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PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU PAY ATTENTION TO


drawing of what you notice

❝Our life experience will equal what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or default.❞ -William James

As an amateur magician (very much amateur), I learn and practice magic tricks by combining different "moves." If you play a musical instrument, you can think of these magic moves like chords you learned on your instrument. Once you learn magic moves, you can combine them in various ways to make magic tricks.


Most magic moves exploit your mind's ability to predict cause and effect. If you noticed me show you a card from the top of the deck, for all intents and purposes, you saw a card that came from the top of the deck.

What you don't notice doesn't exist. You didn't notice me showing you two cards from the top of the deck. From your perspective, it didn't happen.


That's what makes magic so fun. Because something happens that couldn't have happened based on your perception. Things didn't work out like they "should" have, based on what you noticed.


Magic is done for entertainment. But the same idea applies to our lives. If you don't pay attention to the areas of your life that are going well, it won't feel like anything's going well. If you only notice the bad things, potentially bad things, and perceived bad things, then that's what your life will become.


Paying closer attention to what you pay attention to and using your attention with more intention, will help you live a more meaningful, grateful, and fulfilling life.


AWARENESS VERSUS ATTENTION


As we talk about attention, it's helpful to distinguish between attention and awareness. Thinks of awareness as anything that can be noticed. You can notice your thoughts, for example, so that would lie within your awareness. Someone else's thoughts can't be noticed, so those lie outside your awareness. Some would make the claim that awareness is synonymous with consciousness.



drawing of awareness


Within the field of awareness is where you place your attention. Your attention is a subset of what you can be aware of.


Sometimes, your attention moves around your field of awareness intentionally. That is, you control where your attention goes, like when you are reading an article.


Other times, there are internal or external demands for your attention. An internal demand for your attention is like when you feel a pain in your knee, making you pay attention to the pain. An external demand is like when you hear a loud crash nearby, and your attention moves to the source of the crash.



drawing of attention


You can think of attention like a flashlight or a spotlight of awareness. Awareness is big and fuzzy, but attention is narrowed in and clear.



drawing of flashlight of attention


Some examples of things you can pay attention to include sights, sounds, smells, bodily sensations, thoughts, emotions, and feelings.


drawing of what you can pay attention to

THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS


A case can be made that attention isn't just a tool that we have access to, but rather that it's among the only things that matter. If you don't pay attention to something, it doesn't exist; you miss it.


It's like William James said, "When we reach the end of our days, our life experience will equal what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or default." He doesn't just say that we miss what we don't pay attention to and collect experiences of only what we paid attention to. He also says that if we don't use our attention on purpose, we use it while on autopilot - or based on what others want us to pay attention to.


drawing of attention is all that matters


If we don't pay attention to what we pay attention to, we're likely to become distracted. Our attention will be tossed around by marketers, advertisers, algorithms, chasing money and power, and any number of things that distract us from choosing to focus on what matters.

drawing of distractions

Because we only get a few dozen years, and the more we let ourselves be distracted, the more likely we are to miss the life we've been given.


drawing of distractions letting life pass us by



The Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire measures your level of mindfulness among five interrelated components. These components are observing, describing, acting with awareness, nonjudgment of inner experiences, and not reactivity to inner experiences. They can be helpful in gaining an understanding of the areas of mindfulness in which you may want to focus.




THE FIGHT FOR ATTENTION


Attention is big business. People want your attention. They want your eyeballs. Some have claimed the world has become a war for our attention.

drawing of fight for your attention

It started with radio ads, television ads, and even all those annoying cards that come in magazines. The reason these forms of entertainment are "free" is because they are subsidized by those who want our attention.


Then you had billboards on the side of the road, and advertisements on clothing. Some people are proud to be a walking advertisement.


In all these cases, the ads were general. They had to apply to the most people possible.


Now, we get customized ads sent to us via intricate algorithms on devices that have all been designed to hijack our attention.


drawing of fighting for your attention against social media, algorithms, smart phones, and the joneses


PAYING CLOSER ATTENTION


The way to "win the war" is to get better at using our attention. Mindfulness meditation is a powerful way to strengthen your attention, but it's not the only way. With mindfulness meditation, you practice paying attention to one thing - like your breath - and redirect your attention back to your breath when you notice you've become distracted, often by thoughts.


Think of training your attention like training the hand that holds the flashlight of attention.


drawing of strengthening the hand that holds the flashlight

Attention is all you have, and it's easy to become distracted by thoughts and what others want us to pay attention to. Being more intentional about how you use your attention will make you less susceptible to paying attention to what others want you to pay attention to, and will help train you to pay less attention to your thoughts.


You get one life; live intentionally.


 

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REFERENCES AND INFLUENCES

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Choose the Life You Want Burkeman, Oliver: Four Thousand Weeks

Burkeman, Oliver: The Antidote

Dalai Lama & Howard Cutler: The Art of Happiness Godin, Seth: This is Marketing Hagen, Derek: Your Money, Your Values, and Your Life Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis Hanh, Thich Nhat: No Mud, No Lotus Hanh, Thich Nhat: You Are Here Hanson, Rick: Hardwiring Happiness Hanson, Rick & Forrest Hanson: Resilient Hanson, Rick & Richard Mendius: Buddha’s Brain Harris, Dan: 10% Happier Harris, Sam: Waking Up Kabat-Zinn, Jon: Wherever You Go, There You Are Kinder, George: Transforming Suffering into Wisdom Lukas, Elisabeth & Bianca Hirsch: Meaningful Living PositivePsychology.com: Mindfulness X



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About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.

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