Develop routines to optimize attention

You’re traveling in a convoy in a dangerous area. You’re on a conference call in your home office with the kids calling for you just outside of the door. Whether you are a Warfighter, a parent, or both, there are times when you need to focus your complete attention on the task at hand. Practice the strategies below to enhance your ability to focus when you need to be at the top of your game—steadfast and decisive.

Strategy #1

Issue: Do you approach tactical situations a different way each time?

Strategy: Create routines

In sports, personal performance routines (such as taking a breath, clearing your mind, and visualizing your next actions) in training or before competition help athletes perform their best in both stable, predictable environments (such as bowling) and semi-stable environments (such as taking a soccer penalty kick). NCAA Division 1 basketball players who use a routine for free throws make 74% of their shots versus 68% for those without a pre-shot routine. (Watch these videos from Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan as they describe their own routines.) Parents too face responsibility, often in a more unpredictable environment than in athletics, but can also maximize their focus through routines. And the stakes for Warfighters in combat are even greater, making routines for focus even more important to performance. Routines help athletes, family members, and Warfighters experience better mastery over their movements, emotions, and thoughts. Form routines that incorporate good habits but also allow for flexibility.

Strategy #2

Issue: Does your attention wander haphazardly at times to the wrong thing?

Strategy: Use intentional focus

Intentional focus is a deliberate manner of placing your attention on a task at hand. Sometimes the object that needs your focus is a tangible one, such as a target. Here are some techniques that can help:

  • Set “process goals,” that is, goals that focus on relevant and controllable pieces of the process rather than the outcome.
  • Use “trigger” words to focus on one thing at a time, such as “look left” or “look right.”
  • Use simulation training, such as entering and clearing a room with balloons placed as targets.
  • Engage in mental practice, seeing and feeling—in your mind’s eye—what you will do.
  • And hone your performance routines.

Strategy #3

Issue: Not sure how to create a performance routine?

Strategy: Become aware

Pay attention to how you can focus very intensely on something or, by contrast, passively allow yourself to soak much more in (inside your head or out in the world). This is the process of becoming aware.

A solid performance routine begins with an awareness of all that you could possibly pay attention to versus all of what you would like to pay attention to. For instance, right now as you read this, notice whether your attention is on something very narrow, such as the center of this “x.” Or is it much more broad, absorbing the whole screen, or maybe even the whole room? Simultaneously, notice if you are getting absorbed in your own thoughts on the matter or sticking more with your senses and what’s in front of you. Start noticing where your attention can go, then intentionally bring it to those “places” (inside your head or out in the world) where you need it most.

Think about attention as being broken down into width and direction. Width refers to the idea that attention can be narrow or broad. Think of width of attention like the focus of a camera; you can zoom in or zoom way out. Direction of attention can be external or internal. External focus is anywhere outside one’s self, like narrowly tuning into the weapon sight or broadly absorbing the entire range. Internal focus is tuning into one’s self.

Combined categories of width and direction include:

  • Broad-Internal: simultaneously noticing more thoughts, feelings, and sensations… possibly through your whole body.
  • Narrow-Internal: tuning inwards on one thing or part of one thing… possibly the sensation of your breath, or more narrowly on your exhale, or mental imagery of your plan.
  • Broad-External: observing more outside of you…possibly an entire room or even a landscape.
  • Narrow-External: “locking in” on something in the outside world like a certain sight or noise… possibly the sight of your own weapon or an explosion in the distance.

Strategy #4

Issue: Are you wondering how to put these techniques together?

Strategy: Integrate what you know

Developing a routine and intentionally focusing your attention is going to depend partly on the demands of the task. For example, these strategies can be applied to taking care of your kids or entering and clearing a room.

Both of these situations involve semi-stable environments at best. As a parent, you cannot know every possible event that might occur with your children. As a Warfighter, you cannot know exact scenarios in advance of entering and clearing a room. And while the particulars are going to vary depending on the exact situation, the routine can look very similar across situations. You can develop awareness of different attention states and mentally practice a range of scenarios with repetitions, so that you form habits regarding where you want your attention to go.

In taking care of your kids (because kids are often anything but predictable), a “routine” could look like the following:

In entering and clearing a room, a routine could look like the following:

You are holding your baby while fixing dinner and listening to your two children in the other room. (Broad-External)

Outside the structure, you get into the four-man stack. (Broad-External)

 You notice your thoughts about getting them to bed on time, so that you can get the bills done before bed, and you notice the sensation of stress in your abdomen. (Broad-Internal)

You notice your breath and slow it down with long exhales. (Narrow-Internal)

Slowing your breath down, you notice the calming sensation that comes with a longer exhale. (Narrow-Internal)

Based on what you’ve seen in the neighborhood, you picture what the inside of the building might look like, while taking a second exhale. (Broad-Internal)

 Shifting your attention back to your external environment, you hear an “ow!” and a child crying. (Broad-External and Narrow-External)

You tap your buddy to let him know you’re ready to roll. (Narrow-External)

 You know from the tone of the “ow!” and the cry that this is about “injustice” between siblings and not a true emergency, and so you resume focus on the pan that needs to come off the stove before you go investigate. (Narrow-External, Narrow-Internal, and Narrow-External)

As you enter the room, you move to where you are supposed to go, pointing your weapon where it is supposed to be, noticing big picture and potential threats. (Broad-External and Narrow-External)

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