It’s Week 2 of Mindset Month, and we’re following up last week’s idea that you can’t do everything with another concept that should hopefully provide some direction about which things you might want to spend time on. Did you ever consider the term “paying attention,” and specifically why we use the word pay? It’s an interesting choice, no?

If you want, visit the Tidy ’24 Calendar to look at what we’ve covered earlier this year. If not, read on!

Mindset Week 2: Attention is Life

Last week, we discussed the idea that you can’t do everything, which is obvious but valuable to consider every so often. It helps us choose what we want to spend time on and what we want to let go of. Deciding what not to do is every bit as important as determining what to do.

In Week 2, we’re looking at a related idea: attention is life.

Before you get into a profound metaphysical argument with me about what life is, I admit this is a somewhat blurry and shorthanded way to express the idea. But it was the best I could come up with to squish it into a (hopefully) memorable three-word phrase.

A while ago, I came across an article that claimed that our lives—the activities that make up our own perceptions and experiences from beginning to end—are simply the sum of everything that we pay attention to. That felt like a bold statement to make. I thought about it for a while and realized that while there’s definitely more to “life” than that implies, there’s an interesting truth.

Whatever you pay attention to is what you will remember, what you will be able to act onaccomplish wellenjoylearn, and so on. Paying attention to our actions is how we become skilled at that activity. We become good friends, spouses, and parents by paying attention to people.

Even the wording of that phrase, “paying attention,” highlights how important it is. It’s a precious, limited resource, perhaps even more important than time. If I give you time without attention, how much is that time worth? And what if my attention is split? Humans really can’t multitask between different activities that require attention. I might be able to talk to you while we walk together, but what if I check my email in the middle of a conversation? Both of those activities will suffer, and you will understandably feel neglected.

So, back to the idea that attention is life and what it means in our digital world. Last week, when we explored the idea that you can’t do everything, I didn’t say much about how to choose what to do among all the different options; instead, I simply pointed out that you should make those choices consciously.

Now combine that with this week’s idea that your life experience is the sum of everything you pay attention to. Together, those ideas provide some direction. Do you want to pay all that attention to social media? Or even regular media, for that matter? Are you voluntarily receiving so many emails that staying on top of your inbox requires hours every day? Are you trying to stay informed on so many topics that it’s stressful rather than helpful?

How much attention you should spend on any particular activity (or person!) is up to you. Everyone has different interests, hobbies, relationships, goals, and priorities. But everyone has a limited amount of attention. Spending time on something without paying attention is mindless activity—you might as well do something else because it won’t do you any good. Paying attention only partially is almost as pointless because our brains aren’t wired to work well with a split focus.

Look for the things in your life that have a good return on investment for the attention you devote; when you focus on them, your life is better. These include relationships, learning, challenging yourself, building, creating, journaling, reading, and even taking mental breaks with things that have few objectively redeeming qualities. There’s nothing wrong with relaxing.

But avoid the things that suck you in without your realizing it. Avoid the apps and internet rabbit holes that make you wonder where on earth the day went. Avoid the over-zealous consumption of information with nothing to show for it. Avoid empty productivity that lets you check off a dozen tasks that don’t add value to anyone.

Action Steps

For this week, as before, I have only one action step for you:

  • Catch yourself spending time and attention in a way that doesn’t align with your goals and values, and in that moment, stop.

Try to do it just once to prove to yourself that you can. You might find yourself mindlessly scrolling social media. Or, you might be reading an email newsletter simply because it’s in your inbox rather than because it’s actually useful to you. You might find that you’re taking pictures of an event instead of enjoying it personally, even though you’ll probably never look at the photos again, and they can’t capture the experience that well anyway.

Shift into the mindset that your attention is the most important thing you can give to someone or something, even more than your time. Don’t waste it. Don’t split it. Choose what matters to you, and focus on those things.

Happy data-taming!

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