Pay Attention! (To get more of what you want)

Suzanne Manser, PhD
December 15, 2020

What most of us want to know is: How do I get more of what I want and less of what I don’t want? Good question. Ready? Here comes the answer: It’s all about attention and where you put yours.

If you want more of the good stuff, you have to pay attention. The stuff we want doesn’t often come up and slap us in the face. We have to actively seek it. To do this, we have to be aware of what we want, and then we have to look for opportunities to get it. That all requires paying attention. Then, when we find some of it, we have to continue paying attention to it to continue being impacted by it. What we pay attention to in any moment enormously influences how we experience that moment. This is key to having more of the experiences you want.

The trick to getting less of what you don’t want is to focus on what you do want. In other words, stop focusing on how to get less of what you don’t want. That only keeps your attention on what you don’t want, which is not actually helpful. (Don’t think about a purple and green polka-dotted elephant. See how that works?) Instead, pay attention to what you want more of. You’ll be much more likely to make moves to get some of that thing. If you’re not paying attention to what you want, you’ll be less likely to makes moves to get it.

In some respects, it’s very simple. Figure out what you want, and then look for opportunities to get some of it. You could want more self-confidence, more money, more peace, more self-compassion, more love, more authenticity, or more ability to relax. Whatever it is, paying attention to it and looking for opportunities to get more of it will help you get more of it. You will find more paths to it when you are looking for them. You will see what actions you can take to get closer to it when you are focused on it. You will see what you need to shift about yourself or your life.

Sometimes I put a lot of effort into paying attention (see Strategies for Intentional Days: The Mason Jar Challenge). For example, I generally want to be more self-compassionate, authentic, and present. Those are big values for me. Sometimes I wake up and think about what I want to get out of this day and how I want to feel. I think about how I want to show up in my day. I pay attention to it throughout the day. I absolutely get more out of those days. Those days feel more meaningful and more interesting than my average day. I feel more of whatever I’m paying attention to because I am aware of opportunities to do so.  I make different choices and take more risks, and I respond to things differently because I have a particular destination in mind. If I want more self-compassion, I have to take the risk of being kind to myself when I mess up. That is not a choice I typically make if I’m not paying attention.

I’ve also paid attention to getting more money. During those periods, I took more actions to increase my financial intake. I felt inspired because I saw more paths to do so. I felt empowered. Feeling optimistic about money tends to get you a lot further in getting more of it than feeling like you will never get more of it. Seeing paths (or assuming they are there) to more of what you want is a big chunk of the battle. It sets you up to take action.

When you pay attention to something, you feel more aligned with it. You notice more of it. When I pay attention, things slow down. I take more in. I notice small things, small moments, that otherwise get missed. When I’m paying attention, I can see the value in these small moments, which is motivating. For example, I am not fabulous at being compassionate with myself. However, when I focus on self-compassion, I recognize that even small flashes of it feel good and are meaningful. I get excited about a small flash of it, instead of feeling defeated if I am not fully and forever self-compassionate. This also works with more tangible things like money. When I was focused on making more money, I got excited about the small wins. I saw more subtle cause-and-effect, and I could see that small moments could lead to bigger moments. There was an air of possibility that was motivating.

Paying attention is about looking for opportunities to feel good, essentially. It reminds me that I am an active participant in creating the experience I want to have. That feels powerful. Small moments can feel good in and of themselves, and they can set you up for action. They don’t usually come up and slap you in the face, though, so you have to pay attention.

Another benefit to paying attention to what you want, besides getting more of what you want, is that it is grounding. When I pay attention to what I want in relation to what is happening, I feel anchored. I am being constantly reminded of what is important to me. I am rooted in the present and in what is meaningful to me, whatever it is I want more of.

This is all really good stuff, right? So why on earth don’t I do this all the time? Why are we not all doing this all the time and getting a bunch of what we want? Because of course it’s not quite that simple. There are challenges to being that aware that often. The most significant of which is how much effort it takes. It takes a lot of effort to be aware of what we want and notice the paths to it and think about what we want to do about that while we are also doing the rest of life. It takes effort to even remember to do this.

We just aren’t wired to be that attentive all the time. Our mind’s default setting is autopilot, the opposite of paying attention. The body’s goal is to limit energy expenditure whenever possible. So we tend to cruise on autopilot unless we decide it’s worth paying attention and getting involved. Being on autopilot takes very little effort. We can drive on autopilot – you know that experience of suddenly being somewhere and not really remembering how you got there?, we can have conversations on autopilot, and we can make decisions on autopilot. We can live largely on autopilot if we’re not careful.

On autopilot, we don’t make decisions based on our values or what we want more of. On autopilot, we react and make decisions based on whatever is loudest in our internal or external environments. It’s a squeaky wheel situation. For example, even if I really want a partner, I may decide not to put my profile on a dating app because my painful anxiety (internal environment) is louder than my wish for a partner when I’m not paying attention to it. If I want peace in my life, I may decide to keep my drama-filled best friend anyway because she will literally scream at me if I end our friendship. On autopilot, it feels easiest to keep the drama because it avoids the screaming. Autopilot is very focused on the immediate situation and doesn’t tend to be aware of the long-term.

When we’re on autopilot, we’re not actively moving through life. The goal of autopilot is to take the path of least resistance. Whatever is easiest right now. It’s a passive mode that reaps relatively little rewards (other than taking the least amount of effort, if that’s what you’re going for). On autopilot, we’re not being deliberate or thoughtful about getting more of anything.

Autopilot is the easy path. Paying attention reaps more rewards, but it is definitely the harder path. It takes effort to stay in the “on” position while focusing on the other things you have to focus on every day. It takes effort to take responsibility for your experience of this moment and your larger life. It takes effort to be an active participant in your life, directing it where you want it to go.

To get the rewards, to get more of the stuff you want, you have to be in charge of your show. I can tell you to pay attention, but you have to decide that the effort is worth it. You have to be willing to put in the work to keep your focus on what you want. Sometimes I’m willing and I pay a lot of attention, sometimes it’s less. And sometimes it does come up and slap me in the face.

I wrote the first draft of this article very early in the morning, after waking at 5 am and being unable to get back to sleep. Afterward, on the way upstairs to get ready for work, I glanced out the window and saw an incredible sunrise. The entire sky was lit up with color. The clouds were streaked with purple and hot pink and orange, and the glow of the sun through the neighboring houses was electric (the photo doesn’t do it justice). I called my husband to come look at it, and our 6-year-old daughter woke up and joined us. We all just stood with our arms around each other and took in the beauty of the sunrise and the moment. I didn’t have to remember to pay attention to being present. It was maybe two minutes at the most, but that small moment impacted the rest of my day. The love and connection I felt, and continued to feel whenever I thought about it, changed my experience of the day. I was still really tired that day, but I was tired and I felt that glorious connection. That made the day a very different experience.

So ask yourself what you want more of. Choose one thing. For the rest of today, or all of tomorrow, pay attention to that thing. Keeping that thing in mind, pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. Pay attention to what’s going on around you. Look for opportunities to make moves toward that thing. Of course there will be obstacles, including autopilot mode and effort, so expect them. Pay attention anyway, and see what happens.

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