Direct Your Attention, Transform Your Self
The book is grounded in Dave's experience as a cognitive coach, and extensive thinking about attention. Dave twice nearly-wrote an academic book on attention, and draws on his notes from hundreds of sources. But this is not an academic book. It's a guide. A guide to reclaiming, and then using, your attention to become your aspirational self. The person you want to be.
How you attend shapes who you are, which shapes how you attend tomorrow. It's a self-reinforcing cycle: the easy path is to just follow it. Add in factors like how busy and over-stimulated people are today (which vastly reduces attention control), and the number of well-designed efforts to manipulate your attention, and it's easy to see why most people don't step out of the cycle.
But, the harder path, of taking control of your attention and shifting who you are, also leads to a self-reinforcing cycle. One in which your attention naturally directs itself to what is good for you, reinforcing the attributes in yourself you value, and helping you live the life you want.
To get there, first you need to strip away the things that pull your attention in unaligned directions. Once you pay less attention to the wrong things for you, finding the depth in your life is far easier. And your bodymind can start to help you. Then, you can use your attention to manage your self.
How you attend and what you put your focus on can change your personality, your capabilities, and how you think about your own life. It can remake you or lead you further down the path you want to walk. It has certainly had both effects for Dave.
Table of Contents
There is theory in the book, because it's important to challenge the misconception many people have that their characters are fixed, or out there waiting to be discovered. They're not - they're made and re-made over time. And, knowing a little about the complexities of how that re-making occurs in our mind helps you, too. I try to teach you that through analogy. Just enough to help you act.
I had started to write an academic book on attention a decade ago, and draw from the notes I'd made then. But, as you can see from the table of contents, this isn't designed as a learning book. It's a book to empower you to take control of your attention and direct your own life. One to implement, not just take notes from.
Writing in Public - ship30for30
I used three cohorts of Ship30for30 to publish short excerpts of the draft straight onto Twitter. Writing concisely is not something I learnt in academia, so I was working on that. And collecting a lot of feedback, as well as 36 Beta readers who spent $10 each on a book I was writing in front of them.
If you want to read the first versions, or help me out by clicking retweet, this is the start of a thread of 63 mini-essays:
Over time, many of these essays will be developed into other standalone content (videos, images, longer pieces of text) that will be published here over the coming months and tagged 'Deep Life'. The book brings it together, connects it, and offers a step-by-step guide through how to transition to a Deep Life.
Where to buy
Paperback ISBN: 9781739884901. Ebook ISBN: 9781739884918
Once you've done that, e-mail your pre-order receipt to email@example.com. In return, I will send you the same e-book copy I send to advance-readers (book reviewers and others) around the start of May. And, enter you for a draw to win a lifetime membership of my course, Train Your Intuition. Plus share some other goodness as a thank you for buying early.
Below is chapter one of the (first) Beta version of Deep Life.
What this book is for, how far it can help you, and who I am
A Deep Life is one in which you spend most of your time immersed. It involves developing an effortless skill at the art of living how you want to live. Finding the secure knowledge that without thinking too much, you’ll live and act in a way that is aligned with who you want to be. You’ll make the right decisions, by your own standards, intuitively. And simply live, at peace, immersed, present.
I can’t tell you that the transition from where you are now to there, will be short or easy. Chances are, it’ll be far more effortful for you than continuing your current path in life or following most other self-development advice that’s popular at present. It’s a tough transition for many people today, because to make it you’ll need to take control of your attention.
The rewards of taking that control, though, are immense. Our brains are far more flexible than most people realize, and attention is one key to changing them. How you attend and what you put your focus on can change your personality, your capabilities, and how you think about your own life.
Attention has that power because your subconscious learns what is salient to you from how (and how intensely) you attend. So that when you stop trying, and rest, what you have been focusing on becomes written into you. That's how deliberate practice works for skill-development. Focused attention can work similarly for self-development. But only if you live deeply.
