We are all familiar with the idea that time is a more valuable resource than money, since we can use time to make more money, and no amount of money can buy back the time already spent. Yet a more valuable resource than both time and money is our attention or awareness.
You may have a lot of time in your hands, but if your attention is constantly scattered across a myriad of things, your ability to make good use of that time is rather limited. Likewise, I have worked with clients who have more money than I’d know what to do with, yet their attention was chronically hijacked by mental states of anxiety, depression, or anger. In both these cases, the quality of one’s life is more determined by what one is paying attention to, not by the amount of time or money available.
Attention is the dynamic aspect of our awareness. Paying attention is directing our mind and energy to a specific thing—be it a person, object, event, thought, feeling, or anything perceivable. We have the power to choose where we want to place our attention, yet most of us are not fully utilizing this power. Perhaps we are not even aware of how important it really is.
The Power of Attention
You may be spending time with your loved ones, or walking through a beautiful park, or enjoying a delicious meal—but if your mind is elsewhere, the happiness or joy you derive from those experiences is minimal. You are not really present.
Conversely, you may be going through a difficult set of exercises at the gym, working through a challenging problem, or experiencing withdrawal symptoms after breaking a bad habit. Objectively speaking, there is pain in those moments, physical or cognitive. But if, instead of paying attention to the pain, you pay attention to your purpose—to why you are doing what you are doing—then in those moments you will be experiencing more purpose than pain.
Attention is the basic currency of your life. What you are paying attention to determines the quality of your life, your wellbeing, and your achievements. It determines what you perceive, how you think of yourself, and how you weave together your reality.
Attention has the power to make things important or unimportant, existent or non-existent. The thoughts, stories, and feelings you repeatedly pay attention to will shape your identity, and become your truth. You’ve made them important by paying attention to them, and now they form the lenses through which you see the world.
You can only manage the aspects of your life that you pay attention to; otherwise, they just follow their own nature, unaffected by your preferences and wishes.
- If we pay attention to our health, we can improve it. Otherwise, the body will just follow its own nature—tending toward decay, disease, and death.
- If we pay attention to our finances, we can be financially well. Otherwise, money will just get spent, and we end up with nothing, or in debt.
- If we pay attention to our relationships, we can nourish them. Otherwise, they tend to become flat, and the emotional connection weakens.
- If we pay attention to our goals, we strengthen them, and we act on them. Otherwise, they remain just wishes, and tend to be forgotten or forsaken in favor of things that are easier or more urgent.
Attention is your essential power. So be aware of how you are spending it.
If you want something to exist and grow, pay attention to it; If you want it to weaken and disappear, forget about it. If you want an area of your life to flourish, be mindful of it; if you want it to crumble, neglect it. If you want to fully internalize an experience or emotion, become intensely aware of it; if you want to weaken it, then forget about it, or ignore it.
Protecting Your Attention
These insights invite us to be more purposeful, aware, and intentional about how we use our attention. This is aligned with the three pillars of Mindful Self-Discipline (Aspiration, Awareness, Action).
- Being purposeful means knowing your values and aspirations, and deliberately focus on the things that will help you move them forward. You pay attention to the thoughts, narratives, and inputs that help you be the ideal version of yourself.
- Being aware means constantly watching your mind, making sure you are spending the precious resource of your attention wisely. You become aware when your attention is being hijacked by other things, or when you are getting distracted by trivial matters, or getting sucked into a black hole of negativity.
- Being intentional is about using your willpower to direct your attention back to where you want it to be, and keep it there, again and again. This is what allows you to be in control of your life, and live inside out rather than outside in.
Protecting and managing your attention is a lifelong discipline. It has always been key to human flourishing. It is even more important in the 21st Century, when there are thousands of people, apps, and services fighting hard for a piece of your attention.
The daily practice of meditation is essential for training your attention. Other self-discipline practices such as the morning routine, self-reflection, and the Power Hour also play an important role.
Become more aware of what you are paying attention to. Develop the habit of observing your mind, and reclaiming your power. Here are a couple of questions to help you further:
- How can you change the quality of your life today, by changing what you are paying attention to?
- How can you protect your attention right now?
If you would like to develop a healthier relationship with your devices and the internet, so that your attention doesn’t get too scattered, check out the exercises in the free Workbook, especially “Mindful Technology Use” and “Monk Week Guidelines”.
And if you are a member of the Mindful Self-Discipline app, you can train yourself in the art of focus by following the guided meditations under the “Concentration” category.