Design a Routine for Exceptional Thinking


imageDo you have a routine for getting into your best mindset? 

Exceptional thinking is when you are in the moment.  You are fully focused on the task at hand.  You are not practicing. 

You are performing.

If you have a routine, then you can consistently shift gears to get into your best mindset.  In Overachievement: The New Science of Working Less to Accomplish More, John Eliot, Ph.D. writes about using routines to consistently think your best when you need it most. 

Work Backwards from the End in Mind

The first step is to identify what it feels like when you’re in your best mindset.

I think the key here is knowing what you’re thinking, feeling and doing when you’re at your best.  For example, what sorts of questions are you asking yourself?  What sorts of questions are you not asking yourself?  Where’s your focus?  How are you breathing?  How’s your posture?  All of these clues to your best thinking.

Eliot writes:

“So how do you come up with a routine that works?  I often advise clients to start backward.  Where do they want their routines to get them?  Where do they want their minds to be? 

Most clients simply want to return to the feeling they’ve had in the past of total control of their skills, being absorbed in the moment, for the sheer pleasure of it. 

Others are looking for specific aspects of top performance – confidence, perhaps, or a loose and rhythmic feeling, or feeding off pressure. 

Identifying the psychological product of a solid routine is a critical assignment.  Once my clients accept that, the rest usually falls right into place. 

As they experiment with a number of stretches, movements, and symbolic cues, the ones that foster great thinking almost identify themselves.  How?  Because these are the moves that work – that help change their thinking under pressure.”

Learn from Your Best Performances

Your best performances are your models to learn from.  Draw from your own experience.

I thought this was a great example.  The surprise for me was that my best thinking isn’t usually during group brainstorming, but the brainstorming feeds into my best thinking.  The brainstorming helps me look at a problem from multiple angles, but it’s when I’m by myself that I put the pieces of the puzzles together.

Eliot writes:

“I advise clients to turn their memories back to experiences of being on top of their game and identify the things they may have done before their performances that made them so psychologically exceptional. 

Imagine you’re a marketing manager for a major pharmaceutical company who came up with an extremely successful campaign for getting a new product to the market. 

It all took place a few months ago, and here’s how it happened: You had been brainstorming all morning all your best people sitting in the conference room for hours racking their brains but getting nowhere.  You broke for lunch. 

Exhausted and starving but with all your notes in your hand, afraid to misplace them, you pinned them up on the bulletin board in your office and headed out to get a sandwich, which you brought back to the office.  You turned on the radio, sat down, and enjoyed that sandwich.  Listening to some tunes, you stared at the bulletin board on which the notes from the morning’s meeting were hanging. 

As you chewed rhythmically you noticed something – and then it hit you.  The new campaign fell into place.”

Design Your Routine Based on Your Best Performances

Base your routine on the elements that help you shift to your best thinking.

For me, I find that my best thinking comes from asking better questions and then letting my mind wander a bit, and then coarse-correcting with a new set of questions.  It’s a combination of exploration and guided focus.

Eliot writes:

“Here’s how you might design a routine from that experience that would help bring out the clever marketer in you the next time around:  The key to your creativity would be finding a way to get loose after a brainstorming session – pinning up your notes and leaving the office (signaling your brain to stop training), listening to music (putting you in an artistic mindset), and directing a Zen-like gaze at the wall (letting your brain to stop training), listening to music (putting you in an artistic mindset), and directing a Zen-like gaze at the wall (let your brain get absorbed in your target and just trusting it). … You therefore have to design a routine that builds in breaks from the grind of brainstorming, that allows you distractions so your creativity can go to work on what it’s learned in those meetings and be sparked again when you just trust your notes.”

Set Boundaries for Time

Give yourself a timebox to work in.  You’ll train your brain to get in gear with more efficiency over time.

I think this is particularly important.  If you give yourself as much time as it takes, you won’t teach yourself to get more efficient.  Instead, decide on appropriate timeboxes and teach yourself to make the most of the time you’ve got.  The key here is to use the pressure for focus and motivation, not to watch the clock or focus on the pressure itself.  When you can be at your best in the moment, one pitch at a time, consistently and when it matters most, you’ve mastered this skill.

Eliot writes:

“Many of my clients who are business people are amazed by how much they get done by having a routine that simply gives them a way of transitioning into performance mode.  They used to start one project and stick with it until they got results, ignoring their other projects. 

Work has a way of filling the available hours. 

Give yourself a weekend to finish that report (or clean out the garage), and it will take the entire weekend.  But if your routine sets a rhythm for your work day, you will finish things within that preordained time.  If a needed solution doesn’t come to you, put it aside for a while.  But when you return to that project, go through your routine again.”

Use Routines to Transition from Preparing to Performing

You routine should not be a chore,  It should be a welcome part of transitioning from practicing to performing.

This is where the rubber meets the road.  What good is it if you spend all your time training or practicing, but you can never switch to performing.  I think this is true whether you’re in sports, performing arts, writing, business, you name it.

Eliot writes:

“To maximize your potential in whatever you might do for a living, you need to get into that mental state in which your focus is most intense, in which you trust your abilities, experience, and the work you’ve already done. 

The purpose of any routine is to help you make that all-important transition between preparing to perform and actually performing.  Also, your routine should never be a chore.  The best performers enjoy everything about what they are doing, including their routines.”

Reflect on How You Get Your Groove On

Where does your mind go when you’re at your best?  That’s what you have to identify and be able to do at will.

