Focus Fridays: Reconnect with the routine

For many, Friday is the end of the work week and time to start daydreaming about the weekend. Thus, I am introducing a new weekly post that will feature tips for utilizing Fridays as a reminder to practice focus and maintaining (or improving) performance and productivity.

This week, the challenge is to reconnect with the routine. Routines serve a wonderful purpose: they allow us to perform automatically so we free up our brains to do other things (like daydream about the weekend…). However, there is also a reason the word routine is synonymous with tedious, mundane, and boring.

Today, see if you can bring a new focus and energy to something that has become tedious, mundane, and boring for you. There is a reason you are doing whatever it is over and over, so it must have some importance. Can you reconnect to why it is important? Can you discover (or rediscover) something about this act that you have never noticed before (or something you haven’t noticed for a long time)? Are you still doing this job the same way as when you started? Why? Can you do it better with all the practice and understanding you now have?


Eleven Rings

Eleven Rings documents Phil Jackson’s unprecedented number of NBA championships. From his days as a player, through coaching the Bulls and Lakers, Jackson’s unique style is informative for anyone in a leadership position.

Basing much of his approach in the tenets of Zen Buddhism, the book is a pragmatic introduction to many of the concepts discussed in this blog (e.g., focus).

Among many leadership gems, one I particularly enjoyed was, “As a leader your job is to do everything in your power to create the perfect conditions for success by benching your ego and inspiring your team to play the game the right way” (p. 334).

For anyone interested in adding aspects of Zen philosophy into their leadership or personal life, wanting to diversify their understanding of leadership, or simply intrigued by one of the most successful modern coaches, Eleven Rings is a worthwhile read.

See it – Feel it – Trust it

One of the simplest and most effective ideas I teach is called Cook’s Model of Concentration after the model’s creator, David Cook. Cook’s model is a strategy to prepare oneself either pre-performance or pre-skill execution.

The model utilizes a funnel analogy in which concentration starts broad and gradually narrows as the performance of the skill nears. At its widest point, the performer observes the situation and takes note of anything relevant to the task (e.g., opponent/defense, potential distractions, weather, etc.). Next, concentration begins to narrow as irrelevant aspects of the environment are ignored and the performer begins to prepare a strategy to meet the demands of the task. Once a strategy is developed, the performer visualizes executing the strategy and the task/skill, emphasizing the feel of the performance. Finally, at the narrowest point of the funnel just prior to and during skill execution, the performer enters the trusting mindset where they have committed to their strategy, seen and felt themselves performing the skill, and can now turn off their mind and trust their body to execute the task.

Although this may sound elaborate, Cook’s Model can be shortened to See it – Feel it – Trust it and is extremely effective at allowing performers to go through a pre-performance routine designed to grow their confidence and increase the likelihood of successful skill execution.

With practice, See it – Feel it – Trust it can be completed within the space of one or two centering breaths and can be applied to just about any performance situation. If you regularly practice See it – Feel it – Trust it, it will become automatic and have a positive impact on your confidence and your performance.

Top Dog

Top Dog by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explores the science behind competition, winning, and losing. I have had the pleasure of meeting Ashley at the last two American Psychological Association conventions, and can vouch for her eagerness and thoroughness in researching and sourcing for this book.

Top Dog addresses aspects of competition that are both puzzling and counterintuitive. In providing insight, they explain research that is both foundational and current.

For example, have you ever noticed that sometimes the presence of spectators provides you with a rush of energy that facilitates performance, and sometimes they feel you with dread and ruin performance? These differences can be explained by classic research in sport psychology. First, the understanding that when a skill is mastered we generally enjoy putting it on display for others. When in the learning stage, we generally find spectators make us nervous and are a distraction. Still, this does not explain everything as there are experts that do not perform well in front of audiences and novices who do.

The second understanding is that each person has their own zone in which they perform their best. The presence of spectators is energizing (which in itself could be perceived as excitement, anxiety, or both by a given person), and therefore helpful for people who prefer a higher level of energy when performing, and harmful to those that prefer a more relaxed state.

Full of useful information such as the above, Top Dog is definitely worth a read for any performer, coach, or leader interested in competing better.


Putting many of the principles of Thinking, Fast and Slow into action, Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein provides some excellent food for thought. The utility of the book is how the authors make pragmatic use of the advances made by Kahneman and other psychologists. Thaler and Sunstein deem any person in a position to influence (however subtly) the manner in which humans choose as “choice architects.” To illustrate this subtlety, consider that how much ice cream you buy at the supermarket is at least partially dependent on how good (or bad) you feel about the fruits and vegetable you bought (or didn’t) when you first walked into the grocery store. The produce is invariably and intentionally at the front of the store to take advantage of the understanding that if you feel good about buying produce you are then much more likely to think it is okay to buy ice cream – after all, you’ve earned it with all that healthy produce you are going to eat!

Thaler and Sunstein provide suggestions for how choice architecture could nudge people into better decision in situations where humans do not develop good decision making skills. As discussed here, our decision making abilities do not improve in the absence of regular/predictable environments, an opportunity to practice, and clear, rapid feedback. The authors identify financial decisions, health decisions, and social programs such as education, health insurance, and marriage as areas where we could benefit from nudges and better choice architecture.

Nudge provides many ideas for how our lives are influenced on a daily basis. The main takeaway for me is the necessity of understanding your values, beliefs, and purposeful direction of your life. Then, in situations where choices are difficult or you might feel yourself being pulled to make a choice that is not necessarily consistent with your values, take a moment to consider how choice architecture might be influencing you.

The Power of Habit

Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit identifies the ways that habits shape our lives – and performances – and also how they can be changed once we become aware of them. A habit is simply the result of a loop in which we are cued by a trigger, unconsciously activate a routine, and then receive a reward that satisfies a craving (again, usually this craving is outside of our awareness). Habits serve the function of saving processing effort in our brain, which means we are meant to be unaware of them. This is what makes changing a habit difficult. But, once we are able to bring a habit into awareness, Duhigg provides a four step process for changing a habit:

1) Identify the routine

2) Experiment with rewards

3) Isolate the cue

4) Have a plan

Duhigg also provides several examples of athletes and performers achieving greatness because they developed the right habits. Michael Phelps visualized success under adverse conditions, which allowed him to swim for gold despite his goggles filling with water. Tony Dungy took the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from a laughingstock to a Super Bowl winner (although he wasn’t coaching when they won) by changing habits so they could play faster by not (over) thinking.

As the author notes, the real power of habit is recognizing that your habits are your choices.

How are your habits impacting your performance?

What habits could you re-engineer to be more productive/effective?

Give and Take

Give and Take by Adam Grant offers a fascinating examination of how being a giver can result in being successful. In fact, giving can result in more success than those who take or those who seek to be matchers (i.e., reciprocal relationships where you give some and get some). Of course, givers can also end up as the least successful of these groups, and Grant spends a significant amount of time exploring what makes the difference between givers who are successful and those who are taken advantage of.

The book provides some scientific evidence for an earlier post about being focused on giving or getting. Among many applicable anecdotes, one of particular relevance to performance is the finding that teachers and coaches who are givers are much more likely to develop expertise in their students and athletes. This is because their caring, kind approach and patience help to make learning fun, which in turn allows their pupils to sustain the motivation necessary to achieve expertise.

Finally, evidence suggests that when givers are in a community, more members of that community tend to also give. Of course there are caveats, but in general givers are more likely to cause others to want to be generous rather than to take advantage of them. So, what can you give today?