Life

How to get psyched up | Daniel McGinn

Five easy steps to help get ready for anything

There’s no arguing with the phrase ‘practice makes perfect’. But sooner or later, you run out of rehearsal time. Whether your performance takes place in a courtroom or boardroom, and whether it involves a presentation, sales pitch or job interview, you have just a few moments to collect your thoughts and prepare your mind.

There’s a growing body of research on how best to spend those crucial moments –research I outline in my new book. This body of knowledge provides quick-hit tactics and life hacks in the final moments before a high-stakes performance. Here are five of them…

Get excited, not nervous. It’s natural for people to tell you “don’t be nervous” before a make-or-break event. Trouble is, that’s hard to actually do. According to research by Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks, the smarter tactic is to focus on feeling excited – a more positive emotion that’s similar to nervousness but more achievable than trying to feel calm.

Recall your greatest hits. Sports psychologists sometimes create ‘highlight’ videos of athletes’ best performances, which they can watch before games. The purpose: to remind them of how skilled they are, increasing their confidence to put them in the right mindset to perform well again.

Practise a ritual. Whether it’s crossing your fingers, repeating a mantra or using a lucky pen for an import-ant exam, dozens of studies have shown that people who have a consistent pre-performance routine tend to perform better, whether they’re playing rugby or darts. So rather than look askance at the hocus-pocus of superstition and ritual, embrace it. If you believe some special routine will help you do better, it probably will.

Listen to a psych-up song. In studies,
listening to a motiv-ational song can help people run faster or feel more energised. Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University, London, is the world’s foremost researcher on how music can motivate, and his work suggests that intrinsic musicality (including tempo and rhythm) combine with your emotional connection or assoc-iation (say, it played at your wedding) to make a song motiv-ational. Keep it on your phone and play it to get motivated.

Talk to your doctor. The dry mouth, shallow breathing and sweating that can afflict nervous public speakers is caused by the surge of adrenalin that creates a fight-or-flight response. One solution is to ask your doctor about beta blockers, a class of drugs that reduces the body’s response to adrenalin. Many of my friends are introverted writers who get nervous while on book tours, and several have found this class of drugs
to be a big help. “This medicine helps immeasurably, and I’ve become an evangelist for it,” says one. “It’s improved my career by making me a more confident public speaker.”

Daniel McGinn is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review and the author of Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed (Portfolio, £14.99), which is out now

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