Eliot writes:

“No matter your profession, you can look back to those moments when everything seemed to come together at once. 

If you’re a surgeon, what did you do between pre-op and surgery before your best cases that got you so immediately into the groove?  When you’re scrubbing up, putting on surgical gloves, checking the arrangements of the scalpels, or setting your eyes on the marks the nurse has made for the incision, where does your mind go?  Equally important, what events or actions prior to an operation tend to break your concentration?”

Analyze What Worked in the Past

Success leaves clues.  The key is to identify the specifics about the scenario or context where you perform your best.

Personally, what I’ve found to be the most effective is asking myself a quick series of questions.  For example, “how can I make the most of this situation?” … or “what’s the best move I can make right now?”  If I get stuck in my head, then I simply remember a time when I felt in the zone, and I breathe that way, walk that way, and talk that way until I’m there.  Fake it, until you make it.

Eliot writes:

“What helps you get into the groove with one client or with one performance might not necessarily work with another. 

But analyzing what worked for you in the past is a good place to start.

Once you get in the habit of using a routine that seems to work for most situations, you can adapt it for special cases.”

Create a Pre-performance Routine

Create a pre-performance routine that creates consistent and dependable thinking.

This is something I’m working on for more scenarios.  I figured that I have enough recurring scenarios in my life that I should be able to get in gear more reliably versus luck into success.  I’m working on routines for my writing, as well as presenting, and for when I’m doing deep research.

Eliot writes:

“A pre-performance routine is “routine” only in the sense that it creates consistent, dependable thinking.  When your product is strong and your client is needy, all it might take is sitting down and dialing the number.  The following day it might take you thirty minutes before you’re ready to make that call.  Whatever gets you mentally ready for performing, no matter how dumb it might sound or look, can constitute a routine.”

A Routine is Not Superstition

Keep your routines and superstition separate.  Don’t depend on your lucky charms to make your best moves.

This is a really good point.  I found myself externalizing some of my best performances in meetings.  I was linking my success to my favorite shirts.  When I realized this, I switched my attention to the specifics that helped me perform better.  This included how I was breathing, how I projected my voice, and which questions I focused on, as well as feeling confident, but not arrogant.  Instead of crutches, I have routines.

Eliot writes:

“Keep in mind: A routine is not a superstition.  Confusing the two is a common mistake – the salesman who has a pair of lucky boxer shorts or the executive who always eats two eggs sunny-side up before a big presentation.  The critical difference is that superstitions are about superstitions; routines are about exceptional thinking.  Yes, superstitions can affect your mindset … But if it’s a superstition, that day when you forget your lucky tie at the gym or the dog chews it up, you’ll fall apart:  You’ll stop thinking about your presentation and start thinking about how disheveled you look; you’ll become filled with doubt and worry.”

Key Take Aways

Here are my key take aways:

  • Create an exceptional thinking routine.  Create a preperformance routine that creates consistent and dependable thinking
  • Work backwards from the end in mind.  Know what it’s like when you’re at your best.
  • Model from your best experiences.  Success leaves clues.  Turn them into a routine.
  • Set time boundaries.  Don’t let yourself take as long as it takes.  Work has a way of filling the available hours. Set a timebox and improve your routine until you can shift gears effectively within your time boundaries.
  • Don’t generalize your routine.  Know the specific actions, thoughts and feelings that worked in the past so that you can adapt your routines as you need to for other scenarios.
  • Don’t confuse your routines with superstitions.  Internalize your exceptional thinking versus depend on an external artifact.

If you want to perform better, design a routine to support your exceptional thinking.

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      1. “Set time boundaries. Don’t let yourself take as long as it takes.” I’m familiar with this idea, but I have to say, I usually let things take as long as they take. While after a while I’m not in peak performance anymore, being able to cross a task of my list is enough of a motivator for me to keep going.

        Of course, it depends on how complex the task is.

      2. Your tip on “A Routine is Not Superstition” caught my eye. How true!! We should not be depending on a whimsical thing or object and hope for good luck. We attract our own luck by focusing on our inner Selves!

      3. HI J.D. – This part really resonated with me, “Work has a way of filling the available hours. Give yourself a weekend to finish that report (or clean out the garage), and it will take the entire weekend.”. I’ve done that many times. Now I’m realizing I need to set better time limits.

      4. @Vered – I’m a fan of getting the ball out of my court as quickly as possible, so I know how that goes. I hate shelving work and picking up where I left off. One thing I do differently than the past is I make more trips to the buffet. Rather than overflow my plate, I take smaller plates I can finish. Obviously, that’s a metaphor, but I’ve found it helpful for managing tasks on my plate.

        @Evelyn – My friend’s Dad would always say luck is when skill and opportunity come together. You’re right, we’re the key to our own luck.

        @Barbara – Time limits really are the key, but the secret is this … rather than just thinking of the time limit as a time to stop, use it as a way to think about what to bite off. For example, if you have an hour, ask yourself what’s the most useful thing you could accomplish wthin that hour. It gradually helps you learn to bite off what you can chew, and to savor the moments.

      5. […] Develop a routine for exceptional thinking.  Create a preperformance routine that creates consistent and dependable thinking.  Work backwards from the end in mind.  Know what it’s like when you’re at your best.  Model from your best experiences.  Success leaves clues.  Turn them into a routine.Set time boundaries.  Don’t let yourself take as long as it takes.  Work has a way of filling the available hours. Set a timebox and improve your routine until you can shift gears effectively within your time boundaries.  See Design a Routine for Exceptional Thinking. […]

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