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This Technique Can Help You Focus Like an Elite Athlete – The “AMRAP” Mentality

Tucked within the training programs of many athletic disciplines is a particularly challenging type of workout called the AMRAP workout.

Standing for “as many reps as possible”, AMRAP workouts challenge athletes to try to perform a movement – such as pull-ups or push-ups – as many times as they can within a set amount of time.

These types of workouts are intense, and they can be a great way to track the progress of your fitness over time. In fact, the climbing gym I go to actually uses the AMRAP format to test our fitness in their general exercise classes.

But, aside from its benefits in the gym, the idea behind the AMRAP workout can actually help you become more productive as well.

This is an idea that I learned about from Jason Khalipa, an athlete and successful entrepreneur who competed in the CrossFit Games 8 times and won it in 2008.

Among other feats, Jason has squatted 450 pounds, deadlifted 550 pounds, and done 64 pull-ups in a single set – which makes the 11 that I did in my most recent test at the climbing gym seem a bit pathetic by comparison.

In addition to being an elite athlete, though, Jason is also the owner of a successful gym business with six different locations – and his ability to manage that business, along with his athletics and his family, stems from a concept that he calls the “AMRAP Mentality.”

What is the AMRAP Mentality?

In a nutshell, the AMRAP mentality is the process of taking the same amount of focus and mental effort that comes naturally with intense exercise and applying it to everything you do. 

It is the act of approaching your daily life in the same way an elite lifter approaches her next set in the gym, or the way a champion runner approaches his next race.

I first learned about this concept when I listened to Jason’s interview on The Tim Ferriss Show (which is one of my favorite podcasts), and ever since, it’s been a really helpful mental tool for me – which is why I want to share it with you today.

To start, I want to pose a question to you that Jason brought up in that interview:

“Are we more productive now than we were 20 years ago?”

It’s tempting to jump to an immediate “Yes!”, since we now have access to vastly better technology, information, and automation than we had back when A Bug’s Life came out.

But is that actually a good thing?

Sure, I can now tell a robot to put things on my calendar, which is pretty cool – but all of this technology has also made it so much easier for us to pull our attention away from the present. And when we’re constantly distracting ourselves, it becomes habitual.

Think about it: how many times have you been at dinner with friends and had the urge to pull out your phone to check a text message – even though you’re literally sitting across from people you could be talking to?

How often do you find your attention pulled away from your work because you just HAVE to know what the best-selling Godzilla movie is?

Note: It was the 2014 U.S. Godzilla movie directed by Gareth Edwards. Resist the urge to go on a Wikipedia binge!

It’s become easier than ever to spend most of our time in a distracted, unfocused state. Most of the time, we have to actively work to build an environment that doesn’t outright encourage it.

However, there is one situation where you almost never find your mind wandering from the present. As Jason points out in the interview, when you’re in the middle of an AMRAP workout – when you’re trying as hard as you can to raise your chin up to the bar just one more time – your mind is completely focused on the task at hand.

Chalk it up to the difficulty of what you’re doing: the level of intensity involved in an AMRAP round makes it almost impossible to let your thoughts drift over to your weekend plans or the video game you were playing last night.

This is the core idea behind Jason’s AMRAP Mentality – channeling the level of focus and present-mindedness that you experience during an intense workout, and applying it to the rest of your life – whether it’s your homework or the time you spend with friends and family.

Jason breaks the process of using this mentality into four steps, which we’ll go over now.

Identify Your Areas of Focus

First, you have to identify your broad areas of focus.

Ideally, these should be few in number and have, as Jason calls it, a strong internal “why”. This may also mean abandoning certain areas of focus, or putting them on the back burner, if you have too many. You can only spin so many plates. (Actually, I can’t spin any plates).

The areas of focus that I’ve chosen include:

  • Creating videos – with a specific focus on the writing and filming process, now that I have an editor
  • Athletics – specifically training in rock climbing and figure skating
  • Spending time with my girlfriend
  • Working on a talk for an upcoming conference

Each of these areas also has a compelling “why” behind it.

For example, I’m focused in writing and filming with my work because I feel that’s where I can make the greatest contribution, and also where I see the most room for improvement right now.

I’m focused on both rock climbing and figure skating because I love both of these sports, and because they’re two sports that my girlfriend Anna also loves doing, meaning I get to spend more meaningful time with her.

You should work to identify your areas of focus – and their internal “why’s” – in a similar fashion.

