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Attention in High Performance: An interplay of emotion and distraction (PART 1)

You’ve done the research, know the theory, practiced your speech and anticipated potential questions. You’ve done all you can but, come presentation time, you’re sweating, your heart’s racing, and everything you’ve prepared has fled your mind. You can’t recall anything! Furthermore, the parts you do manage to mumble out are mismatched and awkward. What happened? 

This is not an unusual sequence of events. It happens to everyone from public school teachers to CEOs to professional athletes to accountants. Regardless of our knowledge mastery, we often arrive to a presentation or performance unable to properly apply our skills. How do we get to the point where we consistently perform on a level equal to our experience—despite the situation?

Let’s take a look at what it feels like during a peak performance–that sweet spot where we feel “in the zone.” It’s a state of hyper-focus, as if we’re so efficiently computing incoming stimuli that everything is in slow motion. It’s a state where procedural memory (the process of unconsciously accessing learned skills) comes into play. Being in a flow state, as Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes it, is a combination of two prerequisites: a sufficiently challenging task and a sufficiently skilled individual.1 The task and the skill level must be high enough that the individual isn’t apathetic about the process.

In the zone with zero distractions

Assuming we are both suitably experienced and regularly challenged, we’ve ticked off two boxes in preparing for the flow state. The large majority of working adults in competitive or high-achieving environments fall into this category. Extreme focus arises from these two things being in harmony; however, in high-pressure situations, we’re hijacked by our thoughts and emotions, thus breaking our concentration and scattering our attention to the wind. Inattention—or rather, misplaced attention—derails potentially incredible performances. 

I’ll use the word emotions to encapsulate both the thoughts and emotions that come up as well at any given moment. Thoughts are essentially neutral, but it’s the meaning we assign to them (our emotional reaction) that gives them the power to distract us in key moments.

“The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy—or attention—is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else.” – Mihály Csíkszentmihályi 2

Ordering our consciousness

“Paying attention” has long been touted as a necessarily life skill, but let’s deconstruct that idea. We’re specifically exploring the order of our consciousness.3 At any given moment, we have numerous things battling for our attention. Our goal is to accept our thoughts as they come while nevertheless prioritizing the present moment. We’re not trying to suppress emotion, but rather shift our focus. This is why we say that courage is not the lack of fear, but the acting in spite of it. In high-performance, everything other than the task at hand is placed on a lower rung of the ladder. Assigning an appropriate level of awareness can be the difference between life and death, a made or a missed shot, or a good or bad review.

This is why we hear extraordinary stories of athletes, businesspeople, or actors giving the performance of their lives while coping with a recent tragedy. They are able to reorder their consciousness by setting aside the intense emotionality of their lived experience and tuning into a rarely-accessed level of focus. The key comes from removing emotion from the centre of our consciousness. A lousy day doesn’t have to turn into a lousy performance.

Decoupling emotion from attention

Dr. Peter Haberl is a sports psychologist with the US Olympic Committee who studies the Olympic performance experience. In his research, he found one testimonial of the medalling experience that reminisced, “It feels like the gallows.” The moment that we assume will be the apex of euphoria, in reality, often feels like hell. There’s a state of physical exhaustion, mental fatigue, and emotional bombardment. It’s the manifestation of anxiety—the burden of personal objectives and the burden of anticipatory shame (seeing ourselves in the eyes of family, coaches, bosses, colleagues, shareholders or media). Haberl asks his athletes, “Do you want to feel like that?” Most, understandably, respond in the negative. Who wouldn’t? However, Haberl argues that it’s the willingness to accept negative, uncomfortable emotions that separates high-performers from the rest. And, fortunately, it’s a tolerance that can be trained.

Haberl argues what we think or feel is of little consequence. What’s important is that we notice the process—the thoughts crowding our mind, the emotions gripping our body. Once we notice it, we have the power to control whether we stay in this state. Where our attention goes next is in our hands. We’re not hijacked and powerless, we’re conscious and capable.

“You don’t have to change your feeling or your thoughts… What you want to do is be aware of the thoughts and feelings that come up, and then take charge of your attention.” – Peter Haberl4

Dropping anchor

Mindfulness can be defined as “a way of intentionally paying attention to the present moment without being swept up by judgments.”5 In other words, it’s normalizing uncomfortable feelings and redirecting our attention to the task at hand. Our unbridled thoughts only take us one place: away from the current moment. As we get caught up reviewing or anticipating, our attention is commandeered. It’s impossible to be in a flow state with this kind of mentality.

Our goal, then, is to stay grounded amidst thoughts and emotions that naturally assail our mind. Visualize yourself in this flurry of emotions as a boat in the midst of strong winds and high waves. Haberl completes the analogy: “Dropping an anchor doesn’t make the storm go away, but it holds you steady.” Our mindfulness practice becomes our anchor.

Nothing like a good analogy.

Choosing a Mindfulness Practice

A mindfulness practice is an excellent way to rehearse staying in the present moment. By improving our attention daily, we create lasting habits for our mind that bode well in high-pressure situations. This area is exhaustively written about, so there’s no need to elaborate here, but you can explore some suggestions in another post I wrote about mindfulness practices for high performance.

In addition to traditional methods, I explore some ways to raise the stakes, like creating an environment that emulates a high-pressure situation: a timed task, a public trial run, a critiqued assignment. In these types of “faux-stress” situations, we practice ways to “cast our anchor.”

Our mind as a thought factory

The most important thing to acknowledge is this: our mind is a thought factory. That’s what a healthy, functioning mind does—it forms thoughts. We shouldn’t judge our mind for doing its job. Thoughts and emotions are not inherently bad; we should acknowledge their presence and explore their origins, but what ultimately matters is where we direct our attention. 

By decoupling our attention from our emotion, we are better able to manage moments overrun with emotion-provoking thoughts. We can prepare for these instances by implementing intentionality in our daily life. When we accept the immutability of constant thinking and commit to a mindfulness practice, we become proficient in ordering our consciousness.

To be continued…

Keep a look out for Part 2 of this post, to be posted May 8. We’ll explore what specific methods we can use to strengthen attention, how to integrate intention setting into practices, and why reflection serves as a way to maintain attention in the future.

Question Time:

Do you struggle to perform under pressure?

Where is your attention focused in key moments?

Footnotes

  1. Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Row, 2008.
  2. Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Row, 2008.
  3. Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Row, 2008.
  4. “Episode 225: Attention Is the Currency of Performance.” Interview. The High Performance Mindset(audio blog), December 30, 2018. http://thehighperformancemindset.com/225-attention-is-the-currency-of-performance.
  5. Siegel, Daniel J. Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York: Bantam Books, 2011.

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