At age twenty- one, Alessandra Ferri, Prima Ballerina Assoluta with the Royal Ballet, was invited by Mikhail Baryshnikov to join the American Ballet Theatre as a principal dancer, and to dance with him at the MET (Metropolitan Opera House).
Having grown into the principal dancer role at the Royal Ballet in London surrounded by friends and supporters, she was suddenly on her own, under enormous pressure. ‘I had to fight with myself,’ she says. ‘It was a huge mental struggle. I had to dance on stage at the MET with Baryshnikov and this was not the time to have doubts.’
As she speaks, she firms her muscles, her fists clench and her lips squeeze together, remembering the circumstances.
She then adds wisely, ‘Of course the fight always appears to be with circumstances, but the fight is always actually with yourself.’ Our level of self-determination dictates whether pressure chokes us or focuses us.
Grit your teeth
The phrase ‘grit your teeth’ when we talk about determination makes physiological sense (although we don’t recommend it long term).
If you grit your teeth and firm your jaw, you automatically hold your breath, which creates a firmness in your abdomen enabling you to engage all of the abdominal muscles in an act of immense effort and endurance.
We can use a technique of momentary muscle- firming to build up our determination and work towards our dreams step by step.
From Firm Muscles to Firm Willpower
Muscle-firming gives us willpower and the ability to withstand immediate pain in order to attend to essential priorities – provided that we believe that doing so will produce long-term benefits.
In 2011, researchers from the universities of Singapore and Chicago published a report, entitled ‘From Firm Muscles to Firm Willpower’, that shows how the body plays a big part in harnessing willpower and the facility to self- regulate towards the attainment of long- term goals.
Participants were instructed to tighten their muscles, e.g. hand, finger, calf or biceps, while trying to exhibit self- control in a variety of circumstances – submerging hands in an ice bucket, consuming a bad- tasting but healthy vinegar drink or being offered tempting but unhealthy foods. Muscle- firming helped at the moment of weakening or avoidance.
Try this exercise
Muscle-firming action(s) work when applied at the specific point in time when your willpower and determination are tested. They are muscle or muscle group contractions that are held for about four seconds, often needing to be unobtrusive enough to be done in public.
For example, squeezing your thumb against your forefinger, clenching your buttock muscles or pressing your upper arms into the sides of your body. Experiment with what works for you.
To create your own muscle- firming action:
Stand or sit
Experiment with one or two muscle- firming actions, drawing from the examples above, that make you feel more determined
Put words to them if you like – words of encouragement or a self- rallying call
Practise them a few times for familiarity
Start using them whenever your willpower weakens and you feel like giving up
You’ll find that this muscle-firming technique enables you to handle the inevitable setbacks that come with each milestone on the road to your desired outcome or goal.
Creating and working with milestones
While visualising our goals clarifies our dreams and draws us powerfully towards them, if we are to succeed we need short- term, achievable milestones created in a practical and realistic manner with a sequence of tangible actions attached to them.
Milestones, as well as ultimate goals, therefore, should be visualised. The trick is to switch from visualising the long-term goal to the short- term milestone whenever either becomes overwhelming or unrewarding.
So, if you’ve hit a wall and the long- term goal gives you a sinking feeling, then completely switch your focus to the next short- term milestone.
For example, when in bootcamp or while on deployment, those in the military traditionally count down the days – 98 days left, 97 days left, 96 days left, etc.
If you are working through milestones well, but the deadline means you are going to need to push yourself really hard through days, weeks and months without respite, then focus on the long- term goal instead.
Military squads sing and chant rhymes in order to endure long- distance training because it takes their minds off the hardship. Singing together boosts oxytocin, which also reduces fear and gives you courage.
On assault courses or at the gym, when you are working towards milestones that stretch you to your limits, the quintessential grunting, aggressive vocalising, hard use of the breath and wide stance draw testosterone levels up in order to meet the challenge and face the risk.
Distraction can be used to release dopamine, the great motivator.
When something is tough and repetitive and just has to be done, then, having found your rhythm, imagining the delicious cappuccino that awaits you or what you’ll do on your next holiday, or what you’ll cook for supper that evening, will distract and motivate you.
You can also try the opposite: imagining how much worse life could be, creating perspective on how painful this is. Dopamine likes novelty, so be creative with what you do with your mindset as you tackle those milestones.
