“Camping is so much work! All we’re doing is organizing, cleaning up and putting stuff away” was a recent observation of my husband’s. My family and I spent the B.C. long weekend camping. While it was lots of fun, deciding what to pack, and how to set up camp was also a challenge in order to develop a system to keep things organized and not lose stuff. Of course, not being expert campers like many of our campsite neighbors, we forgot plenty of things like a rope to hang our wet towels between trees, and noted what we should bring, and leave behind next time. With more practice, the potential countless decisions around something like a weekend of camping get easier and more efficient. What are the top priorities and which things are less significant in the decision-making tree? Furthermore, the better we get at organizing anything in our lives, the less stress we’ll experience and the more mental capacity we have to focus on other things around us.
As athletes, countless decisions go into pursuing potential, and optimizing performance.There are the more significant choices like what races to do or what coach to work with down to smaller decisions around the daily details around training, nutrition, and recovery. While constantly juggling the work-life-sport balancing act, ranking the importance of each decision can be easier for some than others. Either way, when we waste too much time on trivial decisions or on decisions that don’t really matter (e.g. should I wear my smurf or my superhero underwear today?) then the result can be neural fatigue, depleting our energy and leaving less energy for the more important decisions and for what really matters to us in terms overall and daily priorities.
In this age of information overload, the processing of every decision we make such as what to pay attention to and what to ignore comes at a cost to our brain. Neurons are living cells so when they’ve been working hard we experience fatigue.
Attention is a limited resource. With brains that evolved to focus on one thing at a time we often have more things to keep track of than our brains were designed to handle. This is also why optimal performance often happens in sport with an in the moment, simple focus, with a well-rehearsed and practiced mantras or cue words. These types of mental tools leave no room for analyzing the past or fretting about the future. Perhaps this is why many of us enjoy the pureness of the single-minded focus we experience while training, playing, and competing in sport. The rest of the time we are often in a multitasking state demanding our attentional system to focus on several things at once – we read email and talk on the phone, or watch TV while social networking or studying for an exam.
When our brains attention constantly flips from one thing to another, there is a neurobiological switching cost. For example, ever wonder why scrolling through your social media feeds can leave you feeling more fatigued than recharged afterwards? It can be a process of constantly deciding what to pay attention to and what to ignore. Since our attention is a limited-capacity resource, our brains function best when we start a task and stick to it. So how does all of this relate to performance? Here are a few points to consider as you organize your life around sport in the name of maximizing your brains attentional capacities, and optimizing your overall energy and performance.
- Organize your physical environment to take the burden off your brain. While we all have varying degrees of cleanliness, home organization and tolerance for messiness, it is hard to disagree with how frustrating it can be when we misplace our keys, wallet or goggles for swim training on the way out the door in a hurry. And of course, we often misplace things, even if we have a regular keeping place for them, when our attention has been distracted elsewhere. While this may be a work in progress for most of us, the more we can organize, keep our belongings together in functional categories and have a regular place for them in our physical environment (e.g. camping gear, workout gear, keys, glasses, phone or even files on a computer), the less energy we’ll waste looking for things. This also applies to being on the road for athletes. As someone who has traveled to many races with a bike on planes, it is essential to develop an organization system for finding things, packing, and not losing things while away. Good organization of time and things reduces anxiety and stress, and allows more time to focus on performance and what matters most!
- Clear your mind by writing things down as often as needed. As I wrote about in a recent post, writing things down can be an excellent way to process ideas, plans, and reflections and literally take the mental load off your brain. For example when I progressed from a runner to a mountain biker to an Xterra triathlete, the list of gear and equipment to maintain went up substantially for each sport. Making of list of what not to forget or what routine to follow on race day was and still can be a simple example of getting it off your mind so you can relax, sleep well and know you won’t forget anything as long as you go over the checklist again on the way out the door. The same goes for organizing your race plan into manageable mental chunks and focus segments. The less conscious decision-making you need to do during a competition, the more your brain can focus on auto-pilot and more energy can be put into performing. Keep in mind this is a practiced and continually refined process with time, patience and experience.
- Focus or daydream while minimizing multitasking. As already mentioned, it takes more energy to shift your attention from task to task than it does to focus. If you’re able to organize your time in a way allows you to focus for extended chunks of time, you’ll not only get more done, but you’ll be less tired and less neurochemically depleted afterwards. The challenge is that our brain’s attention is easily distracted by something new called the “novelty bias”. Multitasking is like an addiction loop as our brain becomes rewarded with dopamine bursts for processing new stimuli that grab our attention; think of constantly attending to notifications on your smartphone. I also remember the short period of time when I decided to work on my French comprehension by listening to the radio while riding my bike on an indoor trainer. An already boring task coupled with a challenging cognitive task did not work out well for my ability to stay focused on what I was hearing, my motivation to keep pedaling or my overall energy management! Neither, in my opinion, does reading or checking your phone while working out at the gym. This also relates to the fact that daydreaming also takes less energy than multitasking. I often enjoy the time I have to daydream while out on an easy bike ride or run without the constant interruptions that are hard to avoid at home or work. It is a great time to be creative, make new connections and naturally problem solve things that have been on our minds. Focusing and daydreaming both help to recalibrate and restore our brains while multitasking does not. Staying organized in order to focus on one thing at a time while ignoring all the potential distractions certainly takes awareness and discipline, but it will pay off in terms of brain power potential and ability to focus in your sport as well! I know I’m still working on it!