If you watch Jerry Seinfeld backstage before a stand-up performance, you'll see him engage in the same precise series of steps every night. Dressed in an oxford shirt, he stares intently at sheets of paper containing the bits and jokes from his act. Then, at precisely five minutes before he takes the stage, his tour manager gives him a signal, and Seinfeld puts on his suit jacket.

"When the jacket goes on," Seinfeld told me in an interview, "it's like my body knows, 'Okay, now we've got to do our trick.'"

Psychologists call this type of ritual a pre-performance routine, defined as a sequence of systematic, task-related thoughts and actions. Over the past 30 years, researchers have conducted dozens of studies—in sports ranging from golf and basketball to rugby and darts—to understand how using a routine improves performance. Some of the studies, such as several that examined golfers, closely measured the sequence and timing of the things a player did before a shot; many of these studies have shown that golfers with a more consistent, slower pre-shot routine score better.

Other studies use a before-and-after "intervention" model. In a typical example, British researchers took a benchmark measure of how well three experienced male water polo players scored on simulated penalty shots, then taught them a pre-performance routine, which they practiced, and then had them make more penalty shots. In the water polo study, as in others, athletes who learned to use a pre-performance routine performed better.

Stewart Cotterill, a sports psychologist at the University of Winchester, in Great Britain, wrote a paper analyzing dozens of these studies. He says that although there's no clear answer as to why the rituals work, the researchers theorize that routines help focus our attention, limit distractions, help to "trigger" behaviors we've practiced in advance, as well as generally help us feel optimistic, energized and confident. You may not be stepping onto a stage or attempting a reverse somersault with a twist off a high dive; nevertheless, one of these quick, unexpected routines might be just the thing you need before your next job interview, blind date, big meeting or any other demanding situation.

Believe in a Lucky Object

In the female locker rooms at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, athletes put on more than their game faces. Many competitors had one or more lucky charms: a special bra, necklace or pair of socks or underwear they would wear in every competition. In general, lucky objects derive their power from one of two sources. One is what researchers call "contiguous events"—you wore a certain item of clothing, something good happened and, in your mind, the two things are linked, so you begin to believe the item is lucky. For instance, surveys by former psychology professor Stuart Vyse of Connecticut College show that many college students have lucky pens or outfits they wear on exam days; most often, the item became lucky because they wore it and did well on a previous test.

Another way an item can be imbued with special powers is if it was touched by someone famous or admired. Several studies have shown that people who believe they're wielding an object previously used by a high performer do better themselves. For instance, on the way from their locker room to the field, Notre Dame's football players touch a sign saying "Play Like a Champion Today," which they know has been touched by every member of the Fighting Irish since the late 1980s. Similarly, one neurosurgeon I know keeps an old, obsolete set of surgical instruments in his tray because they belonged to his mentor and make him feel as if the older surgeon is in the room, helping guide him.

Practice Priming

Chances are you've heard of "power posing," a concept popularized by Harvard Business School researcher Amy Cuddy, whose TED Talk on the subject has been viewed 41 million times. Although Cuddy's finding that standing in a dominant pose—feet spread, hands on hips, like Wonder Woman—can increase one's sense of power is controversial, there are many other studies that suggest that subtly exposing someone to a particular stimulus can affect subsequent behavior. (For instance, in one famous experiment at Yale University, people who completed a word game featuring words like "Florida" and "wrinkle" walked more slowly afterward because they'd been primed by the idea of aging.)

Some researchers believe it's possible to harness the power of priming to boost your confidence. For instance, for a 2013 paper, Columbia University professor Adam Galinsky and his colleagues asked people to write for a few minutes about a time they felt either powerful or powerless; the subjects were then asked to put together a job application letter or take part in a mock interview. The people who wrote about a time when they felt powerful did better on both the letter and the interview. Galinsky argues that this kind of writing can be even more effective than power posing. "The recall task is more private," he says." It allows you to think about what you experienced and felt in that situation, and I think it's easier to get into the right mind-set."

Imagine a Great Performance

Before they compete, elite athletes often visualize the step-by-step movements of a perfect performance. This can be a compelling technique to boost confidence. It can help to recall a past occasion when you shined, or even look at photographs of that event. Before I give a speech or a radio or TV interview, I sometimes pull up a clip from an interview I did on NPR years ago. Due partly to NPR's smart editing, this audio clip features me at my most articulate—a day when I managed to sound and speak the way I'd always hoped. Listening to it before I speak in public helps me visualize exactly how I want to behave, increasing the odds I'll repeat the feat.

Your routine needn't be elaborate. Or long. Or secret. What's important is that you've taken the time to develop and consistently practice using one.

Sum It Up by Pat Summitt Daniel McGinn is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review and the author of Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed (Portfolio, 2017).


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