Focus or "Attentional Control" for Performance

Performance & Sport

"The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus." – Bruce Lee

Focus or “attentional control” is essential to achieving your goals. In the previous blog post “The Mental Side of Sport” I briefly introduced the concept of attentional control and performance routines, but I want to expand on that further in this post.

Focus/Attention is the quality of non-distraction and is the multidimensional construct of selective processing of specific information while ignoring others. It's considered a limited resource not only in terms of the time we're able to maintain it, but also in terms of the number of tasks we can handle at one time (ex: multitasking).

The good news is that, like any mental skill, you can get better at both with training and practice. A lot of people know how to find focus, but don’t know how to maintain it—and that's why I've got some tips to not only help you improve your focus, but also to refocus when you've become distracted.

  1. Performance Routines: a set sequence of thoughts and actions done before and during your performance. Be intentional in your work and the task at hand. Set up the necessary conditions to succeed in concentrating and maintaining focus on your work or performance.

Athletes prepare routines for before and during their competitions. I have a pre-competition routine that I execute at tournaments before my matches so that I am primed physically and mentally to perform at my best. I've talked about the things I say to myself before I step onto the mat to compete; these things are unique to the individual, so you have to find a routine that works for you and practice it.

Examples include a basketball player bouncing the ball three times before a free throw or a golfer having a certain waggle before teeing off, or an MMA fighter having a certain walkout song to hype them up. Find the performance routine that works best for your optimal performance.

For someone in an office setting, think about your environment and how you can optimize it for performance. Your routine could be to prepare a cup of coffee and put on some music that helps you focus and gets you in the mood to work. Making sure your workspace is both clutter-free and distraction-free is a good place to start in creating a space for optimal performance. Find what works best for you to set the proverbial stage for your best showing. For performance routines to work they should be carefully planned and extensively practiced.

  1. Attentional Cues: the words and actions that direct our attention. These cues—which can be verbal, visual, or physical—can help focus our concentration on the task at hand or refocus if concentration tends to stray.

Just like performance routines, these cues need to be practiced regularly and employed consistently. Verbal cues are typically a single word or phrase, visual cues entail focusing on something in our immediate surroundings, and physical cues involve doing an action. All three of them are repeated at the appropriate moment when you become aware that you have lost your focus.

Some people use a single cue and others use a combination. My favourite method to use is the physical cue of slapping my legs during a match. Often before a match starts, I will slap my legs as a cue to focus and move my feet when the whistle blows. If I have lost focus or just given up a take down, I will use that same cue when returning to the center of the mat to shake off whatever just happened, refocus my attention, and concentrate on being in the moment and moving forward.

If you are in an office setting, think about what cues you could use to refocus when your concentration has been lost. Some methods to direct your attention back to your tasks include:

  • a word or phrase you could say to yourself
  • something on your desk you could use as a visual cue
  • a physical cue of taking a couple deep breaths and readjusting in your chair
  • a sticky note on your computer with a motivational phrase that you could say to yourself to optimize the verbal and visual cues together.

Whatever you choose, make sure to practice it to make it more effective.

  1. Time Management: the process of planning and exercising conscious control of time spent on specific activities.

When it comes to concentration and focus, there are countless lofty plans out there for increasing productivity, but they often don't include one of the most important tools: breaks! Yes, you heard that correctly. Breaks are essential when you consider what I mentioned about our focus being a limited resource. It's important to schedule the fun stuff too! It's next-to impossible to work a full eight-hour work day without taking any breaks—so take this as encouragement to be a little more realistic about your attention span.

When I was doing a course on presenting workshops for children, the facilitator dropped the best piece of advice I've been able to pass on about focus. She said that children only have an attention span that is 2-3 x their age in years. For example, a six-year-old will only be able to focus for about 12-18 minutes before they need to take a break. How many elementary teachers know this and structure this into their lessons? A teenager on the other hand, let's say a 15-year-old, has an attention span of around 30-45 minutes. For them, sitting through a 45-minute class without a break is a much more realistic expectation than for the six-year-old.

So, what is your attention span looking like with this in mind? Structuring in breaks like getting up for a stretch, a short walk, to replenish your coffee, or do something fun for a couple minutes does wonders to make you more productive during the blocks of time you've scheduled to work. Those little breaks also give you something to look forward to so you can be less likely to get distracted during your working block.

For me, I like to schedule work periods of 60 minutes in duration then give myself 10-15 minutes of leisure in between. I'm more productive and focused during those 60 minutes because I know that I have a break coming up where I can do the things that normally would lead to distraction if they weren't scheduled in—like scrolling through social media or messaging my friends.

Try some of these out to master your attentional control and see what positive changes you’ll notice in your performance.