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Life offers an abundance of concerns to which you can give your attention. A significant part of living consciously includes deciding what is deserving of your attention and to what extent as well as deciding what isn’t deserving of your attention.
How do you decide what’s worthy of your attention and what isn’t?
Let’s consider some potential concerns.
On a scale of 1-3, make a quick rating of how attention-worthy each concern is for you (see list below).
1 = unworthy of your attention
2 = somewhat worthy of your attention
3 = very worthy of your attention
Here’s the list. These are in no particular order, and it’s not a complete list. It’s just a list to get you thinking.
“It depends” is a perfectly reasonable answer if you feel your rating would depend on the situation or circumstances. If that’s your answer, see if you can gain clarity about how the situation would affect your answer.
- your favorite TV show(s)
- national/global news
- local news
- your neighborhood
- your home
- your job
- your income
- your best friend
- your boss
- your parents
- your family
- the economy
- your nighttime dreams
- your goals
- gossip about people you know
- the latest software
- income taxes
- your net worth
- your weight
- your physical appearance
- your wardrobe
- your primary relationship partner
- physical exercise
- reading non-fiction
- reading fiction
- fine dining
- doing drugs
- conspiracy theories
- healthy eating
- forming positive habits
- overcoming addictions
- making money
- protecting the environment
- being organized
- personal hygiene
- going to bars or night clubs
- having kids
- real estate
- learning other languages
- Internet marketing
- video games
- computer programming
- national debt
- the military
- personal growth
- psychic development
- your emotions
- being in nature
- developing new skills
- science fiction
- your next promotion
- public speaking
- attending conferences
You can print out this list and jot down a numerical rating for each item, or you can simply say each rating aloud as you read it online.
Feel free to add your own items too — anything you’d like to include is fair game.
Take your time as you do this. Don’t necessarily go with your initial impulse rating for each item. Pause for a moment and think. How do you know if an item is worthy of your attention or not? What makes one item worthy and another unworthy? Push yourself to come up with a reason to justify each rating. This is a learning exercise to help you discover what matters most to you and why.
Notice that if you want to, you can choose to give your attention to anything you desire. If you want to focus on your income, you can do that. If you want to give some attention to the environment, a fiction book, or your girlfriend, you can do those things too.
Notice that in the absence of such choices, your attention will be pulled towards something by default. If you don’t make a conscious choice here, someone else will decide for you. It may be your boss, a family member, an advertiser, a collective social influence, or someone or something else, but it won’t be something of your deliberate choosing.
When you don’t make these choices yourself, you fall back into unconscious living, and generally speaking, your results will suffer for it. Such unconscious results are usually quite poor compared to the results you can get from living consciously.
And lastly, notice that attention is a very limited resource. You don’t have an infinite attention capacity. You can only give your attention to one item — or at most, a few items — at a time. Attention should be viewed as a precious resource, something you invest carefully and thoughtfully. You don’t have much of it to spread around, so don’t let it go to waste.
Where Is Your Attention Going?
Now that you’ve given some thought to what’s worthy of your attention, it’s a good idea to make a list of what’s actually capturing your attention.
I suggest that you set aside a full day or two for attention capture. You can do this very easily. Get a blank piece of paper, and each time something new catches your attention that isn’t already written down, add it to your paper.
Don’t worry about tracking how much time you attend to each item. Just make a complete list that reflects the variety of thoughts and activities that captured your attention throughout the day.
At the end of the day, your list may look something like this:
- feeling I should get out of bed earlier
- wanting to lose weight
- wanting to eat healthier
- figuring out what to eat
- web surfing
- working on Project A
- worrying about money
- thinking about the weekend
- talking with my partner about something trivial
- feeling stressed
- driving to work, thinking about bills
- attending a meeting, mostly zoning out
- reading work-related items
- watching TV
When you feel you have a pretty good representation of your attention-grabbing concerns, whether it takes you a few hours or a few days to complete the list, go ahead and give each item on your list a 1-3 rating like you did earlier. Of all the items that captured some of your attention, which ones were truly worthy of it?
What do you notice about this? Are you giving your attention to items that are worthy of you? Or is your attention being drained away by trivialities? Which items weren’t on your list that should have been?
Determining Attention Worthiness
How do you know if an item is worthy or your attention or not? How can you separate the important from the irrelevant?
Here are some key criteria to consider:
What are the consequences of giving an item your attention vs. withholding your attention?
If there’s little difference either way or if the overall consequences are unimportant, it’s fair to say that the item isn’t worthy of your attention.
When it comes to understanding consequences, you must make your own assessment in this area. Don’t blindly subscribe to someone else’s assessment of the importance of a particular concern.
For example, I have never voted in any political election. I have never registered to vote. Certain social pressures may try to get me to believe that voting is my civic duty and that I’d be a bad person not to vote, but I say B.S. to all of that. Ultimately I have to make my own assessment of the importance of this action, and my personal determination is that in the grand scheme of things, my individual vote is irrelevant and statistically meaningless. Calling it a “right” or a “privilege” seems more like marketing than truth to me. So I do not vote… ever. Voting is a waste of time.
