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Professional athletes have unique financial planning needs due to the amount and timing of their earning careers. Athletes with their families should create a financial plan spanning their playing career, transition post playing career and their long term life goals.

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The Pomodoro® Technique

Can we learn to work with time, instead of struggling against it?

Recently, I added a post about Parkinson’s Law, which seems to be too often true, although not inevitable.  So how can we apportion the time we have on any given day, for any task, to be more efficient, productive and ultimately, creative?

Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law
Work Expands to Fill the Time Allotted

In the 1980’s, Francesco Carillo developed the Pomodoro® Technique, a time management strategy that helps to increase productivity using focused work sessions and frequent short breaks.  The name “pomodoro” was inspired by a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato.

The basic technique:

  1. Prioritize a list of tasks – consider the amount of effort each requires
  2. Set a timer to 25 minutes – discourage interruptions
  3. Work on a task until the timer signals (25 minutes)
  4. Take a five-minute break
  5. After four subsequent pomodoros, take a 15-30-minute break

Proponents of the technique advocate for physical stimuli that act as cues.  Winding a timer confirms one’s intention to start the task; the ticking represents the user’s desire to complete the task; ringing announces a break.  Additional tips:  At the beginning of each “Pomodoro” period, take a moment to review your work.  Evaluate the time you give to each aspect of the project, proposal, budget or report you want to complete.  Do you need to spend more time on research, less on revising?  More time thinking than collaborating?

If you’d like to learn more, you may want to check out Franceso’ Cirillo’s web site:  https://francescocirillo.com/

Pressure and Productivity: Work Expands to Fill the Period of Time Available to Complete It

If you’ve studied productivity, you’ll recognize the axiom above as Parkinson’s Law, the proposition of British naval historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson. The statement first appeared in a 1955 article in The Economist and later, as the basis of one of Parkinson’s books, The Pursuit of Progress.

To illustrate this principle, Parkinson used the example of an elderly lady who sets about writing a postcard to a niece. Since nothing else requires her attention, the simple task takes all day. She fills the time searching for stamps, looking up the niece’s address, worrying about whether the post office will be open, making a cup of tea, and discarding the original note to tinker with the language of the missive.

It’s easy to see how this example translates to emails, memos, and written reports in our workplaces. The impulse to give tasks more time than they require may be our desire for a bit of leeway, insecurity about one’s abilities or, it may relate to the idea that by taking longer, we will do a better job—although most people are limited in how long they can engage in purposeful activity without fatigue. Should we then impose strict time constraints on our work? Or that of those we supervise?

A relevant post on BBC WORKLIFE, addresses those questions and discusses Parkinson’s Law in more depth than I can do here. The article also quotes Princeton behavioral scientist Eldar Shafir on attentional fatigue: “Because our attentional capacity is limited, we divide it sporadically any way we can as we run through everyday life,” he says. Yet, now and then, we have to buckle down.

In his book “Scarcity,” Shafir and co-author Sendhil Mullainathan discuss the potential costs of laser-like focus: “When you have a deadline it’s like a storm ahead of you or having a truck around the corner. It’s menacing and it’s approaching, so you focus heavily on the task.” And while you may whip off a brilliant piece of work, problems can arise when all else is pushed to the periphery of one’s attention.

Plus, there’s a chance that pushing too hard, going too fast, can make us prone to errors in our work—just as it can lead to injury in athletic endeavors. “If your deadline is too short and you’re panicking…you might work inefficiently, and things might go badly anyway,” [Shafir] says. Ideally, we can find an effective way to complete our various tasks while managing both time and quality.

Reference:
https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20191107-the-law-that-explains-why-you-cant-get-anything-done

Olympic Games Coach Tips That Work for Corporate Athletes, Too

My recent post quoting mental training coach Colleen Hacker inspired me to watch a handful of YouTube videos featuring Dr. Hacker (professor of kinesiology Pacific Lutheran University). I found her words inspiring and useful not only for those who train for a sport as an amateur or a pro, but also for anyone pursuing a profession.

In one interview, Dr. Hacker emphasizes the power of the imagination – not just visualization – as a poly-sensory technique to improve performance in any competitive culture. One imagines vividly, specifically, in detail, and using all of one’s senses to achieve measurable results.

