How to Crush Your Day

Jan 05, 2018

By Danny Southwick

John Wooden was arguably the greatest coach in sports history. His teams won an NCAA record, seven national basketball championships in a row, and ten national championships in a twelve-year period. When people asked him how he was so successful, he often said it came down to his philosophy of success. For him, success wasn’t measured by wins and losses (although he certainly knew how to win!). No, for John Wooden, success was the “peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming."

I believe the same could be said of “high-performance.” What is high-performance? Is it money? Power? Fame? No, it’s none of those—although, many of the people who read these blogs have those things. I believe that high performance, at its essence, is doing the very best you can do. High performance is about leaving it all on the line, every single day, as you reach toward your potential. I think Wooden would’ve agreed with the day-by-day approach to high performance. He often said that we should “make each day our masterpiece.” This blog is about how to do that. I believe that maximizing (crushing!) your day comes down to three habits that each of us can follow.

Habit #1: Exercise every single morning.

Most people are familiar with the ways that exercise can benefit the body. Less of us, though, are familiar with the ways that exercise benefits our brain and optimizes us for the day. Let me list just a few:

  • Exercise boosts the amount of dopamine in your brain—which gives you a greater feeling of confidence and positivity.  
  • When you exercise, your brain produces more norepinephrine, which helps you to be more alert and learn faster.
  • Exercise increases the level of serotonin in your brain, which gives you a greater sense of wellbeing.
  • Exercise increase the amount of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) in your brain.  BDNF is what causes you to produce more brain cells.  As you produce more BDNF, your brain becomes more able to learn new skills and subjects.
  • Exercise optimizes the amount of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in your brain.  GABA makes your brain more resilient against stress and anxiety.
  • Exercise causes your brain to release endorphins—which elevate mood.

Could you imagine pill (with no negative side effects) that could do all these things?! If such a pill existed, pharmaceutical companies could never make enough to keep the public satisfied. All of us would use it every single day. But most of us don’t exercise consistently—even though exercise does all these things, and is free. So why aren’t we exercising more? One reason is because we’re thinking about exercise the wrong way.

Dr. Michelle Segar, a behavioral sustainability scientist at the University of Michigan, says that most people think about exercise as something that will pay off in the long run. Our long-term exercise goals can range from the noble (“I want to be around for my grandkids”) to the vain (“I want to look great at the beach this summer”). Unfortunately, neither approach motivates people to consistently exercise. So, what does work? Research shows that people who focus on the immediate benefits of exercise are the ones exercise most. Ironically, people who exercise for short-term benefits end up being more fit and healthy than people whose motivation is to be, well, fit and healthy.

So, rather than thinking about exercise as a chore that will benefit us in a few months or years, let’s think about exercise as something that can optimize you for the day. Every day you exercise, your brain learns faster and thinks better. Every day you exercise, you feel more happier and less stressed. If you consistently exercise in the morning—even if it’s just a little bit—your body will start to crave the feeling of aliveness and positivity that you get. It’ll become a positive addiction.

You might be thinking to yourself, “This all sounds good, but I just don’t have time to exercise.” The truth that exercise saves time. Think about it. The time that you work out is a short investment compared to the rest of the time you have in your day. And the small amount of time you lose during exercise is more than made up for by the increased productivity, focus and well-being of the remaining hours of your day. That isn’t just my opinion—it’s supported by the research.

If you’re worried that you don’t have time to exercise, think again. The reality is that you don’t have time not to exercise. Quite simply, you can’t be your best on days that you don’t exercise. Tip #1 for crushing your day is to exercise in the morning (even if it’s just for ten minutes) to get yourself ready for the challenges of the day.

Habit # 2: Plan your day based on what you want (not on what you have to do).

Too many of us start out our days by asking ourselves what we have to do. We write out a list of all the urgent demands that we need to meet at work and at home. This approach, although a popular in many planning and organizing systems, is directly counter to decades of behavioral research showing that human beings feel better, perform better, and have better self-control when they are intrinsically motivated. It’s hard to produce intrinsic motivation when we’re constantly asking ourselves what we have to do. The “I-have-to” approach to planning guarantees that we focus on external demands—which causes us to feel stress and to lose motivation.  

