By Donald Latumahina, November 14, 2007

Use your attention wisely. It will make or break your life.

Attention management is one of the most important skills you should master in your life. Manage your attention well and it will give you tremendous success. Manage it badly and it may give you tragic failure. Which one do you want in your life?

“Laws” of attention

To master the art of managing attention, first of all we should understand its nature. Here are three “laws” of attention:

  • Attention is a limited resource
    Like money, attention is a limited resource. We have only a limited amount of it we can “spend” and we may run out of it.
  • Attention is self-reinforcing
    The more we pay attention to something, the more attention it will attract.
    If we pay attention to something positive, a virtuous cycle will go on and on until we enter the state of flow where our whole attention is absorbed at the task at hand. In the flow state we don’t even have attention left to track the time. This is a state of maximum productivity where you can achieve the most given the same amount of time.
     On the other hand, if we pay attention to something negative, a vicious cycle will go on and on and you may end up in something terrible such as depression.
  • The more we pay attention to something, the more we will achieve, for better or for worse
    Have you ever heard about “the power of focus”? Focus is indeed powerful. We have much higher chance to achieve something if we focus on it.
    But what is focus? In my opinion, “focus” is just a state of mind where we spend more and more attention on something until it strongly reinforces itself and we become absorbed in it. Such condition would give tremendous results.
    But, while it can be used positively, it can also be used negatively. Even small initial attention on something negative could be reinforced and make it a vicious cycle. Paying attention to negative thought may make us end up in depression, and paying attention to doing something negative may make us end up in bad habit.

Tips on managing attention

The “laws” of attention above introduce us to how attention works. Now what can we do to get the most out of it? Here are some tips:

1. Watch yourself

Always watch yourself on how you are “spending” your attention. I’m afraid we often let our attention goes to whatever places it wants without proper control.

2. Cut negative attention as soon as possible

As soon as you realize that you are paying attention to something negative, stop it! Cut it as soon as possible before it reinforces itself. That is why it’s important to always watch yourself. Cut the negative attention by moving your attention right away to something positive.

3. Have a “default” positive to quickly switch your attention to

Since negative thoughts can quickly occupy our mind, we need to be able to pull out quickly. To do so, you need a “default” positive to which you can quickly switch your attention. If you still have to spend time to find it, it might be too late.

One thing you can use as default positive is inspiring and motivating quotes. When you start paying attention to negative thoughts, quickly switch your attention to the inspiring quotes to get yourself back on track.

4. Fill the “white spaces”

The “white spaces” are the times when you do nothing. They may be the transition from doing one task to the next, or they may be the time you spend on commuting. Whatever they are, the “white spaces” are the times when negative thoughts could easily attract your attention. So fill them with your default positive.

5. Prevent “leaks” in your attention “bucket”

“Leaks” in your attention “bucket” makes your attention unable to positively reinforce itself. You may spend a lot of time yet achieve very little since you could never gather enough attention to be highly productive.

What are the “leaks”? The “leaks” are distractions and interruptions which take your attention away to the wrong place. So prevent them in every way to get the most out of your attention.

6. Invest your attention on things with the highest returns

Preventing leaks is like eliminating unnecessary expenses. While eliminating unnecessary expenses is good for your finance, it’s not enough. To get the most out of your money, you should also invest it in places with the highest returns. Similarly, you should “invest” your attention on things with the highest returns.

The 80/20 rule is helpful here. The rule says that 20% of the causes gives 80% of the effects.So always spend your attention on the top 20% things which give the most returns.

7. Know when to stop

In whatever you do, diminishing returns applies. When you initially pay attention to something, the return is positive (provided that it is something useful). But over time, the return you get will decrease until at one point, you would get better return if you spend your attention to something else. This is the point where you should stop. Always be aware of the return you currently get from your attention, and stop before it’s too late.

This is something I need to get better at. Must take notice of the tips...