Categories
Blogs

How and Why to Control Your Attention

What you focus on matters. Being able to intentionally direct and control your attention can make a big difference in the quality of your life experience.

Psychological resources

When you think about your important resources and how they influence your life, what comes to mind?

Most people think of money or other financial resources. Those are important, for sure. They’re the key to some aspects of stability, freedom, and pleasure. I’d argue, though, that we expend too much time and energy acquiring and protecting that particular resource at the expense of others that have a dramatic impact on our life experience. 

Just as your financial assets may make a tangible difference in the quality of your day-to-day experience, so will your psychological resources. Yet, we often overlook the importance of these resources and how the ways in which we choose to “spend” them will shape our life experience. Today, let’s focus on one important psychological resource: attention.

Attention

Simply put, what we focus on matters. The information we take in and the relationships, activities, and aspects of experience that we spend time on will have a big effect on us. What we focus on day in and day out shapes who we are, our outlook on life and the world, and, ultimately, what we do with our time on this planet. 

Attention is a limited resource, though, so it’s important to think about where and how you “spend” it. Unless you’re a fellow psychologist or really into mindfulness, you probably haven’t thought a lot about where your attention goes and why. 

Internal and external distractions

Our attention gets hijacked all the time, with and without our direct permission, We are constantly being bombarded by demands for attention. Things come at us from the outside (like notifications or loud noises) and from the inside (internal distractions like urges, thoughts, and emotions). Our minds, awesome little jerks that they can be, often don’t help us out because they happily chase any and every distraction unless we have the awareness and ability to stop them.

Being able to consciously direct your attention is an important skill and one that can be developed. Think about the implications here. Rather than having your attention jerked around by any internal or external distraction, what if you could choose where to focus and sustain your attention? What if you could hone in on something and filter out everything else? What if you could stay focused on the things, people, and tasks that you deem worthy? What a difference that would make! Strengthening your attentional control muscle gives you an advantage in virtually every area of life.

Get intentional with your attention

One of my favorite authors, Mark Manson, introduced the concept of our attention diet, comparable to nutrition. If we eat the super appealing, highly addictive, easy junk foods like candy and chips, we may find momentary pleasure. But at what cost? Repeatedly, over time, eating junk makes our bodies incredibly unhealthy. Manson argues it’s the same thing with our minds. If we repeatedly consume junk, there will be a negative impact on the quality, strength, and health of our minds. That makes sense to me.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love a good Netflix binge. But, if I’m being honest, what actually happens after more than a day of heavy TV watching is that my motivation goes down. It’s that much easier to hang out on the couch the next day and to lose steam on the projects that are actually important or value-adding to me. What’s more is that the quality of my thoughts and mood are impacted, too. My enthusiasm is dampened, and things in general feel a little more blah. I know this isn’t just me. 

Guarding your attention

In addition to having the ability to control our attention, being intentional about where we choose to direct our attention is critical. Here are a few tips for protecting and maximizing this precious psychological resource.

1. Take up a mindfulness practice

Mindfulness, a core element of psychological strength, is essentially attention training, and I believe that’s part of why it’s such a beneficial practice to cultivate. There are a ton of ways to build mindfulness, and I’d encourage you to experiment until you find some that work for you. If you’re interested in a deeper dive into this topic, join us at our next Quarterly Workshop (it’s virtual), Mindfulness: It’s Not What You Think, in July.  

2. Be ruthless with distractions and ntifications

You expend less energy and waste less of your limited attention if you set yourself up for success. Be brutal when it comes to notifications. Ask yourself, do I really want to let this app interrupt me and hijack my attention at any point? Do I really need these notifications on my watch? Put your phone on silent or do not disturb when you need to focus or, better yet, leave it in another room. Same thing goes with being available online for direct messaging. Remove distractions and attention hijackers from your environment when possible.

3. Reflect on what you take in

Spend some time regularly reflecting on what you’re taking in and the quality of your attention diet, so to speak. Are you gorging yourself on junk information and relationships or are you taking in high quality, nutrient rich ones? 

Bottom line: It’s important to consider how your attention shapes who you are and what your life is like. Being able to intentionally direct and control your attention can make a big difference in the quality of your life.

“Remember: What gets attention is not always important. And what is important rarely gets attention.”
Mark Manson
Categories
Blogs

What a Bug on Your Windshield Can Teach You About Mindfulness

I came across this excellent metaphor on how to focus attention this week, and I have to share it.

You’re driving down the road, and a giant bug splats on the window right in front of you. Maybe you startle a bit as the splat suddenly enters your awareness. Then what?

You can focus all of your attention on the bug guts splattered on your window. Or, you can focus your attention on the road ahead. You’re still aware of the bug, but your attention is focused on the road.

Let’s say, though, that the bug grosses you out or annoys you and you just don’t want it there (you just cleaned your windshield!). What happens if you try to remove the bug from your awareness? If you try to deny its existence or pretend like it’s not there? That gunk on your car will stand out even more! 

Paradoxically, trying not to notice something actually makes you fixate on it more. (Those of you who hate certain sounds know exactly what I’m talking about here). And, if you go more extreme and close your eyes, well, that’s disastrous. Either you have to pull your car over, which means you won’t get anywhere, or you’re going to crash. Neither sounds like a good option.

So, you rule out those options, but you still just do not want that bug to be there. As you focus on the bug, you start thinking…about how nasty it is, how it shouldn’t be there, about how you’re going to grab the paper towels and windex when you get home and clean all the smudges, whatever. It doesn’t really matter what those specific thoughts are. You’re ruminating now, which is a pretty unhelpful mental habit. Your attention is fully absorbed by your thoughts. You’re in your head, which means that you’re not in the moment. You’re actually missing out on real life. 

The more we pay attention to the present moment, the happier we tend to be, even when those present moments are unpleasant (like a bug splat). And like that bug, unwanted thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories, events, and circumstances may crop up, whether we want them to or not.

Whether we asked for them, caused them, or had anything to do with them. What shows up in our awareness isn’t necessarily under our control. Where we focus our attention, however, is. 

Choosing to pay attention to the things that help move us in the direction we want to go is a powerful psychological strength move. It takes a lot of self-awareness and practice, but it’s so worth it!

“What you do with your attention is in the end what you do with your life.”
― John Green

P.S. A big thank you to Carl Robbins and Dr. Sally Winstead, professional colleagues at the Anxiety and Stress Disorder Institute of Maryland, for sharing this metaphor.