Focus! Emotional Busy-ness and Working Memory

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A little while ago, I did a Facebook Live on emotional busy-ness, but the topic is such an important (and common!) one, however, that I wanted to tie all of the points together in a neat little package here also!

When we feel tired, unfocused or like we have a lot going on, we typically look to all at the things which occupy us in a physical sense for what might be draining us. For most of us, though, it’s unlikely we are really overdoing it physically (if anything, the majority of us probably wish we were more active). What is actually drying up our internal reserves is the workings of a busy mind.

Emotional busy-ness is something that we all dip and out of periodically, but if we aren’t mindful of how we are managing our focus and creating space in the day for downtime and reflection, it can become our day-to-day modus operandi. Not only does this cause us to carry a feeling of “rush” with us, but it also impacts our ability to stay present, to focus on the task at hand and to be able to manage our mindset under pressure.

I remember feeding the horses one afternoon and noticing the feeling of hurry and busy-ness that was sitting in my stomach. Like so many of us, there’s a lot that I need to pack into a day. Family, work, horses, things that need to be taken care of as part of the daily schedule- it’s easy to get to the stage where you feel like you are pinging from one thing to the next with little to no time in between. On this particular occasion though, a little voice piped up inside my head:

“You know, feeding the horses is going to take you about 45 minutes. Whether you do that with a rushed feeling or do that with a relaxed feeling, the time you take is going to be the same.”

This was definitely a light bulb moment for me. There is so much that we do that is always going to take the time that it’s going to take. Being mindful of your internal climate and ensuring that you take the time to check in, take a breath and adjust ensures you aren’t cultivating an energy that is not only futile (after all, feeling busy and rushed does little to actually make you more efficient or shorten the time needed to do the task in any way) but is literally exhausting. Your nervous system is working in a state of chronic activation, which is similar to turning the tap on of your emotional reserves and forgetting to turn it off.

Emotional busy-ness also has immediate consequences when it comes to working with our horses. If there’s one things that’s essential, not only to your mindset, but to your ability to be responsive as opposed to reactive as a trainer and rider (and as soon as we get in the saddle or pick up on the lead rope we are both of these, whether we formally identify with them or not) it’s the ability to be present. Emotional busy-ness pulls us out of the present and positions us mentally in the past or in the future, depending on the thought process at the time. There are many ramifications of this training wise, but what I would like to speak specifically to now is how mind clutter affects your working memory and how THIS affects your ability to focus.

Working memory is your general capacity horse power. It’s what determines what you need to have front of mind to be able to perform a particular task, and it also determines what you need to block out. The thing with working memory is that it is influenced by both internal and external factors. For instance, if you are having a riding lesson or receiving instruction of some sort, the verbal information that you are receiving and integrating from the outside takes up some of your working memory bandwidth.

On an internal level, conversations that you are having with yourself- as well as doubts, worry and rumination- will also compete for the same working memory space.

For the sake of example, let’s say that you have ten points of working memory available to you at any one time. To focus with the degree of intention and concentration necessary to do what you want to do with your horse to a level that satisfies you, let’s pretend that you need 7 points of working memory. In the case of emotional busy-ness, the pre-exisiting brain clutter may be taking a standard 5 points of your working memory hard drive. A simplistic example but you can see how important it is to be able to quieten your mind and your brain chatter in order to not only focus, but to process and integrate new information (in the case of a lesson) or ride to the best of your ability when the pressure is on (in the case of a competition or riding outside your comfort zone). If we don’t have enough working memory available we will block out or delete the “excess” information, simply because we don’t have the ability to process it.

The specific tools for managing this is outside the scope of what this blog covers, but if we want more focus and more mental space, it’s important to look at how we are cultivating both of those qualities in the day to day, when we are away from our horses as much as when we are with them.

Over the next few days, be mindful of your internal climate. Do you carry with you the feeling of rush or busy? How present are you when you are working with your horse? What can you do to cultivate a more relaxed focus?

“At the very end of my exhalation, I found myself”.

xx Jane

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