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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
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How to be Happy: 15 Practical Tips

You may not know this about me, but I’m a giant nerd, truly a scientist at heart. That means that when I got really serious about figuring out what it takes to be happy in life, I delved fully into the science of happiness by reading, learning, thinking about, and testing out everything I could get my hands on – studies, theories, philosophies, memoirs.

There is still much to learn, but certain themes keep coming up again and again. While I don’t believe that the quick fix/instant gratification route is necessarily the one to lasting happiness, this cheat sheet will get us well on our way.

1. Be nice!

Don’t be a jerk, and don’t let your children be jerks. That statement right there sums up a lot of the ones below, but let’s be a little more specific.

2. Do something for someone else.

Small scale, big scale. Doesn’t matter. Acts of kindness make you feel good mentally and physically. Believe it or not, altruism can even lower your blood pressure! You’re also making someone else’s day, so there may be ripple effects. 

3. Move!

Seriously, you have to move your body. Our lifestyles are so sedentary these days, yet our bodies weren’t designed that way. You can’t expect your brain, a (very important) part of your body to work optimally if you’re not maintaining the system. Besides, tons of data coming out suggest that exercise has antidepressant and antianxiety effects. 

4. Similarly, eat real food.

Real foods (with ingredients you can pronounce and without added sugar) will nourish you and keep you full longer. Hanger is real. You’re not happy, and neither is anyone around you. Moreover, see above for the whole brain/system running optimally argument.

5. Stop complaining.

Complaining brings you down and trains your brain to notice all of the negative things. Besides, complaining doesn’t usually change or fix anything, does it?

6. Instead, be grateful.

Gratitude is more about choice and mindset than it is about external circumstances (e.g., physical possessions). You can be a billionaire yet unhappy if you’re not grateful, or you can be a prisoner with nothing and yet be happy. Look around. There are so many things to be grateful for! Try focusing on all the things you appreciate, that went well, and that made you happy instead of all the reasons why today sucked, or try this simple exercise. 

7. Connect with people. 

Reach out to loved ones. Talk to strangers. Don’t worry about feeling weird about being judged or stepping out of your comfort zone (which is actually really good for you to do, by the way). And, if you are worried, DO IT ANYWAYS! We’re all navigating this thing called life and probably have more in common than we realize. Taking a minute (or more) to connect with another human being helps us feel less lonely and gives a mood boost. Here are two easy ways:

Basic manners, please.

Make eye contact. Smile (or nod or wave if you’re masked). Hold the door for someone. Say “please.” Say “thank you.” Like you actually mean it. It feels good.

Give someone a compliment.

It takes 2 seconds, and I guarantee it will boost your happiness and theirs. By the way, say “thank you” if someone gives you a compliment. Thank you is the appropriate response. Do not let your mind dismiss it with some self-deprecating, “Oh, I’m not really XYZ” comment.

8. Practice mindfulness. 

It’s been around forever, for good reason, and neuroscience and all sorts of other research is now confirming what yogis have known for millennia: a mindfulness practice is good for you. (Please know that I say this as a former skeptic. It took compelling data and arguments for me to really embrace this practice. Now I think it is one of the most critical practices for success and wellbeing.)

9. Get off social media, or, better yet, screens in general.

Maybe not all together, but definitely set some limits. You’ll have more time for other things that are more meaningful or more likely to boost your happiness, and you won’t be getting all the input that increases the icky “not good enough” feelings and concern for the state of the world.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” – Theodore Roosevelt

10. Sleep

It’s hard to be happy when you’re tired. It’s hard to manage stress, anxiety, depression, and anger when you’re tired, and inadequate sleep can compromise our health. Get your Zzzzs.

11. Learn something. Anything.

Be an active participant in life rather than a passive consumer. I firmly believe that stimulation is critical for happiness. Technology makes it possible to learn absolutely anything these days. Don’t tell me it’s boring. Don’t tell me you can’t.

“In this world, you are either growing or you’re dying.” – Lou Holtz (and a bunch of other people) 

12. Speaking of, start looking for the reasons why you can, instead of the reasons why you can’t, do things. 

Don’t let limiting beliefs, circumstances, or other people hold you back. YOU are in charge of your life, and you CAN make choices to improve it, even when the deck seems stacked against you. It is up to you to choose to be happy!

13. Practice compassion.

For yourself (silence that Inner critic) and for others. Operating under the assumption that everyone is doing the best they can really cuts down on anger and negativity. It may not change events or circumstances, but it definitely makes me happier.

14. Spend less. 

There’s a widely accepted cultural myth that money leads to happiness. The happiness that comes from acquiring is fleeting at best. Besides, if you spend less, you need less money, and how many people would be a whole lot better off if they didn’t stress so much about money?

15. You do you, and let me do me.

This is two part. One: be yourself! You’ll be happier if you’re not trying to fit some mold or live up to someone’s perceived expectations. Two: don’t worry about what I do (as long as it doesn’t actually hurt anyone or prevent you from doing you). Accepting others rather than trying to control them leads to a lot more peace, internally and externally.

Simple steps, right? At least in theory! What are your favorite tips and tricks to be happy?

“Happiness is not a goal…It’s a by-product of a life well lived.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt