Pay Attention to What You Pay Attention To

“When we blather about trivial things, we ourselves become trivial, for our attention gets taken up with trivialities. You become what you give your attention to.”

― Epictetus, The Art of Living

Do you know where your time goes? The answer may be shocking to you.

In the spring of 2013, prolific children’s book author Amy Krouse Rosenthal posted a tweet that would go on to be retweeted hundreds of times. In it, Amy wrote: “For anyone trying to discern what to do with their life, pay attention to what you pay attention to. That’s pretty much all the information you need.”

New York Times bestselling author Austin Kleon brought Amy’s tweet back into circulation in his recently-released book, Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and BadIn his chapter Ordinary + Extra Attention = Extraordinary, Austin says your attention is one of the most valuable things you possess, which is why everyone wants to steal it from you. He goes on to say “If you want to change your life, change what you pay attention to.”

Paying attention to what you pay attention to is the first step in creating the future you desire. To help you gain awareness of what you give your attention to, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is the first thing you do when you wake up?
  2. What is the last thing you do before you go to bed?
  3. Your home is empty, your household duties have been taken care of, and work wants you to spend an hour exploring. What do you do?
  4. When you eat lunch, what else are you doing? (checking email? watching the news? working?)
  5. When do you reflect?
  6. How much time do you spend improving? (your marriage, your job, your Spanish speaking skills?)
  7. When was the last time you’ve intentionally left your phone, computer, and other devices at home?
  8. Someone anonymously gives you $500. Do you buy an item or an experience?

Tony Robbins said, and others have said before him: where focus goes, energy flows. If you focus on the uncomfortable dinner conversation you engaged in with your in-laws last night, you’ll exert your precious energy on something that has already happened and may not have been deserving of your attention in the first place. If, instead, you focus on how you’re going to get through the pile of books on your nightstand, you’ll send energy to something important to you; something you truly desire to accomplish.

Taking control of what you pay attention to isn’t exactly a leisurely walk in the park. What’s important to keep in mind while making changes is that even the smallest adjustments matter. If you add five minutes to your day, you’re on your way to improvement. It all boils down to creating boundaries around what you value (your priorities) and taking your attention away from the rest.

Here are some suggestions for taking control of what you pay attention to:

Bring your priorities to the forefront of your life.

We all tend to chase our “to-do” lists relentlessly, which often means we’re overlooking our big and important priorities — the ones that chart the course of our lives. The practice of thinking about what is essential on a regular basis pumps life into your priorities, making them real and approachable, and allows you to strategize what you’re going to do to create forward momentum on them. If you’re not clear on your priorities, get clear on them. Do this before you read on. This article and this tool can help you.

Improve your attention management.

HBR describes attention management as the “practice of controlling distractions, being present in the moment, finding flow, and maximizing focus so that you can unleash your genius.” With good attention management, you recognize when your attention is being stolen, and instead direct your attention to things that lead you toward your priorities. Once you get a good grasp of how valuable your attention is, you’ll feel empowered to make decisions accordingly. It’s like the argument for saying no. You always have a choice! And if you regularly make poor choices regarding your focus and attention, your priorities may struggle.

Put a cap on your phone usage.

Your phone steals your time and this app gives it back to you. With this app (and many others), you can put caps on the number of times you pick up your phone and the amount of time you spend on it once you have it in your hands. It will nudge you when you’re nearing your goal and if you surpass it, it will prompt you with a supportive message about tomorrow being a new day. The app will even tell you your average amount of time spent on your phone, then translate it into the percentage of your waking life. It is alarming, to put it lightly. Likewise, Instagram allows you to create alerts for when you’ve reached a predetermined amount of time on it. Creating boundaries like these will change your life, so take advantage of these tools — they are there for a reason.

Schedule focus time into your calendar.

At Studio/E,  we do this by blocking off two hours on our calendars every week in which we cannot schedule anything. Not a meeting, not a conference, not a dentist appointment — nothing. We design time to focus on those things we’ve identified as contributors to our goals and priorities. This could be reading, reflecting, researching, or a reflective walk through a museum.

As they say, where focus goes, energy flows. Make sure your energy is contributing to creating the future you desire.

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Our priority is to equip leaders and organizations with practices to help them create a prosperous future, and we try to focus our attention on that goal. What’s your priority?

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