“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”
-Herbert A. Simon
Performance in any domain can be a daunting task in today’s world. Whether you are a promising young athlete with plenty of external distractions, a student cramming for a big exam, or a manager leading a group of people, we all suffer from an overload of input on a daily basis. This rings even more true with an explosion of connection and sharing of knowledge in the form of the internet, social media, and the like. All of these things are wonderful in getting us connected, but it tends to come with a cost. Athletes are flooded with constant comparison and analysis, students have a tough time concentrating on learning, and workplaces’ have trouble keeping people engaged and productive.
This is because the brain can only take so much input. We have more information in our phones than a medieval scholar had over the course of his life reading books. We can search up anything we want in a few seconds. But we cannot possibly search, process, and learn everything. We are limited in our capacity for intake. This is why, now more than ever, the strongest skill one can possess is the ability to eliminate distractions, both at the micro level (eg. focusing on studying rather than netflix) and the macro level (eg. choosing the right career). I like to call this process Reducing the Noise. Focus itself is not so much the act of focusing on task, as much as it is eliminating the things pulling at your attention, whether that is the dopamine rush of checking your notifications, or the difficult conversation you had with a friend.
One of the conditions for creating more flow in your work/life is deep embodiment. What this means is reducing all the attention grabbing variables and simplify your focus. During a game, an athlete needs to get rid of focusing on the crowd, a past mistake, or the scoreboard as those are things unrelated to the task at hand. A student studying for an exam should not have 10 tabs open at the same time (2 of which are social media) and instead create the environmental conditions for simplicity.
Take a moment to reflect on something you want to get done or accomplish. How often do you get distracted when you do it? What is pulling at your attention?
When you’re on the field, or performing your given activity, where is your mind? Seems like a silly question, but too often we don’t realize our mind is not where it should be. Too many things are taking you away from what you’re actually doing. We are stuck with being physically present, but not mentally. This of course leads to decreased performance, and ultimately lowered happiness and well-being. So, to help fight back and help reduce some of the noise in your life, here are a couple tips to get you started.
(1) Make a list of attention grabbing variables and see which ones you have the ability to control, and try to reduce their impact. This means putting your phone away when studying or talking with someone, or moving away from a distracting teammate during a drill.
(2) Create a most important task list (MIT) the night before and write down the 3-5 most important tasks you want to get done the next day. It doesn't matter if you complete them or not, at least you set an intention of focus. This will give you a clear objective, another condition for flow.
(3) Practise mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practise of non-judgmental present moment awareness. It is a type of mental training where you practise noticing a thought or distraction, and guiding your attention back to a point of focus, most often the breath. Spending even just a few minutes each day following the breath and bringing your attention back to it when you get distracted can also transfer over to life and performance skills. For example you will be better able to notice yourself drifting off during practise when coach is talking, and bring that attention back to the moment. Or students are better able to view their urge to check social media during studying as just a thought that doesn't need attending to and are able to focus for longer. Flow tends to follow focus, so learn to focus first, and flow later!
(4) Use the rule of three
(5) Set your work periods into smaller chunks. Our brains don’t like big goals. We can only sustain our attention for only a limited time. What has been shown to be effective is working in bursts of small chunks of time (around 25 minutes), with 5 min breaks in between. The Pomodoro technique uses this format. I use it all the time in writing blogs or creating presentations for workshops and find it highly effective.
It’s tough to feel like your getting anything done when there are a million things competing for your attention. In his book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Daniel Goleman talks about focus being the precious skill we must learn to cultivate if we are going to survive in our chosen fields. Start by spending a few minutes out of your day distraction free, and see where that leads. The more we #ReduceTheNoise the clearer our thinking becomes.
As Bruce Lee once said, “It's not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential. Simplicity is the key to brilliance”.
Stay in flow my friends.