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4 Ways CEOs Can Hack Their Brains For Success


Jim Loehr once ran a study in which he showed participants clips of professional tennis players and asked them to guess whether the player was winning or losing. But the participants weren’t allowed to watch a single serve; all they could see were the times in between rallies, as players paced, breathed and prepared for the next point.

When watching a middling tennis player, viewers can easily tell how they are performing. Frustration, nerves, exhaustion and joy are typically written on the player’s face. But with truly elite players, the study participants were stymied. It was almost impossible for them to detect a difference.

Loehr, a performance psychologist and co-founder of the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, has spent decades studying and coaching Olympians and executives. He said he believes that many of the keys to helping humans perform at their best lie in those interstitial moments of rest between periods of intense focus. 

On this week’s Walker Webcast, Loehr and Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker explored the ways that business leaders can take advantage of the natural rhythms in their bodies and brains to optimize their productivity and, more importantly, their long-term happiness. Here are some of the key takeaways:

To Recover From Stress, Disengage Fully

While a tennis match may stretch for multiple hours, only around 30% of that time is spent rallying. What athletes do in the in-between moments can determine a great deal about how they play. 

Loehr described peak human performance as a series of oscillations, with the brain and body moving back and forth rhythmically between full focus and engagement followed by detachment and recovery. Business leaders and athletes who are able to find a place of mental, physical and emotional calm before launching into new projects may find they have more energy, focus and creativity. 

“We are creatures who love to be all-in,” Loehr said. “We were born to chase. When we suffer is when we have an inefficiency in how we balance stress and recovery. When you’re chasing something that really matters to you, it’s important you find some way to oscillate, to find time to heal and recover.”

Even though stress gets a bad rap in the fields of medicine and psychology, Loehr argued that it is not stress but the lack of sufficient recovery that causes burnout and affects performance. 

Jim Loehr, co-founder of the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, on the Walker Webcast

Build Bulwarks Against Nerves

An Olympian on the cusp of a medal and a CEO stepping into a new role will both face an immense amount of pressure and anxiety. To overcome nervousness, Loehr suggested building psychological routines and pathways.

“It’s not a bad thing to be nervous,” Loehr said. “It means that you care, and you’re one step closer to the bull's-eye. You can take an oscillatory moment to breathe deeply, throw your shoulders back, put a smile on your face and work with the private voice that helps you move through high-stakes situations.”

Tennis champion John McEnroe found that he could conquer nerves by channeling his anger, Loehr said, because it can overrule the chemical pathways that govern fear. But most athletes he works with describe overcoming anxiety by entering an almost meditative state and letting their instincts take over. Executives can work to cultivate the same sort of calm.

Physically Write Down Goals

Because the brain responds so much to visual and verbal stimuli, physically writing down goals in a journal and saying them out loud can be a powerful way to build up mental toughness to work through challenges.

Loehr also suggested that business leaders work to build internal credos: moral and ethical guides for their own decision-making. Having a moral code that they have written down or said aloud can keep athletes and executives from cutting corners and making choices that come back to haunt them.

“Words are the best way to instruct the brain about what has to happen for you to succeed in life on the level that is most important to you,” Loehr said. 

Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker on a webinar with Jim Loehr

Winning Won’t Deliver Happiness

Humans tend to judge themselves by a list of external achievements, Loehr said. For athletes, it may be a championship or an Olympic medal. For a CEO, it may be a salary or a stock price. But those sorts of metrics are unlikely to bring them lasting happiness. 

For both groups, long-term happiness comes instead from what Loehr called an “internal scorecard” of connections to others, lives they have touched and improved, and understanding how they have treated others along the way. Building satisfaction based on internal validation can also lead to better performance.

“Fulfillment [fuels] extraordinary performance,” Loehr said. “When we’ve scaled our way to the top, knowing that we’ve treated others the way we want to be treated, it has a performance-enhancing side effect not just for ourselves but for everyone around us.”

On May 5, Walker will host Will Ahmed, founder and CEO of Whoop. Register here for the event.

This article was produced in collaboration between Walker & Dunlop and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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