On another track, Dr. Hacker identifies the “4 pillars, plus one” of every sport—and perhaps any demanding endeavor. Those pillars are: Technique (whether the craft of cookery, surgery or sport); Tactical (adroit planning and prioritizing), Physiological (good health that supports one’s energy and endurance); Psychological (mental skills). The Plus One? How do I make my team better? How can I help others on my team, can I help my fellow players (or my family members, my colleagues) look good and succeed as well as myself?

Dr. Hacker is a great source of pithy quotes that might serve as useful mottos: “Do Now well.” “Go loose.” “Do simple better.” And importantly, “Mistakes are a part of living…a part of sport. Mistakes are a part of every role that we find ourselves in…a part of the fuel that fires us to improve.” When, inevitably, we miss a putt or drop the ball at work, recognize the error, own it and move on – let it go!

If you’d like more, click the following links. The videos are short and to the point.

Mental Skills Techniques for Peak Performance

For top athletes, mental skills training is essential to dealing with the pressure of competition. Can the strategies Olympians use improve performance in any field?

An August article in the New York Times features a handful of top “psychological consultants” who work with world class athletes, counseling them on “…how to avoid choking under pressure, how to tune out media chatter and how to quell stomach butterflies.” Pressures arise in any profession on those days when it’s imperative to perform and keep cool, even if the spotlight is not quite as intense as it is during the Olympic Games. What do mental coaches have to say that we can apply to our own life?

1. Use Your Imagination

When Colleen Hacker worked with the 2018 women’s Olympic ice hockey team, she asked them to imagine the moves they would perform in competition. In many cases, the repeated use of such sensory-based imagery improves performance as much as a similar amount of actual practice. Try it on your tennis backhand.

2. Stress Out – With Intention

Find ways to boost your stress level as you prepare for a presentation or difficult conversation. How? Role-play with friends or practice in front of colleagues who might toss out provocative remarks as you learn to stay calm and collected.

3. Loose Up, Laugh It Off

Crack a joke, watch an SNL sketch, or dance around the office supply room. Laughter or horsing around with others can break the loop of negative thoughts and escalating tension.

We can take a tip from Julie Foudy, Olympic gold medalist, who says. “It’s like, OK, come on, laugh about it. And then let’s go win.”

Source: Svoboda, Elizabeth, “An Athletic Coach for the Mind,” New York Times, August 2021,
https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/05/well/move/mental-skills-coaching-olympics.html

Preventing Burnout

I’ve written previously about developing “mental armor” to handle the pressures and demands of life and work.  The subject came up once again when I saw a Twitter post featuring Gordon Parker, AO (Officer of the Order in Australia), a prominent psychiatrist, who speaks briefly about burnout—what it is and how to prevent it.  Scientia Professor at the University of South Wales, Parker’s research into the symptoms of burnout leads him to promote physical exercise and meditation as two helpful ways to prevent or remedy the physical, mental and emotional exhaustion we know as burnout.

Doing a little further “research,” I learned that while burnout is not recognized as a distinct clinical diagnosis like major depression, the World Health Organization has recognized burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.”  In this context, when stress is excessive and/or chronic, one’s resources become depleted, affecting one’s performance at work—even if, or perhaps intensified by—working from home.

Professor Parker and a colleague, Gabriela Tavella, recently authored an article on burnout published on the ABC News web site, discussing burnout in a broader context than that of work alone.  The authors point out that an event like the pandemic created stress in virtually every context and that while escaping stressors isn’t always possible, there are “…some de-stressing strategies to help curb your burnout symptoms. Things like exercise, meditation and practicing mindfulness are consistently nominated…as most helpful.”

For my own part, I find that challenging physical activities—like climbing mountains—along with meditation, are good preventative medicine and invaluable in maintaining mental clarity and emotional balance.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-08-20/burnout-symptoms-to-look-out-for/100392342

Is the Pandemic an Opportunity for Change?

In July of last year, an essay in the New Yorker proposed that crises can be a catalyst for positive change.  As the U.S. suffers a fourth wave of COVID-19, is optimism still warranted?  I am hopeful that we can count on human resilience in the face of adversity and historical evidence that suggests the potential of crises to “shake up the way people think.”  Those words were spoken by Gianna Pomata of Johns Hopkins University, and quoted by Lawrence Wright’s essay, “How Pandemics Wreak Havoc – and Open Minds.”

