One of the first things I typically do on an airplane is look for the SkyMall catalog. I’ve never actually purchased anything from the catalog, but it’s always fun to see what new cool overpriced and unnecessary (but still tempting) items might be out there. Sometimes I’ll even rip out a page and take it with me. After all, you never know when you might need a $120 portable reclining laptop desk, right?

This is probably how most people browse through catalogs. However, I once met a person who did the opposite. Meaning, he would browse through the catalog, item by item, and put a big “X” through each item that he didn’t want. Yeah, if this doesn’t sound like much fun, that’s because it isn’t. Try it sometime.

Attentional currency

To our mind, the world is like SkyMall times infinity. There are literally an infinite number of things that we could be paying attention to at any given point in time. Sights, sounds, smells, internal physiological states and external stimuli alike all exist as a great big catalog of all the possible things we could spend our attentional currency on.

It is, of course, impossible for us to pay attention to everything simultaneously, as our attentional resources have a limit.

In this way, our cognitive resources are a lot like our financial resources. If you really wanted to, you could probably buy any one item in the SkyMall catalog, but your bank account probably wouldn’t allow you to buy every item in the catalog, right?

On a day to day basis, our non-deliberate or careless allocation of attentional resources isn’t especially apparent. In high-pressure situations however, where doing our absolute best is of crucial importance, we are quickly reminded how little we can afford to waste our valuable attentional resources on doubts, fears, and other irrelevant or self-defeating thoughts. After all, when it’s Monday, you’ve only got $17.33 in the bank, and you don’t get a paycheck until Friday, every penny counts, right?

Of course, these pressure situations are the exact moments in which our minds become extremely sensitive to thoughts that freak us out, make us tighten up, and ultimately detract from our performance. Indeed, the real key to overcoming performance anxiety or stage fright and experiencing more peak-level performances is the ability to selectively place our attention on only those things that will enhance our confidence, poise, and focus on the task at hand.

Or, in SkyMall terms, our ability to focus on only those things that we want to buy, not all the other products that we have no use for.

A 60-second test of attentional control

Would you like to see how much control you have over your attentional resources? Try this classic 60-second test.

In a moment, close your eyes, and for the next 60 seconds, no matter what, do not think of a purple cow.

When you’re ready, turn up the volume on your computer, and click here to start the timer.

How’d you do? How long did it take for the purple cow to start prancing about in your mind?

Is it possible for anybody to go 60 seconds and not think of a purple cow? No, perhaps not. But it is possible to spend 60 seconds thinking only about the great date you had over the weekend, or the spectacular pizza you had for lunch yesterday, or how great your new shoes go with the outfit you’re wearing today.

The trick is to stop resisting or fighting against the purple cow, and to instead redirect your mind to something else entirely.

Train your mind

Attentional control is a skill that can be developed just as cardiovascular activity strengthens our heart muscles and bicep curls strengthen our biceps. There are a wide variety of such exercises for the mind, one of my favorites being the “Shot Clock Exercise” (source: Conzentrate, by Sam Horn). For those of you who aren’t sure what a shot clock is, click here for some history.

The shot clock exercise

  • Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a completely dark space.
  • Take a few deep, diaphragmatic breaths, slow down your thoughts and quiet your mind.
  • Picture in your mind the shot clock with the number “24” in bright red lights.
  • Now, begin counting down to zero, seeing the numbers change to 23, then 22, 21, 20, etc.
  • If any other thought or image pops into your head, stop, restart the clock to 24, and begin counting down again.

See how long it takes for you to get from 24 to 0 without any other thoughts interrupting or interfering with this exercise. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do this right away! It’s ok if it takes days, weeks, or months to accomplish this feat.

Simple, but challenging, eh?

The one-sentence summary

For one who has conquered the mind, the mind is the best of friends. But for one who has failed to do so, his very mind will be the greatest enemy.  ~Bhagavad Gita