When you’re a Blue Angel pilot flying in formation, with a mere 36 inches between 21-million-dollar jets, you have to bring your A game. But that’s only the beginning.
During the year, through 270 days on the road and countless hours of heart-pounding, intensely physical air show flying, Blue Angel pilots improve, and the distance between jets whittles down to just 18 inches. Flying like this in close formation—100 feet off the ground, upside down, with the world streaking below at 500 mph—requires a special tool I call dynamic focus.
Dynamic Focus: Sharpening Your Mind
Dynamic focus is the ability to shift between the task at hand and the overall situation in fractions of a second. It’s like opening up a radar scope; for a brief moment, you assess everything that’s coming at you, and then quickly focus your mind like a laser on what’s essential, both opportunities and threats. This kind of dual mindset is what sets apart elite athletes, innovators, and—at an extreme level—Blue Angel pilots.
In today’s digital business world, dynamic focus is critically important. There’s so much information coming at us, such vast amounts of data available for analysis, that we need to quickly identify the important things first. Allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the constant flow of information turns into a distraction that compounds over time. Dynamic focus slows the flow down and spotlights the critical elements of any situation.
For instance, in a Blue Angels air show, dynamic focus is the difference between simply seeing an airplane outside your canopy and being aware of the exact aspect, speed of closure, and even the cracks in the paint on the other jet. During the Super Bowl, it’s what allows a quarterback to scan the field and make a perfect pass.
Understanding this kind of focus is one thing. But how do you activate this skill and add it to your own repertoire? Mastering the process, and unlocking its full potential, requires you to bridge three practices:
1. Build unconscious competence.
Have you ever finished a task without thinking about it? That’s unconscious competence. Neuroscience research reveals that these unconscious actions, or habits, operate in a distinct part of the brain—one that doesn’t require conscious effort. Habits have been linked to the basal ganglia, which also deals with elementary processes like voluntary motor functions and emotions. Conscious decision-making, on the other hand, is handled in a completely different region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. By habituating our actions, they literally bypass our conscious, decision-making mind and become second nature to us.
Forming unconscious habits takes will and determination, but the process that creates them is simple: repetition. Repeat an action enough times, and your brain goes into autopilot. It’s what elite athletes mean when they refer to being “in the zone.” They’re not thinking about what they’re doing. The precise mechanics, the right mindset, and the perfect actions are as natural to them as the beating of their own heart.
2. Create powerful rituals.
Having a repeatable, dependable sequence of tasks puts you in a position to succeed. When you go to a Blue Angels air show, you expect the pilots to be precise; our team is known for our visually stunning aerobatics. But one of the most striking things about the Blue Angels is how precise the ground crew is. Along with fueling and basic maintenance, the crew climbs into each airplane, fires up the engine, and executes what are called “morning turns.” They run through multiple checks: hydraulics, electrical, smoke, everything. They wipe the jet’s paint, polish the wax, wash the windshield, and make sure every little bug is gone because at two miles out, a bug on the windshield can look like an approaching plane.
The crew’s ritual is so precise that when I enter the plane to fly in an air show, I know everything will be in its exact position. My helmet is going to be perfectly placed on the side of the airplane. All the switches will be in the correct position. My flight gloves will be in the airplane sitting on the right-hand console, with the left glove draped over the right glove so that I can slip on the left one first. It creates the perfect environment for dynamic focus.
3. Define your triggers.
A trigger is a tool that tells your mind it’s game time. For the Blue Angels, our collective trigger was one of the steps on our preflight checklist: “Canopy down.” We all lowered our canopies in synchronization; as the canopy closed over the cockpit, all the other issues in one’s mind took a back seat.
There are so many different examples of effective triggers. For a surgeon, it could be the moment you scrub in before entering the operating room. For a teacher, it could be when the first student enters the classroom. For a writer, it could be the moment you block out the internet and focus in on your work session. Finding something that’s unique to your experience has real staying power.
These three practices—unconscious competence, conscious rituals, and triggers—are the key to elevating your execution in business. They break through the noise, refocus your mind, and create the dynamic focus that will set you apart.