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You Are What You Attend To

April 25, 2018

“My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.” – William James

Time management is all the rage. The early bird gets the morning worm, we’re told. We feel pressured to do more and more, yet we struggle to find ways of meeting the demands of others and ourselves. If only we could find a way to navigate the tsunami waves of time.

Hoping for the perfect time management cure for our ills sounds seductive. But it’s a fool’s errand…and it’s trying to solve the wrong problem.

Creating and managing more time isn’t what matters. It’s what we do with that time that counts. And what we do with our time is our attention.

Attention is a window

Our attention is the window through which we perceive the world. “Attention,” says author Michael Foley, “is focused perception, perception at work.”

Since our perception becomes our reality, our attention starts shaping the world around us and therefore ourselves. “What we pay attention to is no trivial matter,” claims psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “we are what we attend to.”

If you only read news about terrorism threats, then you’ll become anxious. If you hang out with people that always complain, then your attention is focused on complaints. If you constantly refresh your social media feeds to count likes, then that becomes your evaluation of success. “When we blather about trivial things, we ourselves become trivial,” said Epictetus. “You become what you give your attention to.”

The ability of attention to shape our perception makes it powerful. Luckily, it’s not beyond our control. There is so much that we don’t control: macroeconomic trends, the stock market, other people, the weather. But one thing that we do control, apart from our actions, is our attention.

Controlled attention is perceived control, and perceived control is well-being. Research has shown that the more we feel like we’re in the driver’s seat of ourselves and what we do, the greater our health and well-being. And the more we feel that we control the span and depth of our attention, the happier we feel, too.

Attention affects our emotional state, but it also affects what we do. In fact, attention is the practical mechanism through which we accomplish our work.

“Just like you walk through the air and you swim through the water, you work through your attention,” says Jason Fried. “It’s the medium of work. While people often say there’s not enough time, remember that you’ll always have less attention than time. Full attention is where you do your best work, and everyone’s going to be looking to rip it from you. Protect and preserve it.”

You work through your attention. It’s the filter through which you interact with the world. It’s the tool through which you achieve your success.

But how can we learn to control our attention more? Here’s three ways.

3 ways to control more of your attention

1) Intention

Attention is meaningless without an intention. Setting an intention creates a direction. It provides clarity. It becomes a reference point to refer back to when faced with a decision. Often, a lack of attention arises simply because there is no intention behind it. It’s aimless.

You can set an intention for the task that’s in front of you, but you can also set an intention for the life you have in front of you, too. If we can agree that you are what you attend to, then that begs the question: What do you want to become?

Equally important is that choice of what not to focus on. What do you choose to not attend to? Setting an intention is helpful here as well, because it provides clarity about what’s not important.

There’s a Russian proverb that says if you chase two rabbits you won’t catch either one. An intention is the choice of what rabbit to chase, and which one to neglect. Choosing is difficult. But without a choosing, you’ll be chasing rabbits forever (and your stomach will never stop growling).

You can’t have it all. But you can have all of what you choose to want.

QUESTIONS TO IMPROVE YOUR ATTENTION: What is your intention? What do you choose to attend to? And what does that mean you choose to say no to?

2) Curiosity

Attention is a machine like any other. It requires energy to keep itself going. Ideally, it would run on a never-ending source of fuel.

It turns out there is such a sustainable energy source for attention: curiosity. Curiosity is “like an addiction … magnified by attempts to satisfy it,” says Nassim Taleb. It’s stimulated both by understanding and by an absence of understanding. One question leads to the next question, and that new question leads to yet another question.

When we ask questions, we open up spaces in our mind for answers to go. Those unanswered questions create a tension, and that tension seeks resolution. Curiosity is the tension that’s desperate to find a resolution. And that leads to focused attention.

Asking question after question can keep attention in place. William James provided a simple example. “Try to attend steadfastly to a dot on paper or on the wall … if you ask yourself successive questions about the dot — how big it is, how far, of what shape, what shade of color; in other words, if you turn it over, if you think of it in various ways, and along with various kinds of associates — you can keep your mind on it for a comparatively long time.”

QUESTIONS TO IMPROVE YOUR ATTENTION: What do you observe? What are you not seeing? What can you learn? What new question can you ask yourself instead of stopping?

3) Challenge and variety

Do you feel bored? Do you feel stuck? Does every day look like the day before it? That rut and that stability—despite seeming to provide the right tranquility for focus—can actually be causing a scattered mind.

The unknown, the new, and the unexpected can be effective ways of focusing attention. “The friend of creative work is alertness,” says author Tim Harford, “and nothing focuses your attention like stepping on to unfamiliar ground.”

Attention is, per definition, when we are not bored. “Focus is what distracts us from whatever is distracting us,” says coach Tim Gallwey. Our attention drifts when faced with a boring task. When there’s no newness and no challenge, then things become dry. But when we’re confronted with an obstacle that’s just beyond our current skill level, then we’re engaged and in flow. Our attention becomes heightened.

Fear and anxiety are the cousins of uncertainty and the unknown. But fear, if viewed as a compass toward what matters most, can be a powerful tool for honing attention. Obstacles, of any kind, heighten our mental powers because they trigger our problem-solving abilities.

“Fear is not a sign or personal weakness, but rather a natural state of discomfort that occurs whenever you’re out of your comfort zone,” says fear expert Kristen Ulmer. “It’s there not to sabotage you, but to help you come alive, be more focused, and put you into the present moment and a heightened state of excitement and awareness.”

QUESTIONS TO IMPROVE YOUR ATTENTION: What is your level of discomfort? How could you do something more challenging right now? What are you avoiding because of fear?


Our attention is how we work. It’s crucial for mastery and excellence in any skill or craft. And it will only become more important in the future. “The ability to perform deep [focused] work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy,” says Cal Newport. “As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

It’s not only our performance at work that’s at stake here. It’s the nature of our lives. As Tim Wu writes, “when we reach the end of our days, our life experience will equal what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or default.”

So if you want to become a better leader, start attending to what it means to be a leader. If you want to switch careers, start attending to the new occupation and what the job entails. If you want to become a better partner, start attending to the other person.

Whatever matters to you, start attending to it. Your life, quite literally, depends on it. “Our acts of voluntary attention, brief and fitful as they are,” wrote William James, “are nevertheless momentous and critical, determining us, as they do, to higher or lower destinies.”

Don’t leave your fate in the hands of the gods. Pick your destiny by choosing your attention.


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