Before we move on, I want to mention that this is something you should be doing on a more “micro” level as well. The goals I’ve outlined above are “macro” goals, but each day I also sit down and write down a list of the things I want to accomplish before the day is over. I think you should do the same.

Work Intensely on One Thing at a Time

After you’ve identified your areas of focus, the next step is simple: Choose one area, focus on it, and work hard at it.

Or, in other words, AMRAP it.

In a talk he gave about the AMRAP Mentality, Jason uses the image of a bike to give this concept weight; when you’re riding a bike, your only focus is making sure the bike goes where you want it to go. And if you want it to get there quickly, you have to work to crank those pedals.

This metaphor was especially fitting for me a couple of days ago, when I decided to try riding my bike from my apartment in Denver all the way to a friend’s place in Boulder, and then back. The total distance of the ride was 70 miles, which is actually longest I’ve ever ridden in a day (though it’s still 30 miles short of my current cycling goal on my Impossible List).

I ended up arriving in Boulder around 2:30pm in the afternoon, but since I stayed and hung out for a while, I didn’t start heading back until around 6:00pm.

And before I was even halfway home, it started getting dark – which meant that had to ride the last 20 miles using my bike’s headlight.

It was a perfect example of the AMRAP Mentality in action: the dark forced me to concentrate intensely on my surroundings and where I was going, and the fact that it was getting darker and darker really motivated me to bike quickly – even though the previous 50 miles had already worn me out.

I was “AMRAPing” the whole way home – putting in focused, intense effort until the job was finished and I was ready to switch to something else…

Switch Gears Deliberately

…which, as it happens, is the 3rd step in the AMRAP mentality: Switch gears, and do it deliberately.

When this happens, you then go right back to step two – right back to focusing intensely and working hard at the next thing.

Mentally, switching from working on your math homework to hanging out with a friend should be exactly like moving from an AMRAP set of pull-ups to another AMRAP set of push-ups. Your focus calmly switches to the new task, and all of your attention becomes fixated upon it.

Reevaluate Your Priorities Often

Lastly, the AMRAP Mentality requires frequent periods of reevaluation. You need to periodically sit down and ask yourself,

“Do my current areas of focus still make sense?”

Ask yourself if there’s still a strong internal “why” for each one, and whether or not there’s still room in your life for all of them.

Jason gives a great example of this in his interview on the Tim Ferriss show. After competing in the CrossFit Games for eight years, he realized that his business was growing, his family was growing, and competition in the Games was getting tougher and tougher every year.

After reevaluating his priorities, he decided to stop competing in order to focus on being a better father, husband, and business owner. He realized that if he wanted to do well in those areas, he couldn’t spare the time and energy required to be a serious competitor.

This act of reevaluating is something you need to do as well – especially during periods of change in your life. Even though the earlier steps in the AMRAP mentality will enable you to be productive, you always need to keep in mind that your time, attention, and energy are limited resources.

The AMRAP Mentality in Brief

To recap, the AMRAP mentality involves:

  1. Identifying your areas of focus, and defining a strong, internal “why” for each one.
  2. Choosing a single area at a time, working to remain mentally present while doing it, and working hard at it. Treat everything you do like an AMRAP set of pull-ups – come at it with enough intensity that you can’t let your mind wander.
  3. Switch gears deliberately. Don’t jump back and forth between areas of focus.
  4. Take time to reevaluate your areas of focus, especially when you go through a life change or when you decide you want to add something to your plate.

The Power of a Visual Metaphor

The steps outlined in this process might sound similar to other concepts I’ve shared in the past, but there’s a reason I wanted to share it; namely, that it’s proven to be a very helpful visual metaphor for me.

As an athlete, I often do AMRAP workouts, as well as other high-intensity forms of training. I’m well-acquainted with the all-encompassing focus that comes with trying to do as many pull-ups as I can, or attempting a difficult bouldering problem, or even climbing a big hill on my bike.

And when I remind myself of what it’s like to be in those situations, I find it easier to slip into the flow state with my work as well. In fact, I’ve even started writing “AMRAP” at the top of my daily task list as a reminder.

I strongly believe that visual metaphors can be powerful motivators. In fact, when I’m out on a long bike ride, I often picture the pistons in a car engine moving, which helps me to regard my own legs as machines that won’t be influenced by whatever complaints my brain wants to throw up about them. This type of visualization is powerful, and many elite athletes use it before competing.

So, even if you already “know” that you should be focusing intensely and switching gears deliberately, ask yourself: Are you?

If you’re not doing as well as you’d like, give the AMRAP Mentality a try. You might find it as helpful as I did.