A few weeks ago, I was working with elite college athletes and the question came up about how to practice performance mindfulness in the real-world. Before the workshop had started, I listened to several of the athletes and coaches lament about the terrible traffic in their region. I realized that driving your car can be an excellent way to practice performance mindfulness, self-awareness, and emotional regulation in the real-world. Each of these skills can improve performance (and happiness) in any domain and the hectic holiday traffic is a great training ground for skill development!
Mindfulness is the act of directing attention to and awareness on ongoing events and experience without judgement. This definition of mindfulness includes awareness of internal and external events. As you are driving your car around holiday traffic, you are aware (hopefully) of many traffic specific inputs; stop signs, traffic lights, merging cars, turn-signals (or lack of a turn-signal), bumper stickers, and the people driving the other cars. Practice mindful driving by noticing these inputs of the road without judgement or attachment, just notice them. You will likely get distracted by songs on the radio, thoughts about the holidays, or things happening at work or at home. When you notice yourself being distracted by those thoughts, bring your attention back to driving. Next, notice how your driving experience is making you feel. Both physically and emotionally. Notice if you are white-knuckling the steering wheel, notice if you are slumping, if your heart is beating faster than normal, and notice if you are getting angry or frustrated with your fellow drivers on the road.
This is the beginning of developing self-awareness, the foundational competency of emotional intelligence. Mindfulness practice is a great way to develop this valuable competency. In research I conducted with the Stanford University mindfulness program, I found that an 8-week mindfulness program significantly improved the self-awareness of business leaders compared to that of a control group. Let’s look at how we can apply this research to your holiday driving performance.
Notice the emotions that are arising while driving in this busy, stop-and-go, hectic traffic. Are you feeling anxious to get to the mall, work, or home? Are you angry or frustrated by other drivers on the road or the time you seem to be wasting in traffic? The next step, is to look at these emotions more closely. Strong emotions are often a great window into self-exploration. Why are you in such a hurry to get where you are going? What self-talk is happening, why are you attached to these thoughts and how they define you?
Do you feel entitled to drive as fast as you want or to block others that are trying to change lanes because they will get in front of you? If so, why are you entitled over others? Are you entitled to that parking spot so you are going to wedge your car into the spot recklessly before someone else can take it. If you let that car merge do you feel you are giving up power and are being taken advantage of, maybe like other areas of your life? If you don’t get home immediately will you miss spending time with a loved one, time you feel guilty about because of your hectic busy schedule that you keep adding stuff to?
Now, think of the thoughts that arise when someone has offended you on the road. Do you say things like, “that figures, they are (insert gender, race, religious, political, or economic stereotype here).” When you catch yourself thinking these things, it is a great opportunity to observe your implicit bias and a chance to challenge those thoughts and grow. It is also a great chance to notice how your behavior is driven by these thoughts and emotions.
The last part of this exercise is to practice emotional regulation. Instead of cursing and honking and filling the car with shoulds (I should be there by now, I should be able to find parking, I should not have to slow down for you, you should merge behind me, there should not be this much traffic…you get the idea), try practicing radical acceptance (congested roads are a normal part of modern life) and letting these thoughts and charged emotions go. The process is called cognitive defusion and your newly enhanced self-awareness can help you identify when negative self-talk is happening. Once you recognize what is happening, you can challenge the noise in your head and let it go. A funny thing happens when you let things go…you feel better and those charged emotions are no longer controlling your life – congratulations you have developed some emotional regulation!
One last experiment for you to try. Once you have let those charged thoughts and feelings go, try smiling at the offending driver and motioning them in front of you. Concede the contested parking spot to the other car. Resist the conditioned urge to speed up at the traffic light and block the intersection. In other words, practice driving with compassion. The science is crystal clear on this, when you give to others, even on the road, YOU FEEL BETTER. And, it is the holidays after all, is there a better time to practice compassion for your fellow road warriors?
I know this sounds like a lot, but you are stuck in holiday traffic, you have hours to practice!
If you want to learn more about how emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and emotional regulation can improve your performance…and life…contact dr. dutch franz and TierOne Performance Consulting. Want to give the gift of high-performance? Gift a course at the TierOne Performance Institute, new classes will be starting in January 2018.
Remember – Put your mind on what matters!