Severe loss of determination can come in the form of extreme low energy and tiredness when you feel overwhelmed.
The thought, Maybe I won’t succeed, or worse, I am failing, scares us. The body slams on its brakes, makes us produce too much of the calming chemical, acetylcholine, and we feel resistance to carrying on.
If that happens, treat the adrenals kindly and refocus on the next milestone. If that milestone feels overwhelming, then you may need to add an interim milestone that is more manageable.
Once you have a clear, workable milestone in mind, then muscle- firming, jumping up and down, vocalising, breathing hard and fast, laughing (literally) in the face of fear all help to kick- start your energy levels again.
To create milestones, try this exercise
Clarity of thought is vital for creating milestones. We recommend dedicating an hour or two, during a day when you have plenty of time for quiet reflection. This thinking creates the groundwork for a detailed plan.
If you are working in a team with others on a project, or you are planning something as a family, then simply follow the steps together and discuss each one. In larger teams, you can divide into smaller groups, with each group working on a different part of the timeline, then see how they link and overlap when you come back together.
Think of something you want to achieve and picture it in vivid detail. There is no magic wand or absolute certainty here. This exercise simply enables you to clarify your desired destination, build belief and create ‘towards’ chemistry, in which dopamine is high and cortisol is optimal, by imagining something rewarding. (A specific type of focus is important. Two practical experiments from New York University in 2014 showed that if you concentrate your focus on the thing that you want as if it were in a spotlight, your perception of how far away it is is reduced – it appears more attainable. Also, when asked to walk towards a desirable object but look to the side and all around you – it takes you longer to get there than if your eyes focus solely on the goal. In fact, using narrowed attention can get you there 23 per cent faster. This suggests that visualization of goals might not only ensure success, but create pace as well. Begin to picture exactly what achieving this goal looks like.)
Let the visualisation develop so that the picture is highly defined, with vivid colours and textures. Where are you? What are you doing? Who are you talking to? What are others doing and saying? Hear the sounds, smells, tastes as if you were really there.
Having imagined this moment exactly, allow yourself to feel the positive emotions it generates, the sense of achievement, happiness, relief, contentment, euphoria etc.
Then visualise the other people benefitting. What impact will your achievement have on your family, your community, your team, your organisation, the wider business community, your country, the world?
Once you have established and visualized your goal, open your eyes.
Working backwards from your goal, ask yourself, ‘What is the penultimate milestone that I’ll need to hit?’ Create a visual picture for this milestone. Mark it on a timeline. Continue to work backwards until you have at least three to five milestones visualized and planned out with rough time intervals marked.
In the intervals, write down what approach, focus, behaviour, resources and training are required for you to be able to achieve the next milestone. Consider where you would benefit more from divergent versus convergent behaviour. Be specific – perhaps you need to raise some financing, get others involved etc.
This next step is unconventional, but it works. Alone or with a colleague or friend, rehearse this timeline. Stand up and clear enough space so that you can walk through the milestones in a line. Talk as you walk, verbalising what it is going to take. Stop at each milestone, visualise it again. How does that feel? Ask questions. Evaluate if the progression makes sense. Make and remake firm plans.
Rehearsing milestones in this way prior to executing them sets up the cortisol and testosterone levels needed to respond to the challenge and the dopamine levels needed to anticipate the reward.
Pin your timeline up on the wall or put it on your laptop or phone as your screen saver.
As you execute each part of the plan in real time, celebrate each milestone. Start by using a winner pose – arms in the air – feel the shot of dopamine and testosterone, then share your success with others.
Use muscle- firming to power through the challenging, painful points or when you feel tired or discouraged – and as you focus on the next milestone, feel the dopamine boost.
As you move through the plan in real life, at each milestone, reassess and revise your plan for the next milestone based on what you have learned.
Keep this timeline handy and remain focused on how we can use our bodies to help us achieve our goals.
About Physical Intelligence
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About Companies in Motion
There are over 80 easy to use techniques and tips to build our Physical Intelligence -- the neuroscience-backed approach to detecting and actively managing the balance of eight key chemicals in our bodies and brains so that we can take charge of our body, brain, schedule and life. You can read about all of them in our new book, Physical Intelligence: Harness Your Body’s Untapped Intelligence to Achieve More, Stress Less and Live More Happily by Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton available from Simon and Schuster. (Order here.) (Multiple translations will be available later in 2019.)