Power Players

23-time gold medalist Michael Phelps uses a simple trick to stay focused on his goals

Michael Phelps on Thursday, October 25, 2018.
NBC | NBCUniversal | Getty Images
Michael Phelps on Thursday, October 25, 2018.

Michael Phelps knows what it feels like to achieve his goals. As the most decorated Olympian of all time, he's earned 23 gold medals, three silver and two bronze.

Now retired from swimming, Phelps is concentrating on his next chapter, which includes work with Colgate's Save Water campaign, which aims to reduce water consumption by 50 billion gallons per year, as well as being a dad to his two sons. But he still has big goals for himself.

To stay motivated, Phelps keeps a reminder of what he wants to achieve in his closet so he sees it as he gets dressed every day, first thing in the morning.

"I write my goals down on a piece of paper and they're there where I can see them because I have to have a reason, I have to see something for why I'm getting up in the morning and what I'm doing that day," he tells CNBC Make It.

No one else sees Phelps's hand-written goals. It's something he does purely for himself because, "not every day do I want to get out of bed, not every day do I feel great. So I want to see exactly what I'm doing and why I'm putting myself through this."

To Phelps, achieving his goals is the definition of success. And each individual accomplishment adds up to something greater, he says.

"For me in the sport of swimming, the star at the end is changing the sport, and then everything else is in the middle," he explains. "All the medals, records, everything else came, but the big goal was just changing the sport."

"You're laying a foundation...so it's always remembering that those little small steps and those little small things can add up to massive things." -Michael Phelps

For now, he's still figuring out exactly what his next "star" will be, but that's okay with him.

"I have short-term and long-term goals," he says. "Because there's stepping stones. I always use the analogy, 'Rome wasn't built in a day.' You can't do all of it at once."

"You're laying a foundation to be able to give you the opportunity to build a house, so it's always remembering that those little small steps and those little small things can add up to massive things."

That mindset is something he first learned in the pool.

"I always said that if I went into the pool and I was having a bad day, or I was in a bad mood… I would basically just pump a workout out and I'd try, he says. "If I can get 10 percent out of those days where I feel like absolute crap, 10 percent is better than zero."

For Phelps, staying motivated doesn't mean he has to be hyper-productive on a daily basis. But it does mean putting in the work every single day.

"I'm always trying to get a little bit out of each day, even though I'm not always feeling great," he says. "It's just hitting those little milestones, no matter what it is."

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