I was talking to a group of managers yesterday from an Engineering company and asked them how much time they spent focused at work. Not a lot was the response, it appeared in their previous life that as Engineers they were very focused but as managers they had lost focus and as a result felt they were under performing. Attentional Focus in very simple terms is ‘the focus of an individual’s attention at any particular moment’, and it appeared my managers had lost control of it.
It led to a conversation similar to one I had with my daughter Madison on a bike ride recently. It was windy, wet, miserable and she was tired. During a quick stop I asked her what was going on and she told me her head was all over the place. She was thinking about a pain in her knee, and then all the things that she had done that had made her tired today. She complained of the wind, the rain, the cars and then she said she had been looking at her garmin cycling computer and it told her she was cycling at too high a heart rate.
She was right she was all over the place and her ability to cycle well was suffering because of it.
The conversation I had with the managers and with Madison was about focused attention and that there are few if any more important skills to develop when it comes to High Performance in work, in sport or education. Being able to manage our Attentional Focus successfully requires high levels of Mental Toughness, a trait seemingly in decline if the research is to be believed.
Defining Attentional Focus is not that easy but one of the best models to begin to understand it is the spotlight metaphor. The spotlight is a mental beam that we choose (consciously or unconsciously) to illuminate on one of four fields of focus:
This helped my Managers look at ways they could improve their focus in each quadrant and examine different elements of their role to see which focus might serve them best. In particular they saw how important but difficult it is to create time and space for any kind of quality internal focus.
The above model devised by Robert Nideffer was updated in 1998 by Stevinson & Biddle who were looking at endurance (Marathon) runners. This proved a bit more useful for my daughter.
- External Task Relevant
These are things that are specific and that exist in the ‘real world’. This might include checking your bike computer to check speed against heart rate or focusing on the bike in front to stay on the wheel.
- External Task Irrelevant
These are things that that might include distractions such as the police car ahead or the runners on the other side of the road.
- Internal Task Relevant
This might mean inward monitoring of such things as a sore knee, laboured breathing or thirst
- Internal Task Irrelevant
Daydreaming, thinking what you are going to have for dinner or what you watched on T.V. last night all fall into this category – it is quite a popular quadrant for many much of the time.
Whilst most might think that focusing on Task Relevance is the way to go for increased performance (and to a large degree they would be right), the advice to my daughter was to move to the Task Irrelevance quadrant. I asked her to just follow me and start thinking of what she wanted for dinner tonight. Classic distraction technique which did the trick. In fact it worked so well she overtook me on the home stretch as she had made herself hungry and needed to eat!
My basic strategy in sport is to go internal relevant when training and external relevant when competing. I have found I can get ‘into the zone’ quickly and easily in competition when I know the internal relevant stuff is done and I can just focus on whats in front of me.
I am very happy to chat in more depth and details about Attentional Focus if you feel it may help you or those you know achieve better Performance at work, in your sport or in education. Find me on Facebook
Next Up – What exactly is the Zone?