A professor of Medical History, Pomata notes that in the 14th century a virulent disease known as the Black Plague devastated Europe (as well as China and India), but also ushered in the European Renaissance.  Arts and sciences flourished in this era of profound change, while hereditary class divisions and control of wealth gave way to new social and economic forms. “After the Black Death, nothing was the same,” Pomata says. “What I expect now is something as dramatic is going to happen… in economy and culture. Because of danger, there’s this wonderful human response, which is to think in a new way.”

Wright adds, “We seem to be at another point when society will make radical adjustments, for good or ill,” and his essay offers a look at the mixed effects of pandemics that emerged throughout the history of the western world.  Pandemics almost always triggered economic volatility, but responses varied widely.  Wright is hopeful that our present pandemic will open minds to the possibility of “major transformations.”  He notes that, “Like wars and depressions, a pandemic offers an X-ray of society, allowing us to see all the broken places.”

The events of early September 2021 might alert us to the urgency of a response to climate change, as well as to the effects of a COVID-19 rebound which has dramatically slowed hiring.  Much still seems uncertain, but perhaps a look at history can help us to find a sense of perspective if not equanimity—and also inspire us to take up the work of creating positive change.

HOW PANDEMICS WREAK HAVOC – AND OPEN MINDS
Lawrence Wright, July 13, 2020
The New Yorker magazine
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/07/20/how-pandemics-wreak-havoc-and-open-minds

Performance Under Pressure: Not Just For Top Athletes

Over the past year, elite athletes have brought unprecedented focus to the psychological challenges of performing at the highest level.  Unsettled by pressure to win the Gold, Simone Biles pulled out of gymnastics events at this summer’s Olympic Games.  Earlier, Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, citing depression and mounting anxiety.  And in England, Tyrone Mings revealed that his mental health plummeted before Euro 2020, prompting the footballer to call upon his psychologist to cope with competitive anxiety.  An excellent article by Simon Usborne in The Guardian takes a look at the pressures faced by professional players and the rest of us:  “How to win at life:  What sports psychologist can teach us all.”1

To capture a few points in The Guardian article:  sports psychiatrist Steve Peters, who has worked with British cycling, football, and taekwondo teams, says that he asks athletes to think about possible scenarios prior to competition to prevent panicky reactions during competition.  “I’d take a sprinter and say, this is what could happen in this 100m race: a world record; underperformance; or an unexpected event.”  Dr Andrea Furst, who works with England Rugby and the Australian sailing team, says the ability to focus on specific things that need to be improved separates elite athletes and mortals.  It’s the focus on the thing that needs to be changed, “. . .done day after day that makes supreme performers.”  Others emphasize pausing at critical moments to take control of a situation—but without overthinking it.

I believe that we can all learn from how athletes are nurturing well-being as well as prowess through disciplined preparation, learning to relax while remaining focused, and finally, allowing ourselves to celebrate even a small win.  The following is an edited list of 8 practices proposed by the psychologists quoted in the article:

  • Break big goals into do-able chunks
  • Use positive self-talk
  • Visualize success
  • Consider potential outcomes. Prior to competition, deal with the chance of a brilliant showing, a stumble or a random event to stay focused and “in the moment.”
  • Use relaxation techniques:  breathing, meditation, music
  • Ask yourself—and your coach or mentor—what’s not helping.  Then work on it.
  • Pause before all-out effort – but not too long
  • Celebrate triumphs big or small
  1. Usborne, Steve, “How to win at life: what sports psychologists can teach us all,” August 21, 2021, The Guardian, retrieved 8/22/2021 https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/aug/21/how-to-win-at-life-what-sports-psychologists-can-teach-us-all

Mentally Prepared for Higher Performance

At the Summer Olympics in Athens, twenty-one-year-old Oscar Figueroa placed 5th in the men’s weightlifting competition and came to Beijing in 2008 hoping to better his performance.  Unfortunately, due to a cervical disc injury, he failed to make a lift in the snatch category and left the Games without posting a result.  Failure and a risky surgery did not stop Figueroa.  With a new coach, he began training immediately and arrived in London in 2012 stronger and mentally committed.  With maximum concentration, he completed an Olympic Record lift of 177 kg, earning a Silver Medal.

