When I think of performance, I usually envision a world-class athlete. Laser-sharp focus, iron-clad determination and mad skills.
The world of sports is incredible to draw from to gain an unfair advantage in your career or personal projects. Sports science is specifically designed to help people perform better and overcome their limitations. Imagine the effect it can have on your mindset and work ethic if you put these concepts to work.
So here are 6 concepts you can borrow from athletes that will help you think more strategically about your work.
Periodization refers to the progressive cycling of various aspects of a training program during a specific period.
If you’re a bodybuilder, you may choose to alternate the lifts you focus on in a specific time frame. For example, for 3 months you can work on your deadlift as a priority, and then the next 3 months you work on your squat.
This doesn’t mean that during the months when deadlifting is the primary focus you don’t do any squats. It just means that they take a secondary place in your programming, to allow you to progress in the other lift.
So how can we apply this concept to the things we’re working on?
If you’re learning a new skill, or developing a project, it may be a smart idea to cycle through the aspects and tasks that need to be done. Give them their time to shine.
Let’s say you’re learning photography. Out of all the aspects of that craft that need to be mastered, choose only 1 to give all your attention to. This won’t mean that you don’t experiment with other variables, but your focus will be on improving that one thing.
If you’re trying to do everything at once, you may be overwhelmed and realize that you’re not making as much progress as you wished. That’s because everything is given equal time and attention, and no particular aspect has time to be finessed.
In sport, flexibility refers to the ability of a joint to go through a full range of motion.
We can stretch (pun intended) this concept even more broadly. Flexibility is also the ability to withstand challenges and to be malleable. A flexible body is supple and can bounce back from whatever shape it was stretched into.
It’s a good concept to employ for our mindset and routines. A flexible mindset means a frame of mind that’s not fixed, but which welcomes any new inputs and adapts to them.
As I argued in another article, a rigid mindset becomes stale. Any practice that has no “wiggle room” is doomed to fail. A morning routine is a good example for this. Many people set themselves up for failure because they don’t allow themselves to deviate from the initial plan at all.
Life is guaranteed to throw curve balls at you. So the sooner you learn to adapt and ride the wave of chaos and uncertainty, that is, to be more flexible, the sooner you’ll release your tight grip on life.
Sprints are not only used in sports, but they’re successfully employed in other domains, such as design.
What are sprints and how can we leverage them in our lives?
A Sprint entails short bursts of effort, usually no longer than a week (but it can depend on the goal), in which we pick a skill (or project), and aim to systematically get better at it, in a measurable fashion. After the sprint is over, we assess the progress we made.
To illustrate this with an example, let’s say you want to accelerate your skills in Adobe Illustrator. First, you’d specify the time frame that you’ll work within. This will give you a reference of how intense the period needs to be and how to split your time daily to ensure maximum efficiency. It’s important to strike a balance between:
– long enough to make progress
– short enough to be motivated and not get lost in details
After choosing a time period, you’ll specify exactly what the goal is. Maybe your focus is logo design, or packaging design.
Next, you can pick the variables that you’ll assess your progress against. These can include techniques used, number of designs, variety of end products, creativity, etc.
When the sprint period is over, it’s time to assess your progress based on the criteria you set. This is the time when you analyze your strengths and weaknesses. Also, you may decide that it’s time to start another sprint, to address one of the area you thought needs more dedication.
Why is thinking in sprints beneficial?
– They’re concrete, definitive periods of time
– They optimize for for focus – you can’t slack, you have to keep going
– They are similar to a deliberate practice
– They have a clear goal
– You can repeat them as long as you need
Everyone is familiar with what a marathon is. I think of it as the quintessential activity associated with endurance.
Unlike sprints, marathons are longer periods of sustained effort, but not as intense, because otherwise you’d burn out.
A marathon can be a good framework to keep in mind when working on any long term goal, such as building an audience, developing an app or launching a successful product. These are all endeavors that require patience and dedication.
Our culture of instant gratification and chasing shiny objects would be better off by putting things into perspective and thinking about long term goals.
Valuable things take time to develop, grow and adapt. So, if you’re chasing a big goal, expect it to be a marathon.
Specificity drives Adaptation
Put simply, if you want to get better at something, you better practice that exact thing. I know it sounds stupid-simple and perhaps something that Captain Obvious would shout, but people still find ways to over-complicate this.
Due to perfectionism, procrastination and fear of failure, we beat around the bush avoiding as much as possible the activity in itself, and only deal with adjacent matters.
Ask any writer who’s trying to get better at his craft and see if the bulk of his time is spent actually writing. The majority of them (especially beginners), would be caught up in guides, courses and articles on how to get viral and master the art of headlines.
And then when “research” is finished, they may spend a ridiculous amount of time tweaking their work flow, productivity system or obsessing over writing tools.
Do I have the right spell checker?
Is my article template perfect?
Have I batched my content for the next week?
All these preparations have their place. The issue arises when they distract the person from the actual thing that will move the needle: writing.
Next time, when you’re working on a skill you want to get better at, ask yourself if you’re following the principle of Specificity. Demands drive change. Just as your body won’t become more athletic by sitting on your couch, your brain won’t acquire any new skills without specific need.
Our brains are effective. They don’t want to do any unnecessary work. If you’re not signalling to your brain that it’s time to change, then things will stagnate. But if we’re consistently showing our brains that we’re trying to get better at a skill (writing, dancing, playing the violin), it will recognize the pressure to adapt at whatever we’re struggling with. And so we’ll be on our way to becoming better.
The concept of rest isn’t clear cut, because it can refer to a wide range of things. But that’s good, because in life, as in sport, we need different types of rest, based on length and purpose.
In sport, rest can be categorized broadly into rest in-session vs rest between sessions. In-session rest refers to the time between sets or rounds. Rest between sessions refers to the days we spend recovering from training.
Just like athletes aren’t expected to perform at the same level day after day, we shouldn’t be surprised when our cognitive abilities decline after too much work. As Cal Newport argued in his book Deep Work, periods of high intensity focus are required to produce quality work, but when these “mental sessions” are done, you should take your rest seriously.
Stop engaging with the material you worked on. Close that presentation. Shut down your laptop. Put away the papers.
Rest doesn’t only imply to sleep, although that’s a core pillar of health and I hope you don’t need me to tell you that.
Taking a walk, playing a game, spending time with your family, all classify as high quality rest activities. It’s in these moments that our brains get to synthesize the information we’ve thrown at them and can come up with insights and new solutions. But they need us to back off for a while. Effort isn’t always required when looking for a breakthrough. Instead, quietly letting your brain work out the details in the background can reap incredible benefits.
So treat your rest like a precious time that is invaluable, because it is.
I firmly believe that applying the right sport concepts for the right project can open up a new way of thinking that will get you through the difficult parts, because it will provide the proper frame of mind.