I just finished reading a New York Times article about how the brain pushes muscles to achieve far past their expected capacity.
In a case study, a scientist and avid cyclist had several other cyclists pedal through a digital course as fast as they could. They did this enough times for the cyclists to know their limits and feel that they were pushing to their fullest potential. The scientist then pitted each study participant against a virtual competitor that he said represented their personal best on the course; in reality, these avatars represented performance about 2% greater than the cyclists' actual times.
The result? The cyclists kicked it into high gear, so to speak, and out-ran any of their previous records. During competition, the brain lets the body dip into otherwise forbidden energy stores. So, it would appear that the brain plays quite a large part in determining performance.
What’s cool is that these findings apply to the happenings inside your cube just as much as they do at the gym or on the track. If you can find that competition and use it to your advantage, you can push yourself on to bigger and better things.
Find a benchmark.
It’s dangerous to gauge your performance too much by someone else’s (everyone’s different, after all!). But if you can find someone just above your level, proficiency or experience, you can use them as your mental competition. They never have to know you’re "racing" them, but by using their consistently high performance as your benchmark, you can push yourself to achieve greater.
Get your game face on.
You have to honestly and fully believe that you can achieve whatever goals you’ve set for yourself. If this sounds like wishing on a star, let me assure you this is much more hardcore. But the article references a quote from Roger Bannister, the first man to break the four-minute mile: “It is the brain, not the heart or lungs that is the critical organ. It’s the brain.” If you don’t suit up with a sense of serious determination and a will to win, then you handicap any goal - on the track or on the job - from the start.
If you’re running out of steam, push it just a little longer.
Five more minutes okay, five more minutes... and another five minutes Whether you’re at the gym or the office, giving yourself little time-oriented goals to reach can make a big difference. After all, you likely intend to keep working beyond your mini-deadline, but pushing through each successive time limit helps you build mental endurance, in addition to helping the task seem a little less lengthy and therefore a little more doable.
One important thing about this sort of mental tenacity is also knowing when to say “when.” This is something I’ve struggled with my whole life! The cyclists in the study were able to beat avatars going 2% faster than their personal bests, but couldn’t push hard enough to beat an avatar at +5%. Don’t be afraid to push boundaries, but do it through setting reachable, doable goals that won’t make you sick before you can reach the finish line.