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Don't Analyze This

Take a deep breath. What you think you know about visualization is all wrong.

The moment is finally at hand. You are about to make a pitch to a big client or interview for a big job. What do you do?

Naturally you go through all the relaxation and visualization exercises you've ever heard of. Take deep breaths. Picture success. Get yourself into the "zone." And if you take that approach, you are an idiot.

Despite what we think we know about self-actualization, there's a new school of thought that claims that traditional performance-enhancement techniques are not only wrong, but they may actually hurt your ability to excel. At the vanguard of this thinking is John Eliot, lecturer in business and psychology at Rice University. A onetime visualization believer, he now thinks that in pressure situations, our bodies automatically shift into a mode that'll give us the highest performance possible. Our hearts beat faster so that the nutrients and oxygen in our blood get to our muscles and brains. And stomach butterflies are caused by the acid that's produced as a result of the digestive system shutting down. Instead of fighting these physiological reactions, you want to use them to your advantage. Here's how.

Practice less.

There's a huge difference between practicing and playing. And while you definitely need to be technically proficient, you can practice too much. And that leads to too much thinking.

Invariably, when the best performers are asked what they were thinking about when they turned in a superlative performance, their answer is "nothing." They were so focused on the task at hand that they weren't consciously thinking. They were just doing.

So instead of rehearsing, just do it. "Only spend 40% of your time practicing," says Eliot, who has outlined his philosophy in Overachieving (Portfolio, October). "The rest of the time you want to be out selling, or performing with an orchestra, or whatever it is you do."

Make it real.

When you practice, replicate real-world circumstances as much as you can. Actors hold dress rehearsals in front of a live audience. You should too. You don't want to practice your big speech alone in your office. You want to give it in front of people to get used to the pressure of performing.

Don't set goals.

One way people try to deal with daunting tasks is to establish an objective. A person who is shy might say, "I'll make five sales calls, and I'll be done for the day." A so-so athlete will say, "I only want to make the team." But these goals are inherently limiting. If you want to find out what you're capable of, you can't limit yourself. You don't want to do just the minimum.

Will all these approaches to dealing with big moments work? There's only one way to find out. Besides, if you aren't performing well under pressure now, what do you have to lose?

A version of this article appeared in the October 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.