Finding a deeper life involves stripping away things that block you from learning to direct your attention. Subtracting things that hinder you from embodying the virtues you aspire to have. For nearly everybody reading this, subtraction is the path to growth. You need to pay less attention before you can control anything significant in your mind or your life.
Once you pay less attention, you can find the depth in your life. And your bodymind can start to work for you. To help you along the way to who you aspire to become. Once you are there, you’ll realize you are in control and can start to guide yourself. This book will provide a process for that self-guidance and growth, along with some examples of the most common changes people want to make to their selves.
But if any of what I teach in here is going to work for you, you’ll need to figure out who you want to “develop” towards.
Who do you want to be?
Some of you are used to thinking of aspirations as 'things' to acquire, do or achieve. You might aspire to have that house, or climb that summit. That's not the type of aspiration I mean here.
Think of an aspirational self as who you want to be, next. One of the most powerful things you can know about yourself is how you act is inline with who you want to be. That your actions and aspirational self are aligned.
Your aspirational self is a small set of the key character traits or virtues that you want to embody. Some of these traits, you might already have. Some of them will vary over time as things become more or less important to you. Others will feel like a stretch: things you aspire towards but currently act in contrast with.
Once you embed those traits, within a Deep Life, they become automatic. You no longer feel the pull of distractions around you. The sense of overwhelm which many people feel today disappears. Because you know what is salient to you, intuitively. And you know what you should do, without thinking.
This guide focuses on people whose aspirational selves are present, self-driven, intuitive, family-centric, broad thinkers, and a net positive contributor to their community (and the world). That’s my people, the people who I want to help most.
This is a practical how-to book – oriented around learning outcomes, rather than theory. Because everybody who I talk to about this book encourages it, I will share a few stories from my own life, too, when they are illustrative. Here’s the overview.
From 9/10 to 13/? – my deep life
Back in April 2016, I had a wonderful life.
We had just finished renovating our home. Our second boy had learnt to crawl over floorboards piled high in the kitchen. It was a former station master's house with an interesting history, nestled in a small village with farms all around. Done. After five years. We'd even finally semi-tamed the 2 acres of garden. Meadow grass, vegetable garden, small orchard, with lots of wild around the edges. A beautiful place to raise our children.
I worked in academia - part of a new undergraduate program, called Global Sustainable Development. At the University of Warwick in the UK. We'd just welcomed our first cohort of students. My daily work was inspiring. I was working with smart, passionate people and teaching awesome students. The job was secure. Paid well enough to live how we wanted to live. And impactful through the students. A job for life, to my eyes.
I love my wife deeply, and we'll be together until one of us dies. Having kids was transformational in a good way, and I loved them both, too, with no reservations or complaints.
It was a picture-book good life. The one minor gripe I can recall is that I had a long commute to work. But I made the most of that, planning lectures by dictation or listening to audiobooks. That's about it. If we were scoring it, life was 9/10. We were content and happy.
After a joke between my wife and I about going sailing, I asked my boss about the possibility of taking a sabbatical from work. I could: two years unpaid, same awesome job when I return. Intriguing.
By the end of the Summer, and without any decisions beyond "it feels right", we were going. I don’t recall us sitting down for a proper discussion. It just happened. Our house was on the market, and we were going sailing at the end of the coming academic year. Just for two years, while the kids are young, then we'll go back. Buy a house closer to my work. Start our eldest in school. Right?
September 2017 - we were crossing the Bay of Biscay. The sea was a little rougher than we’d expected. I was napping outside as bedtime approached, taking 20 minutes while I could. My wife was lying on the floor, feeling sick. Our 5-year-old walked over, looked at her and said: "my bed needs making. Obviously, you can't do it." He made his own bed.
That was a tough 45 hours. I single-handed the boat (taking 20 minutes sleep at a time) while the kids (5 and 3) largely looked after themselves. Our feast on arrival in Spain was substantial. Charlotte has never been that seasick, before or since. We wondered why it had been so bad for her. It was the first sign that she was pregnant.