A second painful surgery followed success in London, yet Figueroa maintained focus, practicing meditation and preparing mentally as well as physically for Rio de Janeiro in 2016.  Observers noted that he remained remarkably calm before a roaring crowd, with Colombian fans “in a frenzy” and rivals falling away.1  In Figueroa’s own words, he knew that in order to win, “…you had to believe, to trust, to desire, to be disciplined…the only way was to keep working.”2  At age 33 in Rio, Figueroa fell to his knees and burst into tears after winning the men’s competition and taking home Gold.  “I never give up.”

  1. https://www.hindustantimes.com/olympics/figueroa-whose-prison-sentence-was-commuted-wins-weightlifting-gold/story-Qjt0iI41l6Y8kTJ2A34biK.html
  2. “Against All Odds,” video, retrieved January 10, 2021, https://www.olympicchannel.com/en/athletes/detail/oscar-figueroa/

Mental Armor: Resilient Under Pressure

The emergence of Covid-19 has forced all of us to change the way we conduct our lives.  For nearly a year, people in every circumstance and walk of life have dealt with an invisible threat to the health of family, friends, and neighbors, as well as the distress imposed by economic uncertainties.

While there is encouraging news about COVID vaccines, daily life continues to be challenging as infections again surge.  We still need what some military sources call “mental armor” to cope and carry on, to remain resilient and adaptable.

A key component of my own mental armor is meditation, which I use to mask the “noise” of the daily news and other distractions. I use both inner-focused meditation techniques and outwardly directed practices to help me to focus and “clear the decks.”

The second component is finding a purpose beyond my own immediate concerns.  As psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’”  I also adhere to ideas expressed in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience: “It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly.”  For me, this means being clear about my intentions, setting goals slightly above my ability and engaging in physical activity. I see these philosophies at work when I run marathons and climb mountains to raise money for cancer research and in my commitment to financially support an Asian researcher.  Fighting cancer has profound personal meaning for me.

Finally, I find the Stoic philosophy helpful.  Epictetus (50 A.D.–135 A.D.) wrote that, “Some things are within our control and others not.”  The Greek philosopher consistently considered the capacity for choice and the limits of  “volition,” writing, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

The Art of Leadership

In essence, leadership is the art of guiding a group of people toward a common goal.  But what are the qualities of an effective leader?  Is it a matter of charismatic personality or something that can be learned and cultivated?  My interest in leadership led me to an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled, “What Sets Successful CEOs Apart?”

The writers of the HBR piece, noting that 25% of CEO departures are involuntary, conducted a ten-year study called the CEO-genome project.  The resulting data disputes the frequent assumption that a successful CEO is most likely to be a tall, extroverted visionary with an Ivy League education and an astronomical IQ.  In fact, the key finding was that, “successful chief executives tend to demonstrate four specific behaviors” and that most high-performance CEOs excel in more than one of these four behaviors.  Those with a poor leadership profile rarely do so.

The Four Behaviors

Deciding with speed and conviction

High-performing CEOs “make decisions earlier, faster, and with greater conviction…even amid ambiguity, with incomplete information, and in unfamiliar domains.” In fact, leaders who were indecisive were much more likely to be fired than those who simply made one bad decision.

Engaging for Impact

Once a decision has been made, the CEO must get people “aligned around the goal of value creation.”  Per the study, CEOs with a results orientation were “75% more successful in the role.” And while good leaders do solicit information and ideas, they must also be willing to engage in conflict and ultimately, chart a clear course—giving “everyone a voice but not a vote.”

Adapting proactively

The authors’ analysis shows that leaders who excel at adapting “are 6.7 times more likely to succeed.”  Equally, the ability to adapt requires an ability to think long-term and anticipate change.

Delivering reliably

Project data indicates that reliability is paramount.  “A stunning 94% of the strong CEO candidates we analyzed scored high on consistently following through on their commitments.”  The writers also note that reliable results require the ability to effectively organize, plan, systematize and build a strong team.

I think anyone can benefit by practicing these four behaviors.  After all, imagine an indecisive military leader, a football quarterback who can’t adapt to moment-by-moment shifts on the field, or any leader in business who doesn’t engage and motivate his or her team.  I hope you will find this information as useful as I have.

Botelho, Elena Lytkina; Powell, Kim Rosenkoetter; Kincade, Stephen; Wang, Dina, “What Sets Successful CEOs Apart,” Leadership Transitions, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2017/05/what-sets-successful-ceos-apart

What can we learn from “swarm intelligence?”

