Previous studies have demonstrated that an external focus can enhance motor learning compared to an internal focus. The benefits of adopting an external focus are attributed to the use of less effortful automatic control processes, while an internal focus relies upon more effort-intensive consciously controlled processes. The aim of this study was to compare the effectiveness of a distal external focus with an internal focus in the acquisition of a simulated driving task and subsequent performance in a competitive condition designed to increase state anxiety. To provide further evidence for the automatic nature of externally controlled movements, the study included heart rate variability (HRV) as an index of mental effort. Sixteen participants completed eight blocks of four laps in either a distal external or internal focus condition, followed by two blocks of four laps in the competitive condition. During acquisition, the performance of both groups improved; however, the distal external focus group outperformed the internal focus group. The poorer performance of the internal focus group was accompanied by a larger reduction in HRV, indicating a greater investment of mental effort. In the competition condition, state anxiety increased, and for both groups, performance improved as a function of the increased anxiety. Increased heart rate and self-reported mental effort accompanied the performance improvement. The distal external focus group also outperformed the internal focus group across both neutral and competitive conditions and this more effective performance was again associated with lower levels of HRV. Overall, the results offer support for the suggestion that an external focus promotes a more automatic mode of functioning. In the competitive condition, both foci enhanced performance and while the improved performance may have been achieved at the expense of greater compensatory mental effort, this was not reflected in HRV scores.