Our third son was born in Lanzarote. We all crossed the Atlantic, alone at sea for nearly three weeks, when he was 7 months old. My 34th birthday was a few days into the journey, we managed a good cake for a boat-oven. The kids did what they normally do: play, paint, listen to books. We swam, too, in the 4000+m deep water, when becalmed one morning. We arrived in St Lucia as well rested and comfortable as we were on departure from La Gomera. And began to explore the Eastern Caribbean.
What had driven us to take the “just two” years out, probably, was the possibility of keeping our attention on each other and our kids while they were so young. One of the main discoveries we had across our two years was the value of that time together. My wife and I, it turns out, prefer spending virtually all our waking time together, with our boys.
"They're only young once" is a phrase a lot of people say, but few listen to. Living as we do, we hear it a lot. Especially from wealthy retirees who have lived "the path". Earnt their millions, raised their well-educated career-driven children, retired healthy. We meet people like this whenever we anchor near expensive marinas. Most of them say "they're only young once" with a wistful look on their face. A few tell us they wish they'd "been brave enough" to do something similar. A couple with tears in their eyes after they've spent days watching our kids. We listened, to the phrase and to these people.
Early 2019 - As the year we were due to go home started, we were sailing up the islands of the Eastern Caribbean. Getting ready to sail back to the UK in the Summer. We'd been looking through houses near my work. I was looking forward to getting back in time to see the students I'd left at their graduation.
But we'd started playfully saying "what if we don't go back?" and laughing to each other. Then, we started to discuss when Hurricane season started, and where we should get to by then for relative safety. In the Caribbean. And what we'd do for money. And how we'd tell family. And...
Two and a half years later, I’m a cognitive coach a few hours a week, helping visionaries think more clearly and make their contribution to the world. At the same time, I’ve been writing this book, and developing some online training courses. To start making my contribution. I rarely work more than 20 hours a week. Most of my time, I’m living deeply.
I started thinking about this book, in its current form, while we were in the Dominican Republic, where we had spent most of 2020 blissfully at peace anchored off a small fishing town. With a beach a short swim away, locals teaching our eldest how to fish, extensive local food supplies, and smiles behind the masks throughout. The best place we could have imagined spending that year.
I started writing some of Deep Life as we toured Turks and Caicos in April and May 2021, taking pictures of Iguanas, snorkeling over coral reefs, anchored off $2000 a night resorts, and marveling at the $12 slices of watermelon. Swimming in crystal clear waters daily, sometimes with rays alongside us. Often with anchorages, beaches, occasionally small islands to ourselves.
While we were in Jamaica, I started publishing short essays from the first draft of the book on Twitter. That’s how I found some Beta readers who will hopefully help me make the book life-changing for its readers 😉 (thanks in advance everyone).
I’m finishing this iteration of the book while living on land for the first time in four years. Our boat needs some significant maintenance, so we’ve rented a house on the edge of a rainforest reserve in Guatemala. Five minutes from our house is a trail that leads into the old-growth rainforest. The bird life and soundscape here is exquisite.
If this all sounds blissful, that’s because it really is.
We still have what you’d call trials and tribulations, like everyone else. Raising three kids is not always easy, especially without the support of family or a continuous community. It’s not entirely wrong to joke that long-term sailing is just maintaining your boat in exotic locations. Right now, the kids are missing the sea quite acutely. We all miss family from the UK: that’s the toughest compromise this lifestyle involves. But overall, our life is rather awesome. If I had not been living this life, I would not have believed it was possible to have things this good. 13/10?
The upper limits to wellbeing seem so much higher than they used to.
What’s in the book?
The idea for this type of book on attention originated when my clients kept asking me about how I’d got where I am. Even those who hired me for something completely different ended up asking questions about my life story. And, for virtually everything they asked I didn’t have a good answer that wasn’t flippant or dismissive: “I just felt like doing that”, “no idea, just seemed like the right thing to do”, “of course, I value x more than money, that was an easy decision”, “it felt right”, “isn’t that obvious?”. I began to examine how I got here, and what it is that I take for granted that most people don’t.
