Do you pay too much attention?
Life: Today I'm writing to you from our home for the next 10 days or so on the shores of Lake Atitlan. Since I last wrote we've spent a few days at a waterpark, a couple of days in Guatemala city, a few more at 2,500 meters camping on the slopes of a volcano (pictures). And now we're settled here. Life's been both busy and awesome.
Work: aside from a couple of client calls (I'm on one in the center picture), I have not worked much. Back to it now, with a fresh mind, which is making decisions around Train Your Intuition easy and productive. More on that next week, when it will open for anyone who wants to buy early.
Today, I want to talk to you about two types of attention: paying and placing. For attention-theory afficionados, yes this is a simplification. For the rest of you, I hope it helps.
Most of the time we PAY attention probably because it's the only type of attention we were taught in school. To attend to something to achieve a goal: learning it. Or simply because you were told to.
In life, most continue that pattern. Trying to achieve goals - in work and life. Or relaxing by paying attention to something entertaining or educational.
I emphasize “paying attention,” because it comes with a cost. That cost is the activation of your sympathetic nervous system. The SNS is one half of your autonomic nervous system – the bit that regulates all the involuntary ‘stuff’ that happens in your body.
Placing your attention
The other half, the parasympathetic nervous system, is suppressed while you pay attention. As I have talked about before, the PNS looks after your body. It regulates stress, enhances your digestion and immune system, repairs your body and brain, and much else.
And the PNS is only active when your conscious mind is placing its attention, rather than “paying” it. Here’s some prompts to help you get your mind into that state. Importantly, just notice the answers, don't start trying to determine causation or meaning.
Want to know where you spend your attention?
This is an outline of a process that takes some time and thought to complete. Subscribers can scroll down to the bottom of the page to find a pdf coaching guide which explores it in more detail, and provides a couple of other exercises around placing attention.
One. Audit your attention. What are you spending your time and focus on? What do you read or think about? Any skills or characteristics you are working on?
Two: Who do you want to be? Tomorrow? In 10 years? What does your aspirational self look like.
For most people, what makes them happy is a combination of three things: Purpose, close and secure relationships, and a personal ethic. Reflect on this.
Three: Spot the difference. How much of your time are you spending on things that are salient to who you want to be? What are you doing that would actively hinder you becoming your aspirational self?
Four: Subtract. What are you going to stop doing tomorrow?
I run through this with clients, it's an eye-opening experience. You CAN be who you want to be. But often what stops you is what and who you pay attention to.
The difference between paying and placing attention
The key difference really between paying and placing attention is effort.
Paying attention requires some kind of cognitive effort.
It either means you're focusing on something, making a decision and analyzing it or it means that your nervous system is being stimulated by what you're watching.
When you're being entertained and paying attention to a TV show (Netflix or social media), the amount of information that's being thrown at you stimulates your nervous system. You're not just lying back and watching, your brain is active and reacting.
The sympathetic nervous system is the one that is active and the relaxing part of your body - your parasympathetic nervous system can't work because your energy is being spent on lying back and watching Netflix. That's the key distinction between paying attention and placing attention.
Placing attention doesn't mean analyzing yourself inwardly or analyzing the environment around you. It means just thinking about it, just noticing stuff in a very relaxed way.
There's no real aim or objective beyond noticing stuff. And the same goes for placing your attention inwardly.
If you're placing attention, you're just noticing.
So "how am I feeling" ends at the feeling. You don't go into an analysis loop after that. "How am I breathing" ends up the breathing, you don't go into an analysis loop.
When placing attention, you take surface level stimuli and let your subconscious do the rest. You're don't take control of any of the directions of thought. And when you're in that mode, your body and brain relaxes, causing your parasympathetic nervous system to take over.
It's one of the primary benefits of things like meditation. What you're doing is you're placing your attention on your thoughts. You're not judging yourself, you're just noticing.
There's an interesting technique called Alexander technique that expands your awareness. It involves noticing things around you in a broader frame than you normally would do. Listening and noticing different sounds or imagery helps to take you out of the sympathetic frame and into the parasympathetic.
So any action that encourages you to place your attention loosely in a relaxed playful fashion rather than paying attention, focusing, analyzing, or anything like that helps you to relax in a meaningful way for your body and mind.
Benefits of placing attention
The main benefit of placing attention is helping your body relax. If you're placing your attention inwardly like on your feelings, it also encourages you to accept them and avoid being in an analysis loop.
Accepting your feelings is an incredibly powerful thing for people nowadays because many are so used to cognitive self-analysis that it becomes a real problem for them. They travel down a path that doesn't really reflect anything accurately. So it's useful to simply accept, "I'm feeling furious right now".
There doesn't have to be a particular trigger to this. You can just accept the feeling and carry on with your day. That kind of acceptance and self knowledge allows you to think in a much clearer manner later in a separate frame when you're paying attention.
PNS is magic - improving Physical and Mental Health
There are many other benefits but the primary one is simply letting the parts of your body (that most people don't let) work. The parasympathetic nervous system is your default mode in your brain and letting it work improves everything about you.
I have no exercise program, and I'm in the best shape of my life. I don't do anything actively to improve my health other than swimming with the kids and play. I simply allow my PNS to dominate and it's well-proven that it helps clean out toxins from your body, improves digestion, boosts immune systems, that sort of thing.
The same goes for your mental health. The parasympathetic nervous system is how your body deals with stress and regulates it. So letting yourself spend time in a parasympathetic state is actually a far better cure for stress than trying to get to the root cause of stress. There are exceptions to that, but for the majority of people, you're better off relaxing in a meaningful way than you are sitting and analyzing why you're feeling stressed, anxious, or fearful.
