This summer in Rio de Janeiro, we're likely to see awe-inspiring displays of physical prowess. What we're unlikely to see is the mental work that goes into those jaw-dropping accomplishments.

Everyone knows that making it to the Olympics requires a near superhuman commitment to physical training, but according to author Charles Duhigg, it also demands mental discipline. And while most of us are unlikely to get anywhere near the physical skill of elite athletes, many professionals can successfully borrow the mental tricks of Olympic athletes to radically increase their productivity.

In his new book, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, Duhigg discusses the visualization techniques that help gymnasts nail that impossible-looking landing or track and field stars reach their peak performance. Apparently, running through your tasks in your mind before you do them can have benefits not just for athletes but for all of us.

"Your brain has to decide what deserves attention and what deserves to be ignored, and the way it does it is compare what we expect is going to happen to what's actually going on," Duhigg told Quartz in an interview. When you've visualized your day before embarking on it, you make it easier for your brain to screen out irrelevant information and catch the important stuff that's going on.

This simple but powerful mental preparation, "primes our brain to be able to pay attention to the right things," Duhigg says.

It works for first responders, too.

Apparently the technique not only helps the world's top athletes keep their focus, it's also used by first responders and others who work in highly chaotic and stressful situations, writes Science of Us blogger Melissa Dahl in her writeup of Duhigg's book.

According to Dahl, "Those who keep it together under pressure are storytellers, essentially. They narrate their own lives to themselves--things that have just happened, things that are about to happen. They daydream about the day ahead and review the hours that have already passed. In doing this, scientists argue, they learn how to best direct their attention and are 'better at choosing where to focus and what to ignore,' writes Charles Duhigg, who covers this area of the scientific literature in his new book."

Dahl's post includes fascinating anecdotes about the incredible (sometimes life-saving) power of this trick, which scientists call "mental modeling," and concludes with advice for how those of us with more mundane jobs might adopt the technique in our own lives.

"Duhigg suggests spending your commute imagining your day, envisioning with as much specificity as you can what you expect to happen, step by step. This way, so the theory goes, when something goes awry, you'll spot it quickly, and you can compare it to the script you already worked out in your head.... That script helps you figure out how everyday interruptions fit into the big picture--which, in turn, helps you figure out what deserves your attention and what can be ignored," Dahl writes.

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Published on: Mar 23, 2016