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Thomas De Moor for X-Team

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Why It's Important to Pay Attention to the Right Things

Why It's Important to Pay Attention to the Right Things

We've never met, but I know something about you. Attention has defined your past and it will define your future. Think about it. What things have you paid attention to in the past? Did those things influence your life and point it in a certain direction? My guess is that they did.

Conversely, it's hard for something to exist in your life if you never pay attention to it. For some things, that's good. If you don't pay attention to run-of-the-mill news or social media, it's unlikely to ever impact your life in a practical way.

For other things, it's bad. If you don't pay attention to proper sleep or posture, it won't feature prominently in your life until eventually it causes so many problems you'll have no choice but to pay attention to it.

It matters deeply what you pay attention to. If you pay attention to distractions, of which there are plenty today, it's unlikely you'll ever be successful. So you need to pay attention to the things that will bring you closer to your goals, otherwise you'll never get there.

This might sound obvious, but it's actually quite hard to pay attention to the right things. There's an entire field of science devoted to this (the formal name of which is attention management). We're biologically wired to the new and the sudden, because back in the woods thousands of years ago, our ability to rapidly switch attention from the familiar to the unknown often saved our lives.

How to Direct Your Attention

Today, this no longer applies. Our attention is pulled in all directions by companies that are incentivized to hack our biological inclinations, because attention means money. It's even in the language. You pay a company with your attention. Streams, users, views, upvotes, subs, etc..., all have monetary value. We need to guard ourselves against this and keep our attention on goals over distractions. Doing so is a recipe with two ingredients:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-regulation

Self-awareness, because you need to be aware when you're paying attention to something that's ultimately a distraction. This is true on a micro and a macro level. When you're writing code, looking up the latest JavaScript frameworks because you're curious about them is a distraction (micro). When you want to become a C# programmer, doing course after course instead of writing actual C# code is also, unfortunately, a distraction (macro).

Self-regulation, because once you're aware of what you're paying attention to and whether it's a distraction or not, you need to be able to pull yourself back to the right thing. This is hard if the distraction is particularly tempting, as many often are. Our minds are thoroughly adept at tricking us into believing a distraction is worthwhile.

Much of this is about control. Do you control your mind or does your mind control you? Sounds meta, I know, but who doesn't sometimes feel there's a basic, more primitive mind that skitters off to distractions, and a higher-up, wiser mind that knows better. System 1 and System 2, Daniel Kahneman would call them. Which one's really in control?

You can make life easier for your higher mind in a few ways:

  • Control your environment. Create it so that distractions are eliminated and progress toward your goals is encouraged. That's why remote workers create artificial boundaries between work and life, because the physical boundaries of office and home are no longer there.

  • Control your behavior. Tools and models such as the Pomodoro Technique, Zettelkasten, and blocked calendar times all help to guide you to more productive behavior.

  • Control your thoughts. While thoughts have no inherent power, they influence your emotions and your actions. So what you think about will ultimately manifest itself into reality. Don't think about the things that draw you away from your goals or the things that you can't do anything about. Instead, think pragmatically, practically, with a can-do attitude.

To Conclude

What you pay attention to will define the vast majority of things in your life. Figure out what your goals are and place your attention toward those goals. This requires self-awareness and self-regulation: Understand what you're paying attention to and develop the ability to control the direction of your attention. Make your life easier by controlling your environment, behavior, and thoughts.

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