You Are What You Pay Attention To

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When Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and Focused Life, was diagnosed with cancer, decided that that hard disease and its treatment shouldn’t be at the center of her attention at all times. She realized that when she paid attention to the things she enjoyed about life rather than to her disease, her day went through in a much more pleasant way.

Being who she was, a scientific writer, she shortly realized that there was a clear correlation between her personal wellbeing and what she was paying attention to. That made her willing to dig deeper in the role that attention plays in our lives.

Many people tend to assume and accept what happens to them as if they couldn’t do anything about it, as if the circumstances around us were completely determinant in our lives. However, Gallagher came to the conclusion, after years of research, that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.

Our brain creates the vision we have of our lives according to what things we pay attention to. What you are, what you think, what you do, how you feel, everything is the result of what you focus on. The good news is that you are also the one who decides what you should be paying attention to and what you should be ignoring.

Although, in the first instance, something may immediately and irremediably require your attention, with a little awareness and training you can capture that feeling and decide if that newness should monopolize your attention or not. Ultimately, if you learn to focus on the positive, you will be happier.

Obviously, the management of attention works at any scale. In any moment of your day you can choose to focus on something productive or in something that involves a poor use of your time. If in the day to day you focus on urgencies and other people’s rushes, instead of important work, your stress and anxiety will skyrocket, while your productivity will go down. And it depends on you to a large extent.

It’s noteworthy that theories such as Flow of Mihály Csikszentmihalyi, Deep Work of Carl Newport or Getting Things Done (GTD) of David Allen, which seek to achieve a meaningful, effective, enjoyable, stress-free life, are ultimately based on our ability to manage attention.

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