Attention! Why it Matters

Attention is powerful – we move in the direction of what holds our attention. Anyone who has been bicycling or snowboarding knows if you don’t want to hit a tree, don’t look at it.  Instead, focus on where you want to go.  Focus on your path.  The same rules apply for our goals and fears.  Below I will explain how attention works and how you can utilize your attention to keep your eye on the prize and not your fear.

First, let’s talk about some key aspects of attention. 

What is attention? 

The American Psychological Association defines attention as a state in which cognitive resources are focused on certain aspects of the environment rather than on other aspects. In other words, attention is the degree we concentrate on any given concept, idea, feeling or object.  

Attention is limited.

Attention is a cognitive process and thus it is in limited supply. The more we focus our attention on one idea, the less attention we have available for other ideas. This is true for anything that holds our attention: an idea, a concept, a fear, or an object such as a tree.  Because attention is a limited resource, anything that has most of our attention is a priority. 

Attention is not just a cognitive process.

Our whole central nervous system is in a state of readiness when we hold something in our attention.  Think of a cat when a noise grabs its attention – the cat’s ears perk up and rotate in the direction of the stimulus.  Our sensory system works similarly – once something grabs our attention our senses are engaged. This is why the snowboarder, in an attempt to avoid the tree, focuses on the tree and eventually rides right toward it.

Attention comes at a price.  

Whatever holds your attention 1) decreases the priority of anything else and 2) utilizes precious mental and sensory resources.  This meansthat our attention is VALUABLE. This is why it is imperative to bring awareness to what is holding your attention.

Attend to your Attention.

The first and most important step is to bring awareness to what has your attention. Ask yourself, “where is my attention right now?”  Notice if it is on a thought, belief or feeling that is fear based.  If it is, recognize it and then steer your attention back to your goal by thinking of what is one step you can take toward your goal that is positive and not fear based.

Next take note if your attention to a particular stimulus was a conscious act (you chose to turn your attention to the stimulus) or if your attention was captured involuntarily. If it was captured involuntarily and does not help you toward your goal, then make the conscious choice to shift your attention toward a thought or action that will support your goal.

Lastly, meditate.  A mindful meditation helps to hone one’s attention.  The more you meditate the more awareness you gain on the fluid nature of attention and how easily it can shift.  Also, the more you meditate the more practice you have at consciously shifting your attention.

In conclusion, remember that your attention is a valuable and powerful tool in limited supply – it determines your priorities and steers your progression.  However, sometimes fears maycapture your attention and lead you off your chosen path. This is why it is imperative to regularly check-in with where your attention lies so you can course-correct as needed. Meditation and regular awareness of your attention are tools to consciously choose your priorities and keep you on your path to success.

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