We all try to pack as much into our days as we can. Between work, family, and personal commitments, our schedules fill up quickly. Many people have become so skilled at the art of multitasking that exhaustion sets in an unwanted side effect of the busyness of our lives. Whether it's the 24/7 work cycle, omnipresent technology, or the work-family balancing act, from time to time we can feel like we’re just not functioning in top form. So when important events and commitments pop up – like a job interview, business presentation, or coordinating your child’s birthday party – rising to the occasion can feel overwhelming.
Readying your brain, and steadying your nerves are all important parts of 'show time' itself.
While it’s tempting to reach for second (or sixth?) cup of coffee or a sugary snack to get a quick boost before an important event, there are much healthier and more effective ways to restore energy and ready oneself for the responsibilities that lie ahead. Researchers have made a lot of progress in recent years, unraveling how the body and brain perform their best, and what we can do to keep them in top form.
If you’re preparing for an important event, whether mental or physical, major or minor, there are steps you can take to boost your performance. It may be helpful to think about improving performance in two parts. The first is how you prepare for the occasion over the preceding days, weeks, or months: this includes practicing your moves, honing your skills, and developing your inner drive and motivation. The second part of performance is how you gear up – or settle down – for the event itself: focusing on your task, readying your brain, and steadying your nerves are all important parts of "show time" itself.
One French study found that the participants’ autonomic nervous systems were activated in similar ways during mental volleyball practice and in actual practice. This suggests that mental practice helps train the nervous system and lay down the brain networks that will be used during the real thing. So if you’re not able to engage in an actual practice right now, try a little "warm up" in your head – you might be surprised to find just how much it hones your skills.
Whether you’re working on your backhand, your short game in golf, or a monologue, changing the way you practice will help prepare the brain for what comes at it during game time.
Keep your performance up by keeping your heart in it: find ways to reconnect with your goals and challenge yourself when doing what you have to do and what you choose to do.
Outside rewards or praise (external or extrinsic motivation) can improve performance in the short-term. It is why they pay for picking berries by the bucket and give gold stars for memorizing spelling words. But when a car salesperson's motivation flags because their commission-based salary has suffered from lack of sales, or a marathon runner starts thinking that getting up at dawn five days a week is nuts, they had better find an inner reason to power them through for the long-term. Most studies of motivation find that people do their best, not when offered incentives, but when they feel personally challenged to do a good job.
The same goes for personal endeavors. If you run every day for exercise as an adult simply because you ran track in high school, but you’re just not connected to it in the same way, try taking up another sport. You may discover that hang gliding or tango lessons give you much more pleasure than running and provide ways to stay in shape that are just as good. Keep your performance up by keeping your heart in it: find ways to reconnect with your goals and challenge yourself when doing what you have to do and what you choose to do.
Sleep is critical for restoring brain function, and when the brain is sleep-deprived, it shows the next day. One University of Austin study found that sleep-deprived people have trouble making the quick, gut-level decisions that rely on rapid processing of external information. This is important not only for people who regularly make life-and-death decisions (like policemen and EMTs), but also for regular folk who rely on making speedy judgment calls. Sleep also influences our physical responses more than you might think.
Basketball players significantly improved in speed and accuracy after increasing the amount of time they slept. So, whether you want to improve mental or physical dexterity, getting a good night’s sleep is key. For tips on how to increase your sleep, click here.
While this "fight or flight" response is beneficial when we’re running from a bear, it’s not too helpful when we’re giving a PowerPoint presentation to the department. That’s where breathing techniques can come in handy. They, and other relaxation techniques, calm the nervous system and reduce the stress response, which allows the body (and brain) to function more effectively. Being calm can help you focus and attend better to the task at hand, rather than feeling distracted by your stress. Taking slow, deep breaths, meditating, or engaging in another type of relaxation for just a few minutes before a big performance (or just at random times throughout the day) can help you marshal your abilities and be on cue in a manner that is calm and collected, rather than dazed and frazzled.
While the "fight or flight" response is beneficial when we’re running from a bear, it’s not too helpful when we’re giving a PowerPoint presentation to the department.
The lucky charm phenomenon is not, of course, due to any magical powers in the objects themselves. It occurs because our behavior changes simply because we believe in the phenomenon — and thus in ourselves. We become more confident in our own abilities to complete the task at hand. And just believing is half the battle.
Putting your anxieties down on paper seems to literally get them out of your head, so you can use that brain power for the event itself, rather than worrying about it. Give it a try before your next test, business presentation, or first date — it may just do the trick.
This phenomenon occurs is because humans (and other animals) have a visceral, heart-pumping reaction to the color red. Think stop signs, stoplights and fire engines. Red gets our attention and puts us on alert, so perhaps it is not surprising that the participants in the study performed better after seeing the color, however briefly and incidentally. It’s not completely clear how we can use this phenomenon to our advantage in our daily activities, but it may be worth wearing red in your next tennis match – or to your child’s birthday party – to give yourself a little extra charge.
Performance, whether mental or physical, has everything to do with mindset. It is also a blend of preparedness, relaxation and energized, focused attention.
To do your best you need to prepare through practice, gaining experience, increasing your knowledge, and increasingly demanding challenges. Staying motivated to rehearse through inevitable setbacks and disappointments means keeping why you care about what you do in mind.
Then, when it comes time to demonstrate your talent, having some strategies for keeping yourself calm can make a big difference because nerves may derail your focus and leave you feeling uncertain just when you need to be on top of your game. (Just think, even seasoned pros like Barbra Streisand can experience crippling stage fright.) Luckily, there are some very effective breathing and relaxation techniques to calm the nervous system before performance, as well as meditation or a simple walk around the block, and writing down your worries to dispel them. Carrying a lucky charm can also help calm the nerves and give a little extra confidence in one’s own abilities.
As researchers understand more and more about how the brain stores information and later retrieves it during performance, we will have even more tools at our disposal to enhance our success. In the meantime, learn how you work your best: explore which practice routines help the most and what "pre-game" relaxation (or superstition) techniques seem to do the trick for you. It may take some experimentation, but with the right combination of practice, luck, breath, – and maybe a red scarf? – you’ll be well on your way to a stellar performance.