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Treat Your Attention Like the Precious Resource It Is

Using your attention with intention will give you more control over your life.

Key points

  • Attention is a finite and precious resource that can be used with greater awareness to improve one's quality of life.
  • Whatever someone pays attention to becomes larger and more important in their consciousness.
  • Among the benefits of mindfulness practice is developing the skill of paying greater attention to one's present-moment experience.
Source: Firmbee/Pixabay
Source: Firmbee/Pixabay

"Our attention is like water, and with it, we can choose to water the flowers or the weeds of our experience." — John Bruna

Over the course of your day, how much of your attention is truly under your control? As you are bombarded with the continuous stimuli of 24/7/365 connectivity, how much of your attention do you willingly give away without thinking about it?

Our attention is a precious and finite resource; we only have so much of it. Every choice we make and every action we take (whether intentional or not)—calling/texting a friend, cleaning the kitchen, taking a walk, watching TV, or scrolling through our phones—is a transaction related to our attention. We are taking the attention we have and giving it over to something. This is a zero-sum proposition in that when you pay attention to one thing, you effectively ignore something else.

Our attention is also a powerful resource. What we place our attention on is the arbiter of what we deem important at any moment in time. What we pay attention to determines our priorities. Whatever we give our attention to becomes larger and more important in our consciousness. But to what extent do you pay attention to what you pay attention to? How often are you consciously aware of where your attention is going (and, consequently, where it's not going)?

The challenge of focusing our attention and maintaining that focus is a function of being human. The human mind produces a continuous stream of thoughts and images, the majority of which have little to do with our present-moment circumstances. These thoughts and images combine to create stories that latch onto our attention and hold it captive, drawing it away from what we intended to focus on.

Many of these stories are compelling tales that pull us back into the past—to events that have passed—or propel us forward into the future to things that might or might not happen. They invariably detract and distract from our ability to pay conscious attention to and respond skillfully in the here and now, whether we're holding a conversation, involved in a work assignment, interacting with our partner or kids, driving, or writing a blog article.

Most of the time, this happens automatically and unconsciously, and it disconnects us from living in the present. When we aren't paying conscious attention to this moment, we are effectively sleepwalking, even when we're wide awake. How often have you been driving and missed your intended turn or exit, or came close to missing it, because you weren't paying enough attention to the here and now? Not being present-centered interferes with attention and performance to the point where it can become a form of impairment.

Moreover, with ever-expanding technological advances, there is more competition for our attention all the time. The internet, email, and social media apply seemingly relentless pressure that demands a percentage of this limited resource. These distractions are often compelling and seductive, exerting a gravitational pull that hijacks our attention, taking it away from where we want it and often need it to be. Consequently, it has become increasingly difficult to place and keep our attention focused on the things that matter in our lives.

Attention has always been a form of currency, but as we live more of our lives online, it is now the currency. To what extent do we wield it consciously and purposefully vs. wasting it mindlessly? As the primary currency of the human condition, our well-being necessitates spending our available attention more carefully.

Using your attention with greater intention

So, where do you start? How do you go about allocating the attention you have in more focused, intentional ways? Considering consciously and critically how and on what you spend most of your attention and re-evaluating your habits is an excellent beginning. Paying attention to what we pay attention to can point us toward a better understanding of how our minds work, as well as how we value our time—which is also a finite and precious resource. Simply by acknowledging its presence and appreciating its value, we can begin to direct our attention toward the activities, people, ideas, and issues that are worthy of it.

This is among the benefits of mindfulness practice—to pay greater attention with intention to our present-moment experience. Where is your attention right now? Is it where you want it to be, where you need it to be? If not, you can use this awareness to mobilize your attention and bring it to where you want it to be. Concentrative meditation practices use a specific object, such as a sound, mantra, or attention to the breath, to train the mind to develop this simple yet sophisticated skill.

And when thoughts and the stories they create inevitably creep in and wrest your attention away from where you want or need it to be, the work is to become consciously aware of this and again use that awareness to intentionally bring your attention back—as often as may be necessary. This is how to remain centered in the present and be as skillful as possible at whatever you do.

There are occasions when multitasking may be unavoidable. However, fueled as it is by the imperative to "get things done," multitasking frequently becomes standard operating procedure, even when it isn't necessary. When we attempt to pay attention to multiple things at the same time, we're actually not paying close attention to any of them. Strive to minimize multitasking whenever possible and do one thing at a time. Be present with the task at hand, giving it your full undiluted attention.

When you learn to pay real attention to what you pay attention to and practice using that awareness to bring your attention to where you want it to be—over and over again—you can regain control over considerably more of your life. You can begin to use more of your time in ways that support choices and actions in closer alignment with your values, the principles most important to you. This gives you greater access to genuine contentment, peace of mind, peace of heart, and a life of purpose and meaning. And that is an issue worthy of your limited and precious attention.

Copyright 2023 Dan Mager, MSW

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