Should I not pay attention to my feelings, then?
For some people, there are things that they need to work through - deep lying issues. But for most people, you are better off relaxing in a meaningful way than performing any kind of self-analysis and letting your body fix itself. And it does. Then, if feelings recur, you can dig into them, but in a much better mental state to do so clearly.
Your body is magic.
Placing attention helps you be present
Your best medicine is your mindset and allowing your body to enter its default mode. Walks in nature have proven mental health benefits including the chemical compounds you absorb when you're in the forest.
You also notice sounds you don't normally notice, see the wonderful world in a new light, and it's just a different way of perceiving the world. It differs from people who are constantly driven to do something. It's a different frame of living.
How do I know what to stop paying attention to or subtract from my life?
Knowing what to subtract is tough, and that's one of the hardest things about reforming your information. One way to tackle this is to think about your aspiration self. Know roughly who you want to be now and in the immediate future, and how you want to change it.
You can also do this in the inverse way. If you're an analytical thinker, look at who you don't want to be and start there. It will be much easier to find things that you consume or watch or pay attention to on a day-to-day basis that actively shape you into somebody you don't want to be.
I guarantee you this will be a really easy mental process for you to run through.
What's wrong with paying attention?
There's nothing wrong with paying attention. Some of your life, you should definitely be paying attention. Sometimes, you have to be analytically focused. My focus on placing attention is the counterpoint, because again, let's think this in spectrum terms.
If you have somebody who pays attention all the time, they are really cognitively focused, hugely stressed, and probably going to die younger than they need to. May have loads of mental health problems etc.
Somebody who places their attention all the time over in the parasympathetic state probably gets nothing done. I know people who live at this end of the spectrum. They're fine. But this way of living doesn't meet a lot of people's aspirational selves.
So work out where you want to be in the middle of this spectrum. Nearly everybody at the moment spends most or all of their time paying attention. They never place attention. And you will see huge health benefits just placing your attention for 20% of that week or 10% of your week.
Just sleeping isn't enough. Placing your attention, being calm, chilling, doing genuine relaxation activities that don't have a secondary benefit hobbies generative leisure, etc. helps you shift towards your PNS state a little bit.
The Aspirational Self
For most people, when they pay attention to who they want to be and how they want to live, they'll find that their aspirational self is a lot more relaxed than who they are now. So paying attention (SNS) and placing attention (PNS) is a useful spectrum to think about who you want to be and how you want to live.
Different frames of attention
Paying attention is not bad. When I play with the kids, sometimes I'm deliberately teaching them something or deliberately challenging them. Most of the time I'm just chilling, but it's a different frame and you should have both frames in your life. Some people are happy just chilling on the beach and doing as little as they need to get by. Other people are happy but unhealthy all the way in the SNS state, over analyzing and constantly paying attention.
Whatever works for you. It varies. It'll be different for different people because everybody wants to live their life in a different way. When you're thinking about who you want to be, who you are, and which parts of yourself you like or dislike, everybody has different answers to those questions.
For me, I bask in the parasympathetic state. I really enjoy thinking. That's one of the reasons I went into academia, but I also like to spend the majority of my time relaxing and being in a more "attentive to the world and myself" frame than an analytical frame.
If I subtract things that I am currently paying attention to, what if I lose out on undiscovered paths or triggers that could potentially be salient for me?
So I guess two comments to that question. Firstly, fear of missing out is a really common emotion in young people nowadays. The second kind of response is to allow serendipity. You can allow huge amounts of serendipity and still subtract a huge amount from your what you do and what you attend to. How you do that depends very much on individuals, but there is no problem with serendipity in life. I allow loads of serendipity in my life.
It's wonderful, but it would also be useful for most people to subtract the things that actively detract them from their aspiration selves. So if you have a set of qualities that you think are morally good at this moment in your life and you're doing things that actively stop you from embodying those qualities, you should stop.
Subtraction is the path to a better life. But it's hard. I know it's hard to take stuff out of your life because you feel like you should always be adding.
That's really the challenge that I'm encouraging people to tackle. When I'm simply placing my attention on the world and around me, I could be analyzing things, thinking, doing hard stuff, doing hard work, working on myself, my kids etc.
But that's a choice I make because this is how I'm happy.
That's how I've had the greatest impact on other people is partly by living like this and showing that it's possible. It's a different way of living that people can do and still make positive contributions around them while doing wonderful things.
If you spend more time in a parasympathetic state in a state, you allow your body to rest. Thus in the moments when you're focused, you are insanely productive. So I switch off for days and then I sit down and write thousands of words in a couple of hours.
It just happens. Most people who have flexible jobs would find that if they spend more time relaxing in a meaningful way, they could do those jobs in far less hours and have more time to do relaxation or other stuff that's important to them.
It's kind of a virtuous cycle. Once you get into it, it starts with the stop then the subtract.
But letting go is tough. Because what you're doing is losing control of yourself and allowing yourself to realize that actually you're not, it's your subconscious that does nearly everything for you.
And when you start to place your attention on the world around you, you'll see that how you feel impacts how attend to everything else. It all gets really complicated and fun. But it's scary for most people. Yet, that is life.
For Returning Subscribers:
The Benefits of Placing Attention - PDF Coaching Guide
Welcome back! Download your copy of the coaching guide here. Let me know if it was helpful. Good luck.