Improving Cognitive Performance: The Intention-Execution Theory of Action
Have you ever had the experience of trying so hard at something that you fail to perform as you would have hoped while others effortlessly execute around you? I have. Watching any seasoned professional athlete perform often elicits an illusion of effortlessness. But how can we in our daily lives learn how to perform optimally in a seemingly effortless way?
There are a few ideas on this topic. The book, “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a good place to start. He investigated the idea of “the zone” and its psychological significance and found that people who spent more time in this “zone” lived far more successful and content lives than those who didn’t.
So, with a technology-induced attention crisis on our hands, are we working our collective way towards mass dissatisfaction by arresting our ability to experience the joy of being in “the zone” in the execution of our daily tasks and duties? I believe we are and more than ever we need content that accurately describes the mechanisms of our mind so that we can better understand and utilize them in our daily lives.
With that said, I’d like to make a contribution to this aim with the following post. This one is specifically about a mechanism in the brain which, if understood, can result in an increase in your experience of flawless and (perceived) effortless execution. I don’t mean this to sound too good to be true, but if think back to the last time you were in the zone, one of the most common experiences is to lose track of time in your execution of something important and that’s what we’re after in this article.
The mind is an interesting place. As I have described in previous articles and on episode 43 of the podcast, there are two distinct parts of our brains. In overly simplistic terms, the first part is the large part of our brain that we share with other mammals (limbic system) which is responsible for our instincts and habituated responses. The second part is the newly evolved part of our brains which makes us intelligent, rational and distinct from other creatures (the pre-frontal cortex).
One of the biggest challenges to mentally performing optimally under these anatomical circumstances is that we have to manage the relationship between our rational minds and the rest of our brain which provides us a steady stream of intuitions, emotional drives, habits and basic survival mechanisms.
I’m sure you’ve had the experience of understanding rationally what you should be doing but something within you isn’t aligned properly to enable you to “feel” like doing that thing. Many self-help gurus out there will tell you that the trick in those circumstances is to push yourself to act in spite of those contra-indications. Indeed, this advice is apt in certain situations where you are trying to overcome fear. However, I’m interested in how we can get a person to “feel” like doing something more often because if you put two people against each other in a 100-yard dash, and one person feels like being there and is fired up for the race and the other feels off and is focusing on the coldness of the weather. The runner who feels like being there will have an obvious advantage – all other things being equal. if you can feel like doing what you should more of the time, then you will compound your performative advantage over time in whatever you are endeavouring to improve upon.
So, let’s dive into how we can “feel” like doing what we should. The first thing to realize is that not feeling like doing what you know you should do is a limbic brain problem. The stoics believed that the solution to this problem was to do your best to stifle all feelings, so your rationality could take over your actions, but they didn’t understand the intention-execution mechanism of action.
The intention-execution theory of action posits that there are two necessary conditions to action. The first is the intention which is a clearly defined understanding of what needs to happen. The second condition is execution. This part of the theory doesn’t imply “just doing it”, rather it investigates the way that we can get 100% of our minds engaged with what we need to do.
What the stoics got wrong was this: You can’t act optimally while trying to ignore any part of your mental experience. You need both your feelings and your rationality to use your brain optimally. Thus, emotions and feelings must be integrated and directed towards our day’s responsibilities and goals.
The reason why we need to utilize our feelings and rationality in the optimal execution of our tasks is because ignoring the signals from our feeling brain is ignoring a great deal of intelligence that is there for the taking. You see, the rational brain can produce logical and rational knowledge, however it struggles to produce what I will refer to as “embodied knowledge”. This type of knowledge isn’t attached to instructions and intentions but rather is your embodied intelligence of what it feels like to execute something properly. For example, say you have a hockey player who has never had any coaching on how to do a good wrist shot – yet has a great shot. This is embodied knowledge. Practitioners such as the hockey player that spend long hours trying to master something develop this embodied knowledge much faster than theorists that try to identify the components of a masterful performance. The theory can interact with the embodied knowledge to optimize performance through trying to translate instruction into a “felt understanding” of the instruction - but instructions and theories alone cannot produce greatness.
It is this relationship that is key to understand if you want to use your brain properly. Your rational brain will produce the plan, strategy and intelligence necessary to move from point A to point B. That plan then needs to be translated into the embodied knowledge of what it feels like to execute on that plan. This is the optimal relationship between the rational mind and the feeling mind.
The rational mind provides direction/intention and the feeling mind executes on that direction.
The act of setting the intention involves consciously directing your mind to what you need to do and thinking about how you want to get it done. Directing your mind means turning it to focus on just the one thing you need to do right now and forgetting everything else. And thinking about how you want to do it defines what level of execution is needed for the task. Once you do that, you have set the intention for what you need to do.
The next step is to focus on letting yourself do the task. While you have the intention “saved” in your mind, you need to then get out of your own way and let yourself execute without thought. This sounds a bit “out there” but this is the only way to develop embodied knowledge without hinderance. Often what people don’t realize is that their constant internal dialogue about how they are tracking on a task is the thing that keeps them from getting the “zone” we talked about earlier. In the zone, there is no internal dialogue, just execution. The understanding of what you should do is implicit in your actions and do not required endless conscious deliberation.
If you are hoping to achieve this state, you must allow yourself to execute once you set the intention. This experience feels like “letting go” to some degree, while quietly remembering what you are trying to achieve. Another way to think about it is that you are trying to connect the action to the actor so that there is no psychological distance between the two.
Practice doing this tomorrow. It is a form of working meditation and I personally have found it to be very therapeutic because it has allowed me to get things done without stressing constantly about my progress on the task because my speed at working has increased so much.
For any readers that are willing to give this a try, we would love to hear how of your results.
With that, I’ll conclude this edition of the Mind Manual Blog.
Thanks again for reading.