A better approach is to think about what we want to do, or create, in our lives each day. Leading behavioral scientists, Gabrielle Oettingen and Peter Gollwitzer have repeatedly shown that having clear intentions, backed by realistic and actionable plans significantly improves your ability to accomplish goals. Their strategy, called WOOP, is based on four simple steps:

  1. Wish: What is your wish for today?
  2. Outcome: Imagine, in detail, what accomplishing your wish would feel like.
  3. Obstacle: Imagine the internal obstacles that will face in achieving your goal.
  4. Plan: Develop a specific plan to achieve your goal.

Notice the difference between WOOP, and the traditional system of thinking about “what you have to do” every day. WOOP begins by asking you what you wish for your life, or for your day. It puts you in charge. When’s the last time you asked yourself what you really want? Ask yourself that question right now. Think about how you will feel if you made your wish come true. Let that feeling sink in. Once you have clearly identified and visualized your goal, think about the obstacles that stand in your way. What is it within you that would prevent you from achieving your wish? What temptations will you face? What types of things will sap your motivation?

Once you’ve identified the obstacles that stand in the way of your goal, come up with a specific plan to deal with them. Your plan should clearly delineate start times (when are you going to take action) and strategies to deal with temptations.  For example, if my goal were to complete a project for work, I would identify exactly when and where I plan to do the project.  I would also come up with a specific plan for what to do if I feel unmotivated or get distracted. Research has shown that internalizing clear plans causes your brain to quickly recognize opportunities to act on goals and take action automatically.  When this happens, self-discipline becomes much easier.  

WOOP is more than a to-do list or a schedule. It is a plan that provides the specificity, flexibility, realism, and motivation needed to be our best self. Tip # 2 for crushing your day is define exactly what you want, and make a reality-based plan to get it.

Habit # 3: Just get started and do something.

If you’re following habits one and two, there’s a pretty good chance you’re already crushing your days. But the truth is, every now and then, we all we get stuck. We stop making progress on our goals and we lose motivation. In these slumps, the idea of exercising feels overwhelming. Projects at work feel beyond our capacity. Self-discipline seems out of our grasp.  

Slumps can come from exhaustion as we try to tackle the mountain of work that lies in front of us. They can hit us after we face a disappointment. Slumps can happen when we are dealing with problems with our family, friends, or partners. And they can come for other reasons. The important thing is to know that they will come (remember—part of WOOP is being aware of the obstacles that stand in your way). There is no sense in pretending that life is all sunshine and rainbows. Once we accept the fact that slumps will come, we can develop a plan to handle them.

The best strategy I’ve used for dealing with a slump comes from Dr. Timothy Pychyl, a psychologist who has spent the last two decades researching how to help people eliminate procrastination. His advice is stupid simple: “Just get started,” he says. Tim’s research shows that one of the biggest obstacles preventing us from taking action is our belief about how hard a future task will be. Most people think that their work will require more effort, and be more unpleasant than it actually is—so they delay getting started. Tim’s research has shown, though, that once people start, they usually find that their work wasn’t so bad after all. It pays to get started.

I’ve made a simple rule for myself based on Tim’s advice. When I have a big project in front of me—or there is something that I don’t feel like I have the energy to do—I tell myself to “just do something.” It can be as small as I want, but I have to do something. If I have a big goal, I won’t let a single day pass without taking some type of action toward that goal. And, you know what I’ve found? Those tiny little steps add up. A lot of the time, the initial effort to do something gets me in the mood to do more, and I get on a role. Other times, I do just a little bit and stop. I’ve learned, though, that making even a little bit of progress on a goal makes it easier to start next time. It’s kind of like pushing a big rock. The hardest part is the first little push—but if you keep the momentum going by just taking small incremental steps, the work gets easy.

If you’re not feeling motivated, your job is to just get started and do something (now). It doesn’t have to be your best effort. Any amount of effort will allow you to build momentum. Whether your goal is to exercise more, get more done at the office, write that book that you’ve always wanted to write, start spending more time with your spouse or children, you can do it if you follow Habit #3: Just get started and do something.

I hope you’ve found these tips useful. Each of these ideas contributed significantly to the overall quality of my life. I hope they can be equally helpful to you.

About the Author

Danny Southwick is a researcher for High Performance Institute. In 2015, he earned a master of applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. He currently works as a research assistant at the University of Pennsylvania under the direction of Angela Duckworth and Allyson Mackey.  

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