Nod your head if you have ever been distracted. Now, nod your head if you have ever daydreamed. My guess is you nodded your head to at least one of those two statements. It happens, and usually we think nothing of it, but what happens if those distractions or daydreams take place at the wrong time? For instance, during a meeting with your boss or having an important conversation with your partner.
To perform at a high level, or to even function at an optimal level, requires your attention to shift between the environment and the self, between tactics and execution of the task. Failing to do so may cause you to miss important information and can increase stress levels when your awareness returns. What you pay attention to, and when, has a drastic impact on your ability to perform.
How Our Focus Fails
When the stakes are high, or when you feel tested, the stress levels in your body begin to rise. When you are unable to properly manage your stress levels, then your performance will suffer. In terms of your attention, this increase in stress results in the inability to shift one’s attention to what matters most. This inability to shift attention comes in a variety of forms: information overload, over analysis, and excessive pondering.
With “information overload”, this is where you are trying to process everything around you all at once. For example, you sit down to start work and you see 15 emails that insist upon a reply, your phone is ringing with a call from your boss, texts from colleagues are asking about specific aspects of a project in which you have a hand you have another colleague next to you asking for your expense report and you just happened to spill your coffee everywhere. Your mind is trying to place its attention on each aspect to help you decide where to start, but you end up doing nothing.
With “over analysis”, you are constantly second-guessing yourself and your decisions. For example, constantly asking yourself, “Are these numbers correct? Did I forget to add something? Did I close the garage door?” While double checking your work is valuable, but checking a third, fourth or fifth time has now led you to being late to a meeting or missing a deadline because you could not trust yourself that you did it correctly. Your attention was not able to move on to the next thing. I t was not sure where to go, so you get stuck looking at the same information over and over again.
With “excessive pondering”, you cannot let go of a specific distraction, mistake or thought. Let’s say that you gave a below average presentation to board members last week and today you have another shot at pitching your idea. Instead of focusing on what you need to do differently, you think about all the things that went wrong last week and how the situation may repeat itself. If you are unable to manage your stress during your performance, your attention will be impacted, which will lead to a less than optimal performance.
When I play basketball, my job is to shoot. I admire professionals like Steph Curry, Reggie Miller and Ray Allen because they are some of the greatest shooters in the NBA that we have ever seen. To them, being successful is shooting at a 45 percent success rate, but for non-professionals like myself, a 33 percent success rate is pretty good. However, that means that I fail 67 percent of the time, so there are a lot of opportunities for my attention to focus work on those failures. Growing up, that is just what I did. My attention went toward the misses. I excessively pondered why I missed, how I missed, and if I was going to miss again. My attention was focused on missing, making it most likely to miss again.
Not only was I most likely to miss my next shot, but it would take my attention away from everything else that was going on during the game. Because I was stuck thinking about missing, I was unaware of what my opponent was doing, what plays we were running, or even playing defense, so my overall performance suffered because I could not get out of my own way.
When I was able to shift focus, change happened. I was able to direct my attention toward the next play regardless of what happened the previous play. What I noticed was that not only did my overall performance increase, but my confidence taking that next shot increased as well. I was able to move on from my “failures” and keep my attention on the present moment, which also made me enjoy what I was doing that much more.
This highlights the importance of being able to shift your attention not only in times of perceived failure, but in times of success as well because the most important play is the one in front of you.
Be Where Your Feet Are
A few strategies that can help you bring your attention to the here and now include compartmentalization, attentional reminders, and creating a mantra. To compartmentalize means to separate your life into different categories. For example, create “file folders” in your mind for your family and for work. Your family folder might contain memories, conversations or important dates. Your work folder my contain deadlines, responsibilities and ideas for new projects. Creating folders in your mind allows you to think about family when you are with family, similarly allows you to think about work when you are at work, and all so that you can maximize your time and attention when you are in that specific environment.
It is common for our minds to drift into focus on things irrelevant to the task in front of us, but we can redirect our attention to what matters most. Let’s say you have a presentation in two hours, but you find yourself thinking about a conversation you and your partner had earlier that morning that did not go so well. While this conversation was significant and will need to be addressed, it does not provide any benefit for your presentation. File that conversation away and pull out your mental folder that has what you need for your presentation. This way you can perform at a high level for your presentation, then once it is complete, you can open up your family folder and start to think about how to handle that prior conversation.
Along with creating mental folders, an effective strategy to add is to create your own mantra or phrase that will guide your attention to where needs to be. For example, when I play basketball and I notice myself placing too much of an emphasis on my misses, I tell myself “Next shot” or “Next one’s in.” This directs my attention toward what I need to do to be successful for the next shot as opposed to thinking about all the reasons why I missed the last one. This mantra or phrase can be instructional, or it can be more motivational. For example, telling yourself “Let’s do it!” or “You got this!” One thing to keep in mind is that everybody is different. Your mantra or phrase does not have to be positive, it could be more on the harsh side, as long as it is productive in guiding your attention to the task at hand and not lowering your confidence. At the end of the day, find what works best for you. And practice is your friend in this endeavor.
There are many things in this world that are competing for our attention. Actually, literally everything is competing for your attention. Unfortunately, our mind cannot be in two places at once. Research tells us that trying to do so drastically lowers performance. Your ability to place your attention on the right things at the right time will ultimately lend itself to higher, more consistent performance. You can direct your attention to where it needs to be. If you notice yourself distracted, or focusing on the wrong things, keep calm and redirect your attention to get you back on track.