Nathanael Garrett Novosel, September 28 2022

Control Your Attention, Control Your Experience

Even in a world where you have almost no control over your life, you control what you focus your attention on. This is one of your most powerful abilities to choose how your life unfolds. Two of my favorite examples of this are:

In the first example, the advice is sound: if you are looking at something and it displeases you, you can just look away and stop feeling bad. In the latter example, the idea that someone could possibly use the “shiny object approach” (i.e., attracting attention through new, interesting things or experiences) to shape a child’s entire life experience that should otherwise be scarred by his environment is an astounding testament to the power of attention.

Now, this might seem obvious, but most people intentionally, deliberately, and borderline compulsively ignore this power and choose instead to focus on whatever’s in front of them, whatever others are focusing on, or whatever people of power and influence want you to focus on. Do you read the news? Which articles do they typically write? Are you being fed your opinion back to you or intentionally being enraged for clicks? What do you do when everyone is talking about the latest celebrity gossip at work? Do you use your time productively when you’re waiting in line or sitting on an airplane, or do you just complain the whole time?

People are social creatures, so they will inevitably do things like keep up with the news to stay informed and be able to make small talk with acquaintances. They will also just make meaningless conversation or stare a a TV show they don’t care about to keep themselves occupied if they don’t have anything else to do. And if it prevents you from being bored or makes you happy, these are fine things to do. I’m not trying to get you to stop watching the news or using social media. But if you are doing things and finding yourself being angry, sad, depressed, or otherwise worse off after the experience, you might want to consider how you can focus your attention in the future to avoid it.

Get annoyed while waiting? Bring a book to read. Is social media getting you down? Replace that time with a game. Is the news upsetting you? Change your news settings to get more positive, interest-focused articles instead of the “if it bleeds, it leads” type of headlines that appear by default. What you focus on becomes your experience, and (in true stimulus->response terms) your experience influences your emotions as a result.

This works in other areas of your life. Are you worrying about something in your future? If you can’t do anything about it, distract yourself with a task or game that requires all of your focus and attention until the worry leaves your mind. (Note: crisis managers know this well, as they get trauma victims to focus on something specific that keeps their mind occupied) Are you stuck somewhere you don’t want to be with nothing to do? Play a game in your head or plan your day tomorrow. Anything you can do to influence your own attention can change your experience, your emotions, and your life.

Remember this during the worst times you’ll experience in life. Prisoners learn well how to control their attention given how little freedom they have to choose their experiences. If you are depressed and unable to motivate yourself to get out of bed, you have to either convince yourself that getting out of bed will allow you to shift your attention to better things and make you feel better or decide to focus your attention on how great it feels to be in bed relaxing.

Now, you might have one critical piece of pushback on this technique: “But how can I ignore things that are so [important/urgent/real/true/in need of fixing]?” Two answers to that:

No matter what you end up doing with your life, your attention is one of your most powerful tools to control how your life unfolds and how you feel about your life at any given time. Use this tool to help regulate your mood, to help you avoid distractions, and to help you get more out of your life. As the cliché goes, life is too short to waste it focusing on stuff that doesn’t matter or that you can’t control. Control your attention; control your experience; and control your life!

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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