Why is it that in some situations, our personal performance is so good while in others we struggle and cannot seem to get into the groove where we do our best work? Is it because we forget, from one day to the next, the important details of our profession or what it takes to excel? Of course we all know that this is not the reason we sometimes follow up a great personal performance with one that leaves something to be desired. The answer to these questions lies more in the inconsistent application of basic mental skills that underlie our ability to perform - whether the performance is in the boardroom, on the sales floor, or on the golf course!
In order to provide a simple frame of reference to help our high-performance clients understand how the human mind works and how it can be made to work for us (as opposed to against us) in high-stress, competitive situations, I have created a set of simple Rules that I have called "The Rules of the Mental Road". These key Rules serve as the backbone of the educational process that ultimately yields the development of a mental training process we call the A.C.T. Model © - a practical set of mental 'tools' that you can utilize to shape your thinking so that you can perform to the best of your ability when called upon to toe the line.
RULE #1 STATES: If you want to climb out of a hole, the very first thing you must do is stop digging...
Sometimes we dig ourselves into a mental 'hole' by thinking negative thoughts, constantly reviewing and repackaging them in our mind and sharing them with others who are only too happy to reinforce those negative thoughts. If you want to shift your mindset from negative thoughts to positive and productive thinking, you first must choose to process only positive and productive thoughts. If you do not stop digging, you will not be able to shift your dominant thought to the kind of positive and productive thinking you need to turn yourself around and climb out of the hole. It does not matter what the nature of the negative thoughts might be, the first Rule of the Mental Road applies. Some examples:
- Increased responsibilities that seem to deny you the opportunity to focus effectively on anything - Deadlines you feel are unrealistic - Expectations you feel are unfair - Sales quotas you worry about - Monthly numbers you are told you must reach in order to guarantee bonus compensation or worse yet, maintain your job - Problems at home
If you allow yourself to be caught in a negative loop, worrying about things that are not relevant to the act of performing 'in the moment' your performance will not be optimal. Rule #2 helps us to understand why...
RULE #2 AFFIRMS: The Mind Can Only Process One Thought at a Time...
The human brain is capable of millions of computations each second but our mind can only process this information one piece at a time. The mind is not capable of processing two thoughts at the same time! Try the following simple test as a way to demonstrate to yourself the truth of this basic tenet.
The task I would like you to undertake involves counting backwards by 3s out loud, starting from the number 100. While you are doing this, have a friend ask you to solve a simple mathematical question (2x3 for example). Ready begin: 100, 97, 94...
Interesting isn't it? If you actually tried to complete this little exercise, you will likely already have realized that the only way you can solve the mathematical problem is if you shift your focus of attention from the task of counting backwards, process what you heard - the equation - compute and give the answer, and only then shift back to the first task, once the mathematical question has been resolved. This shift does not take long but undeniably, it does occur.
If you truly could process two mental tasks at the same time, you should be able to continue to process the task of counting backwards without interruption while simultaneously processing and computing the solution to the math question. Would it surprise you to find out that nobody can? Many people believe that they can process two thoughts at the same time, but in practical terms they cannot. What happens is that we switch back-and-forth between different thoughts, albeit very quickly indeed sometimes, but still it is a process of shifting one's focus of attention from one thought to another. But what is the impact of Rule #2 on personal performance?
Simply put, if your mind is only able to process one thought at a time, it cannot process a different thought at the same time. The implications of this Rule on performance are significant.
If you take a moment to think back to the performances in your life that you would categorize as being amongst your 'best ever', it is likely that you would report having possessed a single-minded focus directed specifically to the task in which you were involved...where your mind was fully absorbed in the process of what you were doing. This process-focused, undistracted, 'here-and-now' mindset is a common theme reported by many high-performers at the moment of their most brilliant performances, whether it is in the arts, in sport, in business, or whatever. Some people call it "Being in the Zone".
With Rule #2 in mind, what would the consequence of focusing on something other than what is required at that very moment, to perform to the best of your ability? For example:
- Worrying about how you are being perceived by others or perhaps fearing that you are not performing up to someone else's expectations; - Being focused on the results or the outcome of the activity (the negotiation, the sales pitch, the presentation)...which may perhaps even be hours away; - Distracted by some unrelated thought that is not directly beneficial or relevant to your performance at that very moment; and so on.
The consequence is that, if your mind is occupied processing thoughts that are not related to your performance, it cannot be focused on the process of performing at the same time - in the moment - and it is likely that your performance will not be as good as it could be. Rule #2 serves as the foundation on which the next 3 Rules of the Mental Road are built.
RULE #3 STATES: You Cannot NOT Think About What is On Your Mind...
So often, we pre-program ourselves for failure by expressing things negatively and thinking about them in the negative...
- "Don't get nervous. There is nothing to be nervous about" - "When you are up on stage Billy, don't focus on the crowd" - "Whatever you do, don't slice the ball into that rough on the right side of the fairway"
Because the mind cannot act positively in response to a negative thought, by expressing things in the negative (whether you state them out loud or simply process them in your mind) you make it easier for your mind to focus on exactly what you did not want to do... exactly the way you pictured it in your mind! The second Rule of the Mental Road affirms that you cannot NOT think about what is on your mind.
Here is another little exercise to help drive the point home. Take a moment to understand clearly the following instruction: I DO NOT want you to think about the thing that I will describe for you now. I do not want you to picture in your mind's eye:
A BIG PINK ELEPHANT... Wearing... PURPLE BOXER SHORTS... With... BIG YELLOW DOTS on them...
It's tough to do isn't it? The only way you would not see the image of the Pink Elephant in your mind's eye is if you had relied on Rule #2, that is to say that you set your mind intently on processing something else, another image that grabbed your attention fully while you read through the boldfaced lines above. The vast majority of people picture that strange Pink Elephant in all its glory...even though they understand the explicit instruction I gave not to do so. What is the impact of Rule #3 on your personal performance?
Rule #3 affirms that the harder you try NOT to think about something, the more strength that thought and its associated images gain...to become firmly entrenched in your mind. You must learn to 'phrase' things (and picture them) in your mind in positive terms, describing to yourself how you want to think and feel while you successfully accomplish the task that you are focused on, rather than what you do not want to do.
Since you cannot NOT think about what is on your mind and because you can process only one thought at a time, you must ensure that the thoughts you choose to process while performing are associated with the act and process of performing, picturing in your mind's eye what you want to do, how you want to do it and how it feels when you do it that way.