Not voting doesn’t mean I don’t care about world affairs. Of course I care. However, there are more intelligent options available to create change than the wasted effort of filling out a ballot.
Whether I vote or don’t vote, the consequences are negligible either way. As an activity, voting is unworthy of my attention.
You’re free to disagree with me of course. If you think voting is a good use of your time, by all means continue the practice. My point is that you cannot blindly accept social programming when it comes to determining what is or isn’t important to you. You have to make that determination for yourself.
Attention-worthy tasks show a pattern of having impactful consequences if you focus on them. Giving them your attention makes a very noticeable difference. If, however, you squander your attention on unworthy items, your results will be either negligible or negative.
In addition to consequences, also consider the degree of control you have over a particular concern.
If by giving your attention to a certain item, you have the ability to influence it in a meaningful way, then it’s more attention-worthy than an item that you cannot influence much.
For example, through my writing, I’m able to exert a lot of influence over people’s results when it comes to personal growth. This is an area where I have a lot of control. I can decide which topics to write about and how to express key points. Since I’ve been doing this for many years, I can see that my efforts have a positive impact. I can nudge people towards making more conscious choices. Every time I post a new article, it creates many ripples.
On the other hand, I don’t seem to have much control over the local politics in Las Vegas. I could give that subject a lot of attention, but I’m not currently in a position to have much impact there. So keeping up with local politics isn’t a good use of my time, relatively speaking. Consequently, I largely ignore local politics, so I can focus on other areas where I can make a more positive difference with less effort. This choice helps me be more efficient.
If you give your attention to items you can’t control, you’re essentially wasting your time. It’s more intelligent to focus on what you can control and influence. Then your influence will expand over time, and your power will increase.
The attention-worthiness of any particular concern is relative to other items you could be choosing instead.
Will you watch TV or read a book? Will you go on a date or work on your Internet business? Will you get up early and exercise or sleep in late?
Whenever you give your attention to one concern, it means you’re withholding your attention from all other possible concerns. This entails a hidden cost of the potential value of the items you’ve declined to pursue.
If you had used your time differently during the past 5 years, you could have an extra million dollars in the bank. Another path might have led you to travel through dozens of different countries. And still another path might have you looking at a very fit and sculpted body in the mirror right now.
Are you happy with the path you’re currently following? Do you feel you’ve been giving your attention to thoughts and activities that are truly worthy of you? Are the opportunities that you’ve declined to pursue of lesser value than the ones you did pursue? Have you been turning down the good in order to pursue the best?
Or are you feeling disappointed with yourself right now?
Attention = Investment
Think of your attention as an investment. For each unit of time you invest, you’re generating certain results.
Some investments yield positive returns. Others yield zero or negative returns.
Don’t expect to be perfect right off the bat. This is a growth process that plays out over many years. To live more consciously, keep withdrawing your attention from trivial concerns, and redirect it towards those areas where you can have a stronger and more positive impact.
For example, I spent a lot of time during my 20s creating and publishing video games. Eventually I pulled my attention away from that field and redirected it to personal development. Shifting my attention thusly has allowed me to have a stronger and more positive impact, and I also reap greater rewards from creating and delivering more value to others.
Making these kinds of shifts can be a real challenge. Don’t expect the journey to be easy. Many people remain addicted to trivialities all the way to their graves. Often they can’t get past the social conditioning that tells them they should care about things that simply don’t matter. Don’t fall into that trap.
To live consciously, you must be the one to clarify and decide what matters most to you, and then you must discipline yourself to focus your attention on those items by deliberately withdrawing your attention from lesser concerns. Don’t expect life to do this for you. Don’t expect others to help you much. And never, ever whine that you don’t know what to do. It’s your job to figure it out — the task sits squarely on your shoulders. To complain that it’s too burdensome will only make it seem harder.
It’s okay to make mistakes as you figure this out. You don’t need to concoct a grand plan in advance, so don’t use the lack of one as an excuse for procrastination. Simply do the best you can in each moment, and you can continue to upgrade your choices as you go along. Keep pushing yourself to drop low-value activities, and replace them with higher value ones. Drop TV and read non-fiction instead. Dump the gossip-addicted friend who does nothing for you intellectually, and replace her with a more intelligent and resourceful friend. Quit the cigarettes, and shift that slice of your attention — and your budget — to becoming a fitness maven. If you still insist on using the “I don’t know what to do” excuse, then drop to the floor and do push-ups until you think of something that’s a better use of your time than doing push-ups. I suspect your brain will come up with a few ideas very shortly.
Very often when you reduce the time wasters by dropping low-value relationships and activities from your life, your understanding about what really matters to you will skyrocket. Time wasters will invariably fog your vision. Get rid of them as quickly as you can, and clarity will return. You will not miss the time wasters, even if you feel you’re addicted to them now.
Don’t let the difficulty of the task become an excuse for laziness. Keep pushing yourself to upgrade to more attention-worthy activities while dropping trivialities from your life, and you’ll find that your life becomes something quite special — rich in meaning and purpose. The alternative is a life of increasing disappointment and regret.