Fundamentally our brains are wired for survival rather than high performance. So we always joke in a kind of serious way, that high performance isn’t that hard given the benchmark is actually kind of low.
Given that we are wired for survival, we are trained to look out for potentially threatening situations. And unfortunately we often feel just as threatened by work stress as we did by saber-tooth tigers back in the day. So unfortunately we keep looking out for attitudes, actions and behaviours that make us feel safe and prepare us for what could go wrong. This is fine when we are actually in danger, but these pathways can become maladaptive and prevent us from the success we deserve.
Interestingly, neuroscience tells us that we would rather know that something bad is about to happen than maybe have a possible good or bad situation happen to us in the future. So as an example, on average, in the case of a company restructure, we would rather know that we are going to lose our job, than not know and possibly not lose the job. Wow!
And let’s face it, think about all the thoughts that you spend worrying about things – how much of that actually happens? Probably a small percentage but somehow it makes us feel better to worry about it.
So shall we agree that’s a lot of energy credits which could be better spent on attitudes, actions and behaviours to make the best of a situation?
Are you building unhelpful wiring without realising?
Short answer – probably yes. Your neural wiring is like a muscle and the more you have these unhelpful thoughts, the more you are training it to make unhelpful thoughts the normal reaction as this takes less energy credits.
Attentional control is your superpower
Building more helpful wiring is not your default option, especially as you get really good at building a really strong unhelpful muscle with your neural pathways.
So the biggest super power you have is to actively choose to build a new muscle of helpful thoughts which serve your high performance journey. I remember when I first decided to leave financial services to pursue performance coaching. I was 95% sure I was onto something and I was 5% completely wetting myself. It didn’t make any sense to give energy to worrying about the 5%. That energy was way better spent on attitudes, actions and behaviours to ensure success. And seven years later our little biz is not so little anymore, we’re working with fantastic global clients, and so I think it’s safe to say this attentional control thing works.
The conundrum for people in legal and compliance roles
If this is you, this is a big conundrum – it’s your job to look for the worst that can happen, so professionally you are essentially required to build neural pathways that serve you professionally, but don’t serve you to become more mentally resilient in a general sense. It’s no wonder these people have a high incidence of mental health issues which impact their whole life and not just their work life. There are techniques that can help to resolve this bind
How to build attentional control
Neuroscience studies have shown that when we are under high cognitive load, it’s harder to train attentional control, so best to start with the easy things like being grateful for even the little things especially when you are feeling less stressed or under less cognitive load.
When you are under more cognitive load or even just any time really…..a great rule of thumb is to stop and notice that you are having an unhelpful thought and then question yourself with “how is this thought serving me?” And if it’s not, actively choose to think another more helpful thought instead, either related or unrelated.
So if your professional work requires you to have certain defensive thoughts professionally, it’s important that these neural pathways don’t start to overflow into issues that impact you personally.
If you or your team would like to know more about how to build attentional control in a way that sets you up for success, please do get in touch.