It's natural to feel awkward or nervous, says the author of Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed. The good news is that there are systematic and research-proven steps you can take to put yourself in the right mind-set—one that lets you be yourself and enjoy the experience.
1. Stop Trying to "Calm Down"

For people facing a nervous-making event, well-meaning friends tend to offer the same advice. "Don't worry," they say. "You don't need to be nervous." The problem is that your biological fight-or-flight system is sending a different message, one that's too powerful for the admonition "calm down" to effectively overpower. Instead of trying to make an emotional U-turn from completely freaked out to blissfully Zen-like, make a subtler, more realistic shift: Try to go from nervous to excited. Psychologists call this technique reappraisal, and some of the most interesting research into its power has been done by Alison Wood Brooks, a professor at Harvard Business School.

As an undergraduate at Princeton University, Brooks tried out for a highly competitive a cappella singing group—a scene reminiscent of Pitch Perfect. She made the cut and spent the next three years judging auditions herself. While watching hundreds of tryouts, she noticed a trend: People who talked about being nervous before they sang did poorly compared to people who mentioned being excited. As a doctoral student, Brooks ran experiments in which she put subjects in front of a Wii karaoke game, with some saying before singing, "I'm so nervous," and others saying, "I'm so excited." Brooks consistently found that the "excited" singers performed better, and she found similar results when people used the technique before math tests or public speaking. "The argument is that anxiety and excitement are actually very, very close, but that anxiety and calmness are too far apart," Brooks says.

So, before a date, jettison the "I'm nervous" self-talk. Instead, think about what a great opportunity the date presents. You have a reason to be excited.

2. Relive Your Greatest Hits

In a psychologist's office at the U.S. Military Academy, young cadets are taught how to visualize moments when they performed at their best. If the cadet is a lacrosse player, she's taught to imagine an ESPN highlight reel of her most spectacular plays; if the cadet is preparing to try out for Special Forces, he'll remember moments from past drills or combat experiences when he excelled. West Point even creates professionally narrated audio clips describing these moments, backed by motivational music, which cadets can listen to before important performance events.

You can use the same technique, without the professional soundtrack, by creating your own mental greatest-hits collection of sights, sounds and recollections of your best first dates—the ones where you had a wonderful time.

3. Put Yourself on Autopilot

When facing a stressful situation, it's helpful to reduce the number of decisions you need to make. That's the reason why, when an airliner develops a problem like the one depicted in the Tom Hanks movie Sully, the first thing the pilot does is reach for a checklist that provides step-by-step directions and reduces the workload on the pilot's brain. You can use the same approach before a date.

Consider that dreaded question: What to wear? Why not choose one spectacular outfit and make it your go-to for every first date? Many high-powered people rely on this uniforming tactic: Steve Jobs always wore jeans and a black turtleneck; former President Barack Obama admitted to Vanity Fair: "You'll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don't want to make decisions about what I'm eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make." The same logic inspired art director—and recent style icon—Matilda Kahl to select a white silk blouse, black trousers and a leather rosette for her work ensemble.

Choosing a venue can also be simplified. Several years ago, a friend of mine broke off her engagement and, after a brief mourning period, decided to join online dating sites and go on as many first dates as it took to find a new beau. To avoid the endless back-and-forth over where to go, she took charge, suggesting that every new match meet her for a drink at the same restaurant near her house. Beyond saving time on pre-date logistics, the tactic reduced stress: She didn't have to worry about directions or parking, and she always felt comfortable in the setting. After 60-odd first dates at the trusty location, she met her future husband.

4. Enlist a Friend for a Pep Talk

In a perfect world, we'd all be able to use self-talk, positive thinking and our greatest-hits highlight real to boost our confidence on our own. Some people find that negative thoughts and self-doubt can still creep in. When that happens, enlist a friend to pump you up, the way Mark Wahlberg does on an episode of the reality show Wahlburgers. "You're wonderful; you're charming; you're sweet; you're a real catch," he assures his friend Aaron, who's waiting outside a restaurant for a first date.

People who give pep talks frequently, such as sports coaches or sales managers, tend to develop a formula that works for them. A pre-date pep talk needn't be that elaborate, but it can benefit from one piece of research. Depending on the circumstances, people may find more benefit from either an information-rich, advice-filled chat that focuses on specific tactics and strategy ("Remember to tell your great story about that time in Miami, don't talk about your ex, and try to ask about his softball team") or a talk that's focused on eliciting certain emotions. ("Remember how many guys hit on you at Kenzie's wedding? That's because people adore you, and all you need to do is be yourself and this guy will too!") Figure out which of your friends really understands what you need to hear during the final countdown, and set a time to call her (or him) for some final affirmations before you head out the door.

5. Find the Right Soundtrack

In a 2013 study done by Spotify and, 78 percent of single people said music was a crucial part of their pre-date routine. Back then, the most popular artists for a before-date playlist included Justin Timberlake, Pink, Rihanna, Maroon 5 and Kelly Clarkson.

Your tastes may differ, so as you think about creating your own playlist, look at research into what makes different songs energizing or motivational. The world's foremost researcher in this area is Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University London, who grew up above a record store and has published more than 100 scientific papers on music and motivation. His work suggests that there are two elements to consider when adding a song to your playlist: its intrinsic musicality and its emotional connection.

A song's intrinsic musicality refers to the way it sounds, including its tempo, rhythm and lyrics. If you instantly felt more energized and upbeat the first time you heard Timberlake's "Can't Stop the Feeling" or Bruno Mars' "24K Magic," you were responding to intrinsic musicality. Other songs' motivational power comes from our emotional connection to or memories of them. Do you remember the first song you slow-danced to, or what was on the radio during some romantic highlight from your life? Those songs evoke feelings not purely by the way they sound, but by the emotional and visual memories they trigger. To be sure, some of these songs may be too closely connected to a specific former partner to work on a pre-date playlist. But if you find just the right mix of upbeat music and songs with emotional resonance, it can help elevate your energy level and put you in the positive mind-set you need to enjoy the evening.

Psyched Up Daniel McGinn is the author of Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed and is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review.

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