The question arose after reading an article in The New Yorker by Douglas Starr, professor emeritus of science journalism at Boston University.1  Although the article was written with regard to how the concept of swarm intelligence might apply to guiding a response to the current pandemic, Starr prompted me to consider how it might apply to sports and even more broadly.

First, a definition:  swarm intelligence is the “phenomenon in which groups of animals act in concert” or when people “come together to create a synergy that magnifies their individual capabilities.”  It differs from cooperation, in which people work together in a structured way to achieve a specific goal.  Starr notes that, “…it’s an emotional and reactive behavior, not a plan that can be written out on a flowchart.”  It’s the unified action of soldiers in battle, or the way that a basketball team can seem to move as one.

I drew from Starr’s article 5 essential elements of “swarm intelligence:”

  • Unity of purpose
  • Adoption of a spirit of generosity
  • “Stay in your lane”
  • “Check your ego at the door,” decline to seek credit or assign blame
  • Interpersonal trust and respect

In an interesting way, retired college football coach Urban Myers’ in a recent Twitter post, refutes the idea that “bad players” are the cause of poor team performance.  According to Myer, you have to “look under the hood,” where you will discover:

  • Trust issues – between players and coach or among the players
  • Dysfunctional environment – e.g., high-performance expectations, but a lack of discipline and hard work
  • Selfishness – a lack of generosity and mutual support among players

For both journalist and coach, exceptional performance as a team or in Starr’s case, a task force, requires a shared sense of purpose, a spirit of generosity and an environment of trust and respect.  These values are at work whatever your game.

  1. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-inquiry/what-should-crisis-leadership-look-like?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=onsite-share&utm_brand=the-new-yorker&utm_social-type=earned

Powerful words from Urban Meyer🎯 pic.twitter.com/aybObRUbuY
— CoachTube.com (@thecoachtube) November 14, 2020

Cutting Weight

Over the years I’ve learned a couple of useful facts about cutting weight. Once the food you eat leaves the stomach, it passes into the large and small intestine, which are approximately 25 feet long. Generally, it takes steak three days, chicken two days and fish one day to travel through our gastrointestinal tract (GI). Take those time frames into consideration as you get closer to competition day. Since your intestines are a membrane, proper hydration is necessary. Be sure to drink plenty of water and get in some pool or tub time.

I blend half of my favorite cereal along with Fiber One Cereal, Original Bran. It makes a great late-night snack instead of a midnight burger run. Also, consider cutting out fiber the night before a competition.

Intestinal health appears to be important to one’s overall health, resistance to disease and response to treatment. Recently, I read a study stating that cancer patients with good gut bacteria were more receptive to immunotherapy treatments.

The GI-Tract

On Efficiency

“The organization will let you work on whatever you want to work on. You just have to make sure you are working on things only you can work on… Certainly true if you are going through a period of tremendous scrutiny or big changes… You have to set time aside to make sure you know where you are.” Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf, minute 22.

Mr. Mollenkopk’s words had a big impact on me as an entrepreneur as there are no shortage of items that need attention. His comments bring clarity to how to prioritize tasks to determine what needs should be delegated versus owned. End goal is efficiency as to avoid burnout as one scales mountains.

Case Study: Group Flow

Louis Gerstner’s book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance is a fascinating account of the former IBM CEO’s historic turnaround of the tech giant. One lesson I took away from the book (available on Audible.com) was that Gerstner initially made no major decisions, but rather spent time talking with different divisions.  One when he had a clear idea of IBM’s needs across the organization, did Gerstner develop an overarching strategy that served to right the ship.  This collaborative approach relates to author Steven Kotler’s statement in Stealing Fire about the  kind of leader Google was seeking in a CEO: someone able “…to let go of his ego, merge with the team…” Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal is available on Audible.com.

Finite verus Infinite Game

“They also make the very clever shift away from seeing those in their industry as competitors and rather see them as rivals. A competitor is someone you want to beat. And the obsession again is too much on the finite. What are the metrics, how are we going to get ahead of them? A rival is someone who’s strengths reveals to you your weaknesses. So to see those in your industry and admire where they are better than you, instead of trying to beat them, you look at where your weaknesses are, and improve. It’s constant improvement.” -Simon Sinek

Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse is a very interesting book and available on Audible. The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek is scheduled to be released June 6, 2019. Can’t wait!