5 Ways to Achieve Mental Toughness—Lessons from Pro Athletes

In 2006, the St. Louis Cardinals hired me to train them in Mental Toughness. They already had the physical know-how to play good baseball—the mechanics of pitching, batting, and fielding. But they really needed to learn how to set goals, stay positive, be disciplined, and win. I became their first Director of Mental Training, and that year they went on to win their first World Series in 20 years. I helped them win again in 2011.

The principles of mental toughness are as useful for employees and managers, though, as they are for professional athletes. Here are five ways to train your brain in Mental Toughness, taking a cue from the world champion Cardinals. These will prevent unproductive habits from getting in the way of your personal best.

1. Concentrate on your swing; forget about the home run.

If you focus on accomplishing a big goal, you may never get there. Instead, pay attention to what will get you there: your process. Identify daily goals that have the most influence on your performance and, therefore, your ultimate success. For example, if your aim is to double your sales in one year, figure out three specific tasks, or process goals, you will need to complete each and every day that will help you reach that ultimate target. Then be relentless and consistent about completing your three process goals every day.

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2. Don’t take your eye off the ball.

Many highly productive people believe they can multitask and still maintain focus. The American Psychological Association cited a recent study showing that multitasking leads to as much as a 40 percent drop in productivity. And recent research from Stanford University found that multitaskers are not only less productive than their single-minded counterparts, but also suffer from weaker self-control. Don’t get distracted; regain control of your performance. Do everything you can to complete the three essential tasks you identified in number one, above.

3. Be your own toughest umpire.

To be more productive, you need to establish your own rules and limits. This is your “not to-do” list. Identify habits and behaviors that are unproductive—taking calls in mid-thought; answering emails when you’re procrastinating; or chitchatting with coworkers, for example. Your personal rulebook might also include what you do in your off hours that impact your work-life balance and thus, your productivity. For example, working at night during family time or starting new tasks at the end of the day. Be sure that you’re scheduling your calendar rather than allowing your calendar to schedule you.

4. Take some mandatory R&R between workouts.

Nearly 4 out of 10 people are regularly fatigued, according to a recent study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Lack of sleep causes fatigue, and that’s a productivity killer. In fact, the rate of lost productivity for workers with fatigue was 66 percent, compared with 26 percent for workers without fatigue. Fatigued workers lost an average of 5.6 hours per week of production time. Make rest, rejuvenation, and 7-9 hours of nightly sleep a priority.

5. Pay attention to your moneymaker: your body.

When professional athletes try to push through the pain, they end up on the disabled list. In the workplace, this is known as “extreme working,” and it results in lower performance. New research reported at Harvard Business Review found that 69 percent of extreme workers—super high achievers who regularly work 60-80 hours a week—admit that their extreme working habits undermine their health. Most of these workers can’t sustain this level of performance and end up burning out, just like promising athletes who have to sit on the bench all season or retire early because of injuries.

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