trained psychiatrist Srini Pillay states that maintaining uninterrupted focus all day is unrealistic. During an interview for The Art of Charm podcast, Pillay said, “Most people are living their days with focus fatigue…so the brain starts off in this really great optimal capacity, and then goes lower and lower and lower. However, if you go focus, unfocus, focus, unfocus, you’re replenishing your brain throughout the day so everything that you’re doing – whether it’s at 8 o’clock or 10 o’clock or after lunch – your brain is getting replenished and you're actually using more of your brain.”
In other words, don’t treat each day as one long slog, but approach it cognitively like you would an interval workout: go hard, rest, and then go hard again. To help build in blocks of deliberate unfocusing, Pillay recommends daydreaming during physical activities like gardening, walking, or even knitting. And if you want to retain more when talking with a client or attending a group meeting, Pillay suggests doodling, which he says increases retention by 29 percent.
2) Sorting Out Your Self-Talk
In his bestselling book The Champion’s Mind, sports psychologist Dr. Jim Afremow states that the most important words you’ll ever hear are the ones you say to yourself. A 2005 article published by the National Science Foundation revealed that the average person has between 12,000 and 60,000 distinct thoughts daily. Of these, 80 percent are negative and 95 percent are the same or similar to the day before. This reveals two things. First, that we often have a gloomy view of ourselves, other people, and the world around us. And second, that we can very easily get caught in a thinking trap where negative tapes get stuck on repeat in our heads.
If not remedied, such self-talk becomes self-limiting and adversely impacts how we think, act, and perform. It would be unrealistic to try and never have a negative thought again, but you can begin to modify your inner monologue so that you don’t pitch a tent in a self-defeating headspace. To do so, make a conscious effort to recognize when you chastise yourself with phrases like, “That was stupid of me” or “I’m such an idiot.” If you catch yourself saying such things (even if it’s just internally), Afremow recommends delivering an antidote by immediately stating the opposite. Then when you do something well, positively reinforce it by recognizing the win and telling yourself, “That’s just like me.” Over time, you’ll start to shift your thinking patterns more toward positivity and self-confidence.
3) Being Fully Present
Psychologist Michael Gervais recently wrote on Instagram, “Balance in life is not about spending more time doing more things, it’s about being present with what you’re doing. In the present moment is where all things high-performance take place. It’s where love happens. It’s where relationships and the fabric of relationships are strengthened. It’s where glimpses of wisdom and potential are revealed.” The problem is that it’s hard to be present if you’re fixated on regretting the past, fearing the future, or simply flitting from one task to the next and back again.
So how are you supposed to practice presentness? In a blog post to accompany his Finding Mastery podcast, Gervais wrote that, “Being present is a function of enhanced awareness. Awareness is a skill. Which means, just like any other skill, it can be trained and conditioned. To become more present, we can become more aware of the thoughts and sensations that pull us away from the present moment, so that we can quickly and accurately bring our attention back to ‘this moment.’”
The takeaway is finding those situations in which you tend to let your mind drift to other things, and then bringing it back to where you are, what you’re doing, and, just as importantly, to participating fully (not with one eye on your phone or smartwatch) in an experience with other people. In a conversation, this could mean actively listening rather than just waiting for your chance to speak, or if you’re taking a hike with your family, noticing and pointing out details like birds chirping or the wind blowing through the trees rather than being distracted by your phone.
4) Getting Gritty
It’s easy enough to do your best work when you’re feeling well rested, the sun is shining, and your relationships are stable. But what about when you wake up feeling exhausted to a cloudy sky and you have an argument with your child or significant other before even eating breakfast? It’s on such mornings that you need to dig deep and channel Teddy Roosevelt’s maxim: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
Much like the skill of mental toughness that it’s related to, grit is a concept that’s talked about a lot but rarely understood or put into practice. On her website, New York Times bestselling author Angela Duckworth offers a solid definition: “Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term goals. One way to think about grit is to consider what grit isn’t. Grit isn’t talent. Grit isn’t luck. Grit isn’t how intensely, for the moment, you want something. Instead, grit is about having what some researchers call an ‘ultimate concern’ –a goal you care about so much that it organizes and gives meaning to almost everything you do. And grit is holding steadfast to that goal. Even when you fall down. Even when you screw up. Even when progress toward that goal is halting or slow.”Wow! So when you’re feeling like the day has already beaten you before it’s really begun or you stumble over a series of setbacks, you need to get back in touch with what Simon Sinek calls your why. From there, ask yourself a series of questions to regain your motivation: What or who motivates you to try your hardest when circumstances are at their harshest? Where are you headed in pursuit of a big, ambitious goal? And what can you do right now to advance the ball toward it, even if you only gain a few yards from wherever the line of scrimmage is? Now go do that.