How I Program My Brain Each Day
Why is everyone surprised when I mention that I do a visualization practice each morning as part of my startup routine?
It seems obvious to me. High performance athletes have done this for decades — closing their eyes and envisioning themselves executing their craft at the optimal level. Not just watching it in their mind, but feeling it. Experiencing it.
Our minds can transport us. We’ve all had dreams and reflections that felt so real, where we believed we were somewhere else, doing something else.
Sometimes it happens without intention, but it can also be done by design. This is one of the ways in which we can program our minds in the directions we want to evolve.
In my interview with Anders Ericsson
, author of the influential book “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise”, we discussed the idea of mental representations. As we practice any activity, we’re perpetually creating mental representations — reference points on what worked and what didn’t, all the nuances of doing the thing. The experience itself is stored as a model in our minds. This lets us condense all the information of the activity and make it readily accessible for future implementations.
Deliberately practicing an activity creates these mental models that enable us to form an ingrained path to doing it again. The deeper and more established (through experience and activity), the faster and more effortlessly we can repeat it by summoning these stored models in our minds.
But we can also create these “experiences” to some degree without having actually lived them. Through visualization practice we can develop mental representations and shape instincts and default paths for future activities, ahead of the activity. This is essentially “virtual practice”. These mental models are not going to be as strong and enduring as those formed from actual experience, but when diving into a new challenge it will take you a lot further than nothing. And just like real experiences, repeated visualization will enhance the imprint on your mind.
The more you practice doing it, the closer to real experience the visualization efforts can become.
How to Do It
My visualization practice is applied in one of two ways. The first is more traditional and follows the sports model. When a challenging or stressful activity is coming up, close your eyes and walk yourself through it ahead of time in your mind. So if it’s a big presentation or difficult conversation or any specific moment where you will need to perform, envision yourself ahead of time executing perfectly on it.
Watch yourself in your mind’s eye walking through the key stages — the moments beforehand preparing, focusing, stepping onto the stage, starting, and then flowing through it. Really feel it viscerally, feel the temperature of the room and the sensation of the environment and the sounds you anticipate. Transport yourself to the place, and go through the event watching and feeling yourself performing perfectly. The more tactile it feels, the more it will stick. This is great training for any challenging activity.
But many days we don’t have a single challenging event approaching, just the ordinary day-in and day-out grind. Yet these days too have challenges that we struggle to overcome. Distractions tug at us from every turn, and we feel resistance to starting pressing priorities.
So I’ve taken to applying visualization every morning to overcoming the weaknesses and obstacles that have interfered with doing my best work (or any activity that’s a priority).
First, I identify what have been my primary distractions or obstacles to doing what I’ve recently wanted or needed to do. This should be specific to the past few days at any given point. Each morning before my visualization, I write out a “Not To Do List” based on the past several days’ “improvements” that I’ve listed during my end-of-day wind downs. This is all done in the PPV daily bullet planner (video on this coming soon).
Then, with these red flags clearly identified, I will close my eyes and immerse my mind in walking through the day’s planned activities. I envision myself executing on the day flawlessly. I envision completing the startup routine I’m in the midst of, then perhaps getting a glass of water, then checking email or whatever I will do in the first moments going forward.
I’ll then walk myself up to starting my first big priority for the day, feeling the sense of opening the blank page or picking up where I had left off. I’m diving into it as emotionally and as viscerally as I can, cuing many of my physical senses. As it proceeds, I tend to feel deeper and deeper into the experience. I’ll go through a few stages of the first big priority, then envision how I will wrap it up and at what time, then what kind and length of break I’ll take before diving into the next priority.
If you write out the next day’s schedule the evening before (as I highly recommend), then this is not hard since your plan is already defined. You can open your eyes to see what’s next, then close your eyes again (to remove distractions) and immerse your mind in the sensation of going through the second priority and then the third, all with any breaks or meals or planned steps in your day. Spend the most effort truly feeling it at the beginning of difficult tasks or projects that you have typically had a hard timing starting.
What you’re doing is creating a default path, an instinctive way in, a mental muscle memory that will remove some of the resistance that has historically led you astray. When done well, it will better guide you on the optimal planned path. It will also create a sense of being “off” when deviating, as you now have clarity on the right path. Diverging for a shiny object or guilty pleasure will feel worse because it’s more explicitly identifiable as off-plan — and feels so internally.
It takes practice to get your mind into the visceral sensation of walking through the day ahead, or the big event approaching. Over time, you can place yourself there more quickly and more convincingly. But even in the beginning, when you’re still feeling funny about this strange new planning routine, you’ll have a more vivid understanding of how to spend your day and implement the actions that will make a difference in your life — a stark contrast to the same old time sinks that have prevented forward progress. At least that’s been my experience.
When I found myself disappointed day-after-day that I had not done what I had committed to myself to do, this practice re-framed and re-set my mind each morning.
And if you fall off track at any point in the day, stop and visualize your re-set and define your new path for the rest of the day. When you catch yourself in a bad loop, this is the new re-start button for your mind.