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How to Ditch ‘Trash’ Thinking, Build Mental Toughness and Boost Productivity

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The St. Louis Cardinals ran off with the World Series in 2006 and 2011. Safe to say they might not have had those victories — 2006 saw their first win in more than 20 years — without the mind-toughness training regimen devised by Jason Selk, Ph.D., the Redbirds’ director of sports psychology at that time.

In an interview with ThinkAdvisor, the performance coach reveals that three-step process. Broadly, it trains the brain to dump negative thoughts and replace them with solutions.

Selk has worked not only with superstar athletes in MLB, the NFL, the NBA and more, but Fortune 500 executives as well.

Today, 90% of his business is coaching financial advisors and giving keynote speeches for their firms. These include the Capital Group, Edward Jones, Northwestern Mutual and UBS.

In his new book, “Relentless Solution Focus: Train Your Mind to Conquer Stress, Pressure and Underperformance” (McGraw-Hill; Jan. 5, 2021), written with his associate, Ellen Reed, Ph.D., the St. Louis-based coach details his process that, he says, can boost productivity up to 30% year over year.

In the interview, he uncovers the way to chuck “head trash” that leads advisory clients to “make goofy financial decisions” and how to defeat that stress-induced, unnerving “fight-or-flight” response.

Then he turns to the magic of prioritizing, which he endorses as “the most underrated skill of the most successful people walking the planet.”

The coach, who earned a doctorate in counseling and sports psychology at the University of Missouri, devises better performance techniques rooted in “optimism” research.

ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed Selk on the phone from St. Louis. Thought control for success was the focus; and part of that, he argues, is to acquire the “attack mentality” of the most successful people.

Here are highlights of our conversation:

THINKADVISOR: What’s mental toughness?

JASON SELK: The ability to focus on a plan instead of all the negative stuff in the world. Allowing yourself to focus on the problem without identifying a solution or a plan is head trash. It’s important for advisors to have a plan, and clients must know [their advisor] has a plan for them. The plan is the solution.

How do you keep focused on the solution, especially when faced with adversity?

Practice thought control: Choose the right thoughts that cause you to take action. That’s the first part of mental toughness. Humans have a predisposition to focus on the negative and their problems. That’s problem-centric thought. Stop focusing on things that aren’t working.

How can this be applied to financial advisors and their clients?

There might be 100 things that are going really well in a client’s portfolio and one that’s less than perfect. What do you think the client is likely to focus on? If it’s that one negative thing, oftentimes they start making goofy financial decisions.

What are your three “R’s” to be mentally tough?

The first step is: “Recognize.” You must recognize your mental weakness, otherwise known as problem-centric thought [PCT]. You have a built-in alarm to help recognize it: Any negative emotion that you feel. This should be your cue to think, “I know what’s going on here. I’m focused on the problem!”

What’s the second step?

“Replace”: You want to replace the PCT with solution-focused thinking — and do so within 60 seconds.

Why so fast?

To stay in front of the cortisol [fight-or-flight hormone] release. When you’re focused on a problem, the body releases cortisol, which [reduces or impairs brain function]. Financial advisors’ clients could be making goofy decisions because of this.

And the third step?

“Retrain”: We can retrain the brain. Neurons that wire together, fire together; neurons that wire apart, fire apart. Instead of mental weakness, or PCT, being the normal state, we can train the brain so that mental toughness is what’s normal. You can do this by filling out a daily Success Log and doing a mental workout [I developed that includes centering breath and an identity mantra]. Both of these take only a minute and 40 seconds.

Financial advisors’ work is extremely time-intensive. What can they do to manage time efficiently?

A big piece of mental toughness is restraint: You must know what not to do. You need to be really good at prioritizing, which is the most underrated skill of the most successful people walking the planet. To do that, you have to be great at deprioritizing. As an advisor, learn to identify the most important daily activities and what you want to attack first.

Please explain.

Pick the three most important things to get done today. When those are done, decide on the next three important ones. After an advisor makes the three most important, purposeful calls, they should write down the three names of people they’ll reach out to tomorrow. Writing the names down makes it much more likely that you’ll call them.

How does one deprioritize?

Ask yourself: “What are the things I’m putting significant time into daily that [don’t necessitate it]?” So you have to work on this from both ends — prioritizing and deprioritizing.

Please describe the “attack mentality” of highly successful people that you write about.

It’s refusing to play victim — a victim of the pandemic, of market volatility, of the election and of any personal things going on in your life. It’s been totally normal for advisors and their clients to play victim, especially right now, instead of being relentless about improvement and solutions.

Just what is being “relentless”?

Most people are “good” at the expense of “great.” They’re trying to be good at so many things that they compromise their ability to be great, or relentless, about the most important things.

If you execute 90% or better on your three most important activities daily, you’ll win in the business world. Anything less than 90% is a guarantee you‘ll underperform your potential. Most people are good at the expense of being great.

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