Perfecting Practice

Perfecting Practice
Photo by Andre Ouellet / Unsplash

As the summer Olympics approach next year, many gymnastics fans are reminded of great American gymnasts that have inspired us with their dazzling performances during previous Olympic games. A few names that come to mind include Mary Lou Retton, Shannon Miller, and Simone Biles. Despite how easy these gymnasts can make each move look, there are hours upon hours of meticulous practice behind every movement. Although perfection can sometimes be achieved (Mary Lou Retton did it twice at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games), in gymnastics (and also in life) every time we get close to achieving our “perfect” goal, it seems like the mark gets pushed higher or further. For example, in 2006, the code of points for gymnastics changed and the perfect “10” was replaced by a point system that made achieving a perfect score impossible. Although some in the sport may not have agreed with the change, it did push gymnasts to achieve skills that in 2006 were almost beyond imagination. If we are always chasing the perfect score or the goal, then our happiness and progress can be limited. If we really evaluate our habits and how we practice our craft, whether that’s gymnastics, professional services, or customer success, then we really can aspire to new heights than we ever thought possible.

Angles and Inches: The Difference Between Sticking a Landing or Falling on Your Face
Many times when gymnasts are learning a new dismount from the uneven bars (or any event really) they fall – a lot. Over time, the gymnast learns the difference between the pain of a hard landing and the joy of “sticking it” relies on how early or late she lets go of the bar.

In my professional life, I’m continually reminded of how it’s not the big strategic initiatives that lead to the biggest results. It’s being precise and diligent in the day-to-day that ultimately pays off in big ways. In Atomic Habits, James Clear states, “If you can get 1% better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.” I’ve found this statement to be incredibly inspiring. If I’m not getting the results I want, I start looking at my habits. When I start paying attention to my time and habits, it becomes crystal clear why I’m not hitting my goals (for a little more about managing your habits, check out this recent webinar I did with Courtney Kearney).

Practice Like You Mean It
If you’ve ever watched competitive gymnastics on TV, you’ll always see a gymnast who has built a routine before the routine. Before the gymnast solutes the judge and begins to perform, there is a system of chalk application, water, spit, more chalk, and a run-through that involves mimicking key elements of the routine. These habits get the gymnast in the right mindset to deliver the routine they’ve practiced thousands of times.

How often do we apply the same intensity to our professional performances? Especially in our current work-from-home environments? What habits do we have to get us in the right mindset for work? What habits do we have while working? Are they working for us?

Recently, I noticed my hours were getting longer, but it seemed like my productivity was dipping. I began examining my time and took a deeper dive into my habits. I noticed that I wanted to make some improvements so I downloaded a habit tracker and have seen drastic improvements in areas that I have long been trying to improve. If you’re curious about what kinds of apps are out there to help you with this, check out this post from Life Hack. I’m starting to see real progress and that’s empowering. I’ve wanted to spend more time learning Spanish – but it seemed like I never had enough time. One of the suggestions in the book is to spend two minutes on a new habit. At first, I thought this was a joke. But I have to say, after buying a Spanish workbook and committing to a two-minute exercise a day, I’ve noticed my vocabulary is increasing quite a bit.

It’s Not About Falling It’s About How You Get Back Up
During competitions, it’s always interesting to watch a gymnast when she falls while performing a routine she’s performed and visualized performing perfectly so many times. There is that moment of disbelief. Falling isn’t what she expects when she’s been chasing perfection for so long. With that fall, an elite gymnast knows that mistake just took her out of medal contention. How a gymnast handles that moment speaks more of her habits and character, than the moment when that same gymnast lands the perfect double layout somersault.

How do we handle our blunders and imperfections? Do we have good habits for working on them? Recently, it’s become clear by supportive feedback from my fantastic colleagues and loving husband that I am a perpetual apologizer, and it kind of annoys all of them (and me because it annoys them). I found using a replacement model to squash this habit has been the most effective. In Maja Jovanovic’s TEDx talk, she gives many great examples of ways to replace “I’m sorry” with expressions of gratitude, or more affirming statements. It’s definitely a hard habit to break, but I’m making some progress with this one.

In Summary
“Progress not perfection” is a good slogan to live by, but I’ve found “perfecting my practice” is a better one for improvement in my professional life. By focusing on my habits, I’ve found the biggest opportunity for growth and advancement towards reaching my goals – no matter how they might change.