I am working on a Big Project. A Big Project that matters.
I have a timeline and well-thought plan. I also know that productivity is much more than a smart strategy or task list. So, to support my Big Project, I refreshed my personal list of productive habits – daily routines like exercise, going to bed on time, drinking water, meditating – that keep me at my best. For an extra measure of geeky motivation and fun, I even track these habits on Habit List I am all in on all fronts.
With a plan and good habits in my court, I rally each day and tick off tasks on my Big Project. I am making progress and feelin' good.
And then, one day: boom. It falls apart.
Something happens to disrupt my steady momentum. I lose time and lose heart. I am off my game.
We are not talking about a life catastrophe. We are talking about new carpet.
I’ve wanted to get new carpet in my home for almost a year. The reason it hasn’t happened is I have to pack up everything to do it. And who has time for that?
I’ve also wanted to visit my family in South Carolina. Great idea: why not visit my family for a few days and, while I’m gone, the new carpet can get installed? Perfect.
What I didn’t take into account was that it would take me two full days to pack up my place and that I would be exhausted after packing, driving 8 hours, spending two days with family, driving 8 more hours, staying up too late watching political conventions, and then unpacking my entire home.
Once I got back home, it took me more than a week to get anywhere near my Big Project. I was disconnected from my goals, disoriented, and discouraged. And that great routine of good habits? Well, let’s just say that my Habit List had numbers in red like -15 on each habit to remind me how many days I had let slip by.
Stuff happens. And not just big stuff. Little stuff happens all the time. Interruptions, inconveniences, bad moods, a change of plans. String enough days of this stuff together, and your streak of small wins hits a wall.
To accomplish your Big Project, to play your best game each day, you must build the “reset” muscle, the ability to refocus your efforts.
In my situation, the easy reset was to get the rest I needed and restart my habits.
The hard reset – and the part that makes the critical difference – was to reset my thoughts, my mindset. I saw that I had let my mind get into the reinforcing rut of frustration, worry that I won't meet my timeline, and guilt. These thoughts (that I wasn’t even aware of) frittered away my focus, clarity, and motivation. A disempowering mindset undermines the capacity for skillful action.
Thoughts have the power to make you soar or sink.
It makes me think of tennis. I love watching tennis and have a special love for the athletic genius of players like Roger Federer and my major, all-time favorite, Rafa Nadal.
What never ceases to blow my mind about players like these guys are all those moments when they are down 3+ match points and fight back from an all-or-nothing deficit to eventually win the match.
Each point – and every stroke in each point – has everything on the line. They fight back in a long rally of jaw-dropping shots and saves - for one point – one point! – just to stay in the game - and match. And then, have to do it again. And again.
One misstep and it’s over – all that work of the tournament, every hard won point, every phenomenal stroke, gone. The pressure of those moments…Blows. My. Mind. What blows my mind even more is how these athletes rise to meet these high-stakes situations. How do they do it? How do they deliver the goods when the unexpected happens, when their opponent gets them off their game, when they get behind?
Yes, they have conditioned their bodies to perform incredible feats of athleticism instinctively. That’s a given.
But what makes these athletes extraordinary is that they have trained their minds rigorously. They train themselves mentally to move on. They don’t get stuck. They cordon off thoughts of what just happened or what could happen. They don't weave a story out of setbacks. Rather, they use their minds to keep pace with their pursuit. They train their minds to stay in this moment where their power is. And that makes all the difference.
This is why we love the Olympics. It’s not just the physical prowess on display, it’s the mental strength these athletes have cultivated, day in and day out.
It’s true, not every moment of life is a Wimbledon final or an Olympic competition. But, how do you get to Wimbledon? By how you practice and play every day. You have your own Wimbledon. I have mine. We each have our own Big Game. What matters to us is on the line.
How do you achieve your goals or make progress on your Big Project? By how you practice and play each day. This is the dedicated, daily work of becoming masterful at your game.
It starts with the everyday drill of self-awareness. When you are stuck or feeling bad, what are you thinking? Can you give yourself a better thought? Or a pep talk? Can you notice and drop the rumination? Can you inspire yourself? Can you cheer yourself on like Rafa does with his fierce, fist-pumping “Vamos!” Let’s go!
If you can’t find a way to get back into your game, then give yourself permission to do something else. Need a walk? A glass of water? Some rest? A different environment? By giving yourself a little permission to move in another direction for a moment, you can redirect and find your footing again and get back into your game. Resistance and regret only delay the reset.
Drills to build your "reset" muscle:
1. Eliminate distraction.
What grabs your attention and steals your focus? A mess in the kitchen, or on your desk? Cable news? Social media? Email? Then, clean it up or turn it off.
2. Notice and choose your thoughts.
What are you thinking? Is it distracting, depressing, debilitating, or disempowering? For example, is your frustration about not making progress on your Big Project leading to feelings of anxiety or stress or paralysis?
Replace negative thoughts with something that will fuel your focus. If you often struggle with disabling thoughts, create a list of go-to statements to reset your mind. You might have to do this again and again, but your mind will catch on eventually. This is why affirmations can help. They give the mind something useful and true to hold onto.
If there are some pesky, persistent thoughts that just won't let go, then writing them down can be a way to discharge them.
3. Get moving.
The body and mind are intimately connected. Habitual thoughts are imprinted in the muscles. Next time you have a negative thought, notice your body. You will probably find a place of tension that correlates with the thought. Sometimes the easiest way to change your mind(set) is to change your body. Look for tension in the body and release it. Open up your posture. Another remedy is exercise. It can literally help you “move through” thoughts. Not only that, it soaks your brain in endorphins, the happy hormone.
Hello, it doesn’t get any more basic than that! Pay attention to your breathing. Is it constricted? Short? Shallow? Are you holding your breath? A few deep breaths with focus can return your mind to the present (where your power is).
5. Remember your goal and your purpose.
If the unexpected has taken you off course, when it's time to get back into the Big Project, review your goal and why it is matters - to you. Inspire yourself. Remind yourself.
6. See It.
What do athletes like Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, do before a race? They see it. In an interview for the New York Times in 2009, Michael describes how in the ready room before a race, he swims the race in his mind. And not just the perfect race. He visualizes from worst-case to best-case scenario. He sees himself overcoming possible challenges. He is creating mental models so that he is ready for anything. That way, when something happens (and things do happen), he has trained himself mentally to adopt the appropriate response, rather than "tunneling" onto the first impulse and wasting precious energy in panic and indecision.
See yourself accomplishing your goal. Actually envision it. What is happening? How do you feel? Now, what are all the possible things that could happen? See yourself rising to the challenge. See it in living color. Swim your race in your mind.
7. Get back to your game plan.
The assumption here is that you have a game plan. This is the value of a game plan: you can reset faster. You don't have to re-remember what you were up to and what you need to do.
8. Do something. Anything.
Do one simple action related to your Big Project. This will help you get back into your game. You may fumble around a bit, but keep going. You will find your footing and will be back in the game in no time.