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Attention in High Performance (PART 2): The role of intention-setting and self-reflection

In PART ONE of this series we examined the link between attention and emotion—the ability of emotion-inducing thoughts to distract us in key moments. We explored how “ordering our consciousness” and accepting uncomfortable feelings allow us to perform at high level. We also delved into some anchoring rituals in this mindfulness for high performance post. In this second part, we’ll see how we can focus our attention using intention-setting and self-reflection.

Let’s assume we’ve implemented a mindfulness practice and started addressing our attentional habits. For many of us, there’s still an overwhelming gap between the broad attention with which we approach daily tasks and the sustained, zen-like focus we strive for. How do we filter the unnecessary and hone in on what’s vital?

Ladder of priorities

When we focus on extraneous information, the present moment (ie. the task at hand) slides down the rungs of our ladder of priorities. It often occurs when we ruminate about the projected result of an assignment, the judgment of our superiors, or the contributions of our colleagues. This is how poor performance creeps in. By prioritizing our anxious thoughts, we concede that they are more critical than our current task (reminder: they’re not). Again, we’re not trying to dispel all thoughts from our mind, that’s an impossible and unwarranted mission. Instead, we’re maximizing our limited attentional capacity. We’re keeping the present moment at the top of the ladder, and ordering the rest on consecutive lower rungs. By placing them there, the emotions attached to peripheral thoughts wreak less havoc on our emotional state. The more we train our attention, the more easily we’re able to regulate our emotions.1

“To train ourselves to become most effective at regulating our own emotional states, we may first have to adjust the source of our focus.”2

Time to level up

Setting personal intentions

So what exactly should we envision at the top of the ladder? “The present moment,” yes, but that can be a bit vague, especially when the present moment requires deliberate action. For many us, there are team or company goals and expectations attached to our performances. In this post, however, we want to narrow in on our personal intentions in these situations. Now, hopefully we’ve already contemplated our broader life intentions, but the same practice can be implemented daily in our area of expertise. 

A personal intention of mine in my workplace is being creative on the court. It sounds a bit vague, but it’s shorthand for various performance goals I have. My default in times of stress is to facilitate and organize. Those are positive reactions but often result in less aggressive play; I pass up good shots, I don’t attack the basket and I don’t impose my will on the defender. Inversely, I fail to apply pressure and take calculated risks on defence. These are basketball terms, but can easily be applied to any situation. My reaction is quite similar in non-basketball realms as well. By formulating an intention to be creative, I embrace possibility and remain in the present. The idea isn’t to be aggressive on the next play no matter what. The idea is to stay aware of what’s happening in the moment and approach it creatively and confidently. Furthermore, by cultivating this mental stance, I’m no longer worried about whether what I’m doing will work nor whether my coaches or teammates will agree with my decision. Questions about success, failure, doubt or outside agreement are redundant—we train ahead of time to address all those intricacies. By the time we reach our performance, we have to trust our training and intuition. By focusing on my personal intention, I take away the emotional distraction of anticipating the future or replaying past failure.

Personal daily intentions, when thoughtfully formed in respect to greater group goals, will lead us in the right direction. In this case, we’re given a shortcut: our only attention requirement is our intention. Attention to intention. This clearly demarcates our optimal zone of focus. When attention drifts—as it assuredly will—we remind ourselves, again and again, of the our core objective. It’s easier to bring your mind back to the moment if there’s a specific concentration zone. We become less distracted by the stories we tell ourself and the emotions we experience. We’re able to place useless thoughts in the distraction category because we’ve established boundaries. Our attention is already taken—it’s focused on our personal intentions.

“My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind – without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos” — William James 3

Narrowing our focus

Review and Revise

While attention is vital in the moment, reflection is vital after the fact. By identifying and dismantling repetitive rumination, we streamline the attention- and intention-setting process. Bryce Tully, a mental performance consultant for the Canadian Women’s National Team and the Canadian Sport Centre (Atlantic region), once gave me an excellent post-practice exercise. It’s a debrief that identifies thoughts that provoked the most emotional impact throughout the day. I imagine these thoughts as vultures circling around our mind wreaking havoc on our inner equilibrium. The process starts by choosing one (or more) of the options listed below. It’s meant to be a journalling exercise, so get out a paper and pen and try it on your own:

Generally speaking, which of the following impacted your emotions the most today? (select multiple if required)

Perfectionism (inflexibly high standards)   

Need for control (caught up in things you can’t control)       

Outside pressure (worried about pleasing others)

Fixed Mindset (worried that negative perceptions are permanent)  

Projection (caught up in your own negative version of the future)

Other…4

I identify with every single category, as I suspect many of you do. By routinely following this prompt, we can both pinpoint our emotional and mental state on a particular day and uncover consistent trends. With that information in hand, we can deconstruct and challenge our thoughts and reactions. In the heat of the moment, we are able to label thoughts as ‘striving for perfectionism’ or ‘clinging to our fixed mindset.’ Rapid identification and labelling allows us to dismiss unhelpful states of mind, leading to better emotional regulation (and better attention!).

Got your pen and paper?

Attention is vital in the moment, reflection is vital after the fact.

The debrief also includes a follow-up prompt which asks us to consider our thoughts’ veracity. Is there evidence for our presumptions? This exercise confronts the baseless assumptions and sweeping statements we make on a regular basis. We often judge ourselves based on what we think someone else might be thinking, employing the classic looking glass self conundrum. Or perhaps we’re fatalistically generalizing: “I always screw this up.” Really? Have we messed up every single time? Reviewing our thoughts in a discerning manner can challenge our mode of operation.

Acknowledgment and Attention

After thorough self-reflection, we’re empowered to acknowledge our insecurities and anxieties with a detached demeanour. When thoughts arise during key moments, we can comprehend their origins and—because we’ve already done a debrief of where we’re emotionally prone—we’ll feel less beholden to address them again. This practice, alongside daily intention-setting for specific high performance goals, allows us to premeditatedly narrow our attention. By doing the work beforehand, we enable ourselves to focus on the moment with less effort and less distraction. We’re free to direct our attention where it needs to be.

Question Time:

What’s a personal intention that makes sense for your workplace?

Which option of the debrief exercise most resonates with you?


Footnotes

  1. Wadlinger, Heather A., and Derek M. Isaacowitz. “Fixing Our Focus: Training Attention to Regulate Emotion.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 15, no. 1 (2010): 75-102. doi:10.1177/1088868310365565.
  2. Wadlinger, Heather A., and Derek M. Isaacowitz. “Fixing Our Focus: Training Attention to Regulate Emotion.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 15, no. 1 (2010): 75-102. doi:10.1177/1088868310365565.
  3. As referenced in Wadlinger, Heather A., and Derek M. Isaacowitz. “Fixing Our Focus: Training Attention to Regulate Emotion.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 15, no. 1 (2010): 75-102. doi:10.1177/1088868310365565.
  4. As taken from Bryce Tully, mental performance consultant for the Canadian Women’s National Team and the Canadian Sport Centre (Atlantic region)

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