Meditation and Visualization Can Enhance Performance

There’s a lot of evidence indicating that meditation and visualization practices can enhance our experience of life and our performance, whether mental, physical, emotional, or skilled. Meditation can improve focus, pain and stress tolerance, sleep, immune function, blood pressure, creativity, critical thinking, etc. Many top performing athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, world leaders, and people of all sorts regularly engage in a deliberate mindfulness practice.

A few main points:

  • Exercise itself can be a mindful practice. It can be one of the simplest and most effective mindfulness practices that there is. Just exercise and pay close attention to what you’re doing and how you’re feeling while you’re doing it. Allow the physical movements and exertion to consume your attention, and don’t try to distract yourself by thinking about other things. It’s okay if thoughts pop into your head, but when they do, try to refocus on the activity.
  • Meditation can enhance your focus, enhance clarity, and quiet your mind. As you exercise your brain’s ability to focus, it will become stronger.
  • Visualization helps train your brain. Mentally rehearsing an action can make it more likely to happen and easier for you to do it when it does happen.
  • Start easy. Try meditating for just 5m daily to start. Then build up to 10 or 20m. It’s exercise for your brain, and like physical training, anyone can get better and do more of it with practice.
  • Consider beginning with guided meditation. There are a few free apps to start you on your way. Insight Timer or Headspace are both popular options with free guided options to start. I like Insight Timer, because it also has a good, customizable timer function.
  • Consider using a timer. As you start training, you may want to set a bell to ring every few minutes to remind you to bring your focus back, and a bell to conclude the session.
  • The goal is to be mindful, present, and intentional. The goal is not the specific act of meditation. Meditation is the practice that helps empower you to be more focused, mindful, and intentional. It enhances awareness of thoughts and feelings that are always coming into your awareness, so that you can skillfully work with your brain to refocus your attention, be creative, think critically, and be compassionate… hopefully all of the time, and not just during meditation.
  • It starts with awareness. As you become more aware of your brain’s activity and attention, you can practice calming it and redirecting your attention more effectively.
  • Being more mindful can improve our training and racing, our professional lives, our creative activities, our relationships, and improve our lives generally… just like physical exercise.
  • Meditation and visualization can enhance our ability to be mindful in all situations and more skillfully direct attention, remain calm, and act intentionally.

The specifics of different meditation practices vary, but it’s well worth trying and experimenting to find the kind of practice that works best for you. If you don’t already, try practicing with a consistent and deliberate approach for at least a month. Do this the same way that you would want to practice a new diet or training program for a while before understanding some of what the effects are for you. If anything, meditation is just that: a training system for your brain. It affects how your brain operates and has a substantial affect on the thoughts and feelings that your brain may focus on in the future. It will enhance your focus and help you direct it more intentionally.

I don’t think it’s worth our time here to list studies that show the benefits of meditation or to list some of the many professional athletes, hedge-fund managers, or leaders who practice meditation or visualization. That could take a while. If you want to look into that, please do. I’m sure you’ll have fun. At the moment, we’ll run on the assumption that it can help us out, knowing that there’s a lot of studies and people supporting that conclusion….

People have been practicing various forms of meditation for thousands of years, but if anything, it’s more important than ever before in human history to have a mindfulness practice. Technologies we’ve created actively condition our brains in counter-productive ways. Our phones, news apps, social media platforms actively demolish our ability to focus, bombard us with random thoughts and distractions, and often aim to deliberately fire up the emotional center of our brain. This steals our attention and shuts down our capacity for creativity and critical thinking, leaving us unfocused and often unhappy, even leading to chronic stress and depression.

Do you want to focus on your work? Are you in the middle of a workout? What if your phone beeps or vibrates? What if you open up xyz social media? Pretty soon you may have just lost 5, 10, or 30 minutes going down a rabbit hole of news stories, Instagram photos, Facebook posts, tweets, and Wikipedia articles… all of which you didn’t see coming and probably didn’t want. It’s like candy or potato chips for your brain. A part of your brain soaks it up (your amygdala) while your higher brain (pre-frontal cortex) is taken along for the ride against your will. Social media platforms are designed to grab your attention and keep you on the platform as long as possible.

This is incredibly important. If you unintentionally lose just 5 minutes to your phone just twice a day, that’s 60 hours this year of lost attention, thinking, creativity, and positive life experience.

Imagine losing 15 minutes 4 times a day to your phone or social media… that’s 365 hours each year… over 45 8-hour workdays… That’s 9 full work-weeks in one year alone! Holy s#*t! I could have had a ton of quality time with my partner! I could have taken a massive vacation! I could have trained so much more! Bike toured across the country! Learned to play the piano! Learned Mandarin! Gone to Ecuador… for two months!!! Assuming that you are awake and alert 16 hours per day, over 50 years, that is 1140 waking days… over 3 full years of your waking life that could be lost to the black-holes known as facebook, instagram, twitter, netflix, and youtube… assuming you’re only losing 1 hour a day!

If we can train our brains to become better focused and less distracted, then we may save a lot of time and be able to use that time and brainspace for doing and experiencing more of the things that are important to us. If we can focus more intently, then we will get more out of our experience of life because we’re actually present while it is happening.

When training or racing, if your mind isn’t focused, then you won’t fully tune in to your body and get the most out of it. In races, you won’t be able to make the most skilled tactical decisions. Being distracted or stressed about work emails, upcoming meetings, or what upset you earlier in the day won’t help you do your workout well or race effectively, and will erode your capacity to perform. If you experience stress and worry on an ongoing basis, then your recovery and immune system function will be diminished, and your body won’t be able to reach its potential.

Let’s train our brains to focus better! Let’s practice observing our thoughts and feelings, deliberately redirecting our attention, and intentionally focusing our attention on what matters to us.

Imagine taking just 10m a day away from things that distract us, and imagine building mental skill to direct our attention, focusing creatively and critically on the things that matter most to us. Imagine being present and focused for all of the fun and interesting experiences we have in life.