Off Days

November 29, 2020

Yesterday was an off day for my daily Turkish practice.

Every day, I complete one lesson of the Pimsleur Turkish language course. I listen to an audio tape and repeat Turkish phrases and sentences. The instructor might say, “in Turkish, say you have one young child”.

The genius of the Pimsleur method—of which I’m a huge fan—is in its recall timing. If I learned a phrase earlier today, or yesterday, or last week, the instructor will ask me to recall that phrase at just the right time for optimal retention.

Normally, studying Turkish goes smoothly. I can correctly answer perhaps 85 to 95 percent of prompts. Yesterday, not so much.

I struggled. My brain felt slow. I seemed to have forgotten words that I had already memorized in previous days. Many times, I had to pause the tape to give myself more time. And I repeatedly messed up phrases, even after the Turkish speaker on the tape reminded me of them.

How different it was the day before yesterday. That day, my studying went superbly. I got almost everything right. I felt like I was nailing it. And—according to my Turkish girlfriend, who was listening a bit in the background—my pronunciation was spot-on.

I experience the same ups and downs when weightlifting. One day, I feel like the king of the world and I’m pumping out heavy squats like it’s nothing. The next session, I’m struggling on every rep.

Why?

In the past, I spent lots of energy analyzing my performance. Maybe I didn’t sleep well. Maybe I ate something that didn’t sit right. Maybe it was late in the day. Or maybe I’d felt particularly stressed that morning.

These factors matter—on average. But on a given day, even if I know how well I slept, what I ate, what time of day it is, and whether I’m feeling relaxed, I still can’t predict accurately whether I’ll have a good session of studying Turkish, of weightlifting, or of anything else. It’s simply a surprise.

Now, I like to be informed. I like to understand things. And I like to know what’s coming. But when it comes to performing optimally—in any field, really—I find that it’s best not to have expectations.

In meditation, teachers speak of “beginner’s mind”, which is an attitude of openness, with a lack of preconceptions. I try to take that attitude whenever I want to perform in one way or another. With fewer expectations, there is more space to focus on what’s happening and on what you’re doing.

If your personality resembles mine, you might find it exceedingly difficult to let go of your expectations. You don’t want to have off days. You want to perform optimally every single time. So you analyze and analyze, in the hopes of finding a magic combination of variables that leads to success.

To a degree, that makes sense. Better sleep, less stress, and healthy food will improve your average performance. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can predict the outcome for any given session.

When you have an off day, don’t worry too much about the why. Instead, practice accepting it, as quickly as you can. The sooner you do, the better your chance of crushing it next time.

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