Here’s a technique the most productive people use to stay focused

Athletes use this technique. You can, too.
Athletes use this technique. You can, too.
Image: Reuters/Ricardo Moraes
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Elite athletes use visualization techniques to prepare for games, and the evidence shows they improve their focus and help them perform better.

It turns out we could all benefit from doing something similar, even if we’re only gearing up for a day at the office, not game seven of the World Series. If we run through events—be they important meetings and job interviews or even mundane tasks—in our head before we take them on, we’re better prepared and more able to react to the unexpected, according to Charles Duhigg, a New York Times reporter, in his new book Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business.

“Your brain has to decide what deserves attention and what deserves to be ignored, and way it does it is compare what we expect is going to happen to what’s actually going on,” Duhigg told Quartz.

When our brain knows what to expect, it can screen out the background noise, and pick up what’s important, Duhigg said. So if you’re only half paying attention in a meeting and your boss asks a question, you’ll be more able to produce the right answer, because your brain has already screened out all the clutter in the room that won’t help you.

Creating mental models ”primes our brain to be able to pay attention to the right things,” Duhigg said. Over time, it becomes second nature, and many people are doing it without realizing it.

While almost all of us could stand to be more focused and prepared, it’s imperative for certain professionals. Like airline pilots.

In his book, Duhigg offers the example of two airplane crews. On one, Air France Flight 447 from Rio De Janeiro to Paris in 2009, the pilots were unprepared when their gauges started to malfunction. Focusing on the wrong things, they made a series of errors, including climbing when they should have descended. When they realized their mistake, it was too late and the plane stalled. The flight went down in the Atlantic with 228 people aboard.

Another flight, Qantas Flight 32 from Singapore to Sydney a few years later, had a far more serious problem when an explosion disabled an engine and blew a hole in a wing. But before they took off, the crew had been drilled on how to respond to emergencies (in part because the chief pilot was being reviewed on the flight) and when the situation became too intense, the lead pilot was able to create a new mental model—What if I was flying a Cessna instead of jet?—that allowed him to simplify what he needed to do and focus on landing the plane safely.

On Qantas 32, the crew had a mental model that let them cut through the chaos that overwhelmed the Air France pilots.

“If you want to do a better job of paying attention to what really matters, ” Duhigg wrote, “narrate your life as it’s occurring.”