To perform as our best selves, we need to be engaged. It is this very engagement that allows us to stand out.

Let’s take, for example, when dozens of violinists show up for an audition, all technically excellent, but only one makes the cut. Or when hundreds of world-class athletes enter the Olympics, but just a few make the podium.

What are the differentiators? Talent, physical and technical competencies play a definite role. Peak performance is multi-faceted.

One element, however, can distinguish the best from the rest, and we all know what it is because we have all been there.

No matter what we are doing, we are either in a state of mindfulness or mindlessness.

Mindlessness is “an inactive state of mind characterized by reliance on distinctions, categories drawn in the past.” The past overly determines the present, and we are trapped in a singular perspective not sensitive to our current environment or context. We become governed by structure, rules and routines. We find ourselves in default mode rather than designing the moment as it unfolds. (Langer)

This is definitely not a mode that we want to be in, especially in big performance or life moments.

We know what obvious states of mindlessness look like. We are unfocused, distracted or mind wandering.

But there are subtle forms of mindlessness as well. Often, it is even hard to recognize mindlessness because when we are not “there,” we don’t realize that we are not there.

Ever been asked the question, “How are you?” and you’ve answered “Fine” regardless of how you actually feel at the moment? That is a subtle form of mindlessness.

Mindfulness, in contrast, is an active state of mind characterized by noticing novelty that is situated in our present surroundings.

So how do we make sure that we don’t fall into states of mindlessness?

Let’s begin with how we become experts at what we do in the first place. We start by learning things as beginners, requiring us to be deeply engaged with the intricacies of the work. We stay close to the learned routine or script until we build confidence in what we are doing. We are students, and our eyes are wide open.

With practice, we become competent and comfortable, allowing us to venture away from the set routine or script while adding our unique sense of style, authenticity, nuance or flair to the task or performance.

After extended rehearsals and performances, we then risk becoming habituated to it. As we develop our expertise, we gain greater certainty and expectations. We close ourselves off to the very possibility that is required of us in big performance moments. We perform our well-rehearsed actions without regard to the nuances of the immediate environment. We risk becoming mindless.

“When mindless, we act like automatons who have been programmed to act according to the sense our behavior made in the past, rather than the present. Instead of actively drawing new distinctions, noticing new things, as we do when we are mindful, when we are mindless we rely on distinctions drawn in the past. We are stuck in a single, rigid perspective, and we are oblivious to alternative ways of knowing.” – Ellen Langer.

Here are a few simple practices to allow us to stay out of this default mode of operation and remain mindful of possibilities:

  • minimize unhelpful expectations based on past experience
  • drop preconceived notions (i.e. expectations) of how the performance should go
  • enhance your performance by simply noticing new things and what is novel in your present surroundings
  • make subtle changes in your tasks or performance, including changes that only you would notice

This approach keeps us engaged in the direct experience, moment-to-moment of what is happening. It creates opportunities to experience a state of flow and increases our ability to self-regulate our focus and concentration. By engaging in a constant process of regular awareness like this, we incline ourselves towards more enjoyable performance experiences and the goals that we have set out to achieve.