The answers all pointed to what I choose to place my attention on. There’s a history to how we attend, what we put our focus on, that I had thought about writing a book on back when I considered myself an academic. I’d also thought before about the variety of disciplines that say something interesting about attention, and the conflicts within those explanations. And how attention is the lens through which all the other stuff (economics, technology, politics, media) filters down to “who people are and how they live”.
How you attend shapes who you are, which shapes how you attend tomorrow. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle: the easy path is to just follow it. Add in factors like how busy and over-stimulated people are today (which vastly reduces attention control), and the number of well-designed efforts to manipulate your attention, and it’s easy to see why most people don’t take the harder path. But, the harder path, of taking control of your attention and shifting who you are, also leads to a self-reinforcing cycle. One in which your attention naturally directs itself to what is good for you, reinforcing the attributes in yourself you value, and helping you live the life you want. Get there, and life becomes easy again: easy-and-better.
I’ve written this book to help you make that intervention, to take the harder path until it becomes easy again. The first half of the book helps you understand where you are on the road to controlling your attention, the key skill for transitioning to a Deep Life. And guides you through removing some of the most common blockers to that skill. The second half will help you take and use your newfound control to become, well, whoever you want to be. And to align your actions with that person.
A little more detail, for those who want to dip in before they read-through:
Chapter Two will show you that at even the most basic levels of our brain, where we can think of it as an input-output device, there’s significant flexibility. As we move up in complexity, considering emotions and our subconscious, that flexibility multiplies. Almost anything about you can change: we have no real idea of the limits to that statement.
Chapter Three takes a tour through the forest in your skull, my analogy for our brain. In the forest, I’ll explain what a transformation looks like, and introduce you to the forest maintenance team, your subconscious, who will help you to make one.
Chapter Four will challenge you to tackle two of the most common blockers to both living a deeper life and self-transformation: notifications and task-switching. They both inhibit your skill of attention control; the key skill this book will help you develop.
Chapter Five is a four-step process to help you find the mismatch between what you attend to, and who you want to be. You’ll develop an aspirational self, and start to subtract things that hinder you being that person from your attention.
Chapter Six encourages you to stop paying attention all the time. Do that, and you’ll find your superpower start to help you be better. At just about everything that matters. With some steppingstones for those of you who can’t “just stop”, yet.
Chapter Seven introduces our goal: Deep Life. Effortless, free, varied, healthy. If you’ve followed through so far, you’re ready to direct your forest maintenance team and start to ‘be’ your aspirational self. I’ll explain how to start with that.
Chapters Eight and Nine provide step-by-step instruction (and encouragement) for some of the most common aspirations: finding meaning and wellbeing in life.
Chapter Ten is the secret to the ‘effortless’ part of a Deep Life. Knowing how you feel. Then, using that information to make decisions without even thinking about them.
A user's guide, and a plea
Having this book downloaded to your computer or in print on your shelf will do nothing for you. Simply reading this book means you might learn something, but this is not intended to be a learning book (if I was writing a book to help you learn, it’d be twice this length and chock-full of references). This is intended to help you change. To grab control of your attention and direct your future self.
So, my plea: don’t just read this, enact it.
Treat it like a workbook – in fact, the final version might include some pages for notes at appropriate sections; either blank or with a prompt or two. Feels a little gimmicky, and far from the academic world that was my home, but it might provide an extra prompt to pause and think where most people will need that.
I hope I’ve done my bit to include all the information you need and to attempt to persuade you this is worth acting on at each stage. But the thinking and acting itself? That, you have to do.
I have tried, at each stage, to signpost where you need to be to get full benefit from the exercises. The later ones are more exciting, but if you don’t have mental peace, a substantial attention span, or enough rest in your life, you’re more likely to find them disheartening than transformational. Resist the temptation to skip ahead, and do the (harder, but more valuable) subtraction first.