Attention determines outcomes
28 Aug 2021- Stephen Bosch
4 min read
- William James
How do some people manage to be so prolific? They focus, they establish routines, they work consistently, and they use all the time available to them to think about the right things.
Attention determines inputs to thinking
What a person thinks is an emergent property of the attentional system. If you want to think different things, then you need to pay attention to different things.
Attention feels like you can control it, but it is in fact an automatic process. This is dangerous, because it fools you into believing you’re exercising control over it when you aren’t. Suddenly, the room is messy, and you don’t know how it got that way. That’s the worst part: you feel out of control of your own existence.
Habits, surroundings and events determine what you pay attention to
Because of my intolerance for boredom, I was starting every morning with a review of the news. I’ve been a news… ahem addict for most of my life. (I’d considered a career in journalism and even did some professional writing, but that was a long time ago.)
The current news is almost never actionable. If it’s really important and relevant to me I almost always learn about it through some other channel. And much of the time the news is depressing. So why was I doing this?
Checking the news is a habit not unlike a drug habit. This habit was determining my attention diet.
What’s on the walls.
What’s on the desk.
A device within reach.
Things we hear.
Things we see.
Things we read.
Things that happen.
A phone rings or beeps.
A person talks.
Something falls down, there is a sound.
Lightning strikes, or a light comes on.
We notice that we feel hungry.
We feel an itch.
We feel pain.
Habits, surroundings and events are cues for thinking.
Replace the news with something useful
I needed to change this bad habit, something best done by replacing it with a better habit. But I couldn’t pretend this natural impulse to quell my boredom didn’t exist. What else could satisfy my mind’s natural hunger for novelty, yet be more useful than reading the news?
I asked myself,
- What do I care about?
- Where do I want to be?
- What do I need to think about to get there?
- What do I need to do to get that?
- What do I need to know to do that?
I knew I wanted to get back into business. I knew I wanted to bootstrap it. So I began with an internet search for terms like “business bootstrapping” and discovered, over time, a whole community of people doing this… and writing about it.
I signed up for a mailing list. Then another. And another. And before long my inbox was filling up with the kind of news that might actually be useful to me.
I deliberately kept the threshold for changes low. That meant not setting any expectations for what I was to do with what I was reading. The first “goal” was simply to change what I was paying attention to, and thus change my information diet and ultimately my thinking.
And so, almost every morning there is a new message in my inbox pertaining to the things that matter to me: cleantech, business, bootstrapping, psychology, economics.
Attention costs you money
Attention is a limited resource, yet we are spendthrifts with it. The key to seeing the value of your attention – the real, substantial monetary value of the attention of lowly you – is a frank acceptance of your natural limits and an understanding of opportunity cost:
You have a finite time on this planet. You have a finite amount of attention you can spend.
Every second you attend to one thing is a second you cannot attend to something else.
You can’t eat it if it’s not in the house
Managing your information diet is not unlike managing your food diet. What’s available gets eaten. If it’s not in the house, you can’t be tempted by it. Where you keep your devices and how they are configured, whether you have a television or not, what books you keep around, and whatever else you allow into your home all make a difference in what you ultimately attend to.
For three years now, my information diet has been fundamentally different.
I’ve learned that anybody can build a business that uses their strengths, that challenges and engages them, and that is profitable, because I see examples of it every day. This has made me happier and more motivated.
It has taught me that the human world is bigger and full of more opportunity than we can possibly imagine.
I have seen what is possible, and I cannot unsee this.
This simple decision to change what I attend to has changed me. It has changed everything. ⊡