How To Control Your Mind

A Guide To The Science Of Attention

One of life’s great trilemmas is the tradeoff between money, energy, and time. Maybe you’ve heard someone joke about how you can only ever have two of the three. The punchline inevitably comes with age.

When you’re young, you have time and energy, but no money. As an adult, you get some money, but lose all your time. And once you’re old, you might have cash and hours to spare, but no fit body to enjoy either.

We laugh at this, but at the same time, it scares us a little. Because we know it’s true.

I’ve spent the past four months reflecting on our relationship with technology. After exploring addictions, distractions, and enhancements, I recognize many of our efforts in the tech arena are spent trying to fix this impossible problem. While there are some improvements we can make, we’ll never get a perfect outcome.

And yet, the power to deal with this imbalance has been with us all along.

1 + 1 = 1

We usually think of time as a good way to measure a life, but it’s only a proxy for what we really mean: attention. Think of the wealthy heir, who wastes all his riches, and compare him to the artist who dies at 40, but leaves behind a significant body of work. The things we most want in life, be it money, health, family, status, or impact, are really just byproducts of deliberate attention.

To cultivate said attention, we need more than just time. We also need energy. Time without energy is not spent moving. It is just spent. Most of us start life with an abundance of both, meaning our capacity to synthesize attention is often greatest when we’re young.

Visually speaking, science describes attention like a zoom lens on a camera. If you try to see the whole picture from afar, it takes a while to focus. The more you zoom in, the smaller the segment and the faster you can process it.

If we translate this metaphor to attention the way we just defined it, you can think of your time as a flashlight and your energy as the batteries. You need both to turn it on and point it where you want to go. Yes, it’s true that more time and more energy lead to more attention, but that’s only half the picture.

Like on any good flashlight, you can also adjust the radius of the beam.

One Addiction To Rule Them All

One of the world’s leading researchers of attention, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, wrote about the state of optimal performance:

“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.”

Imagine you had $100 million and were perfectly healthy. What excuse would you have not to use your attention well? None. Chasing this imaginary state is the game most of us are playing. There will never be no excuses left, but blaming their existence is easier than dealing with them head on. It’s an addictive game too. You can play it your entire life without ever getting close to winning.

David Allen calls this our biggest weakness as humans:

“I think control is the master human addiction. To try to control the world.”

Often, in spite of having the right intentions, that’s what we’re doing. Less Facebook, more time, less email, more energy. They’re all small steps in the right direction, but by taking them we lose out on a much bigger one:

What if we just maximized the attention we can get from whatever time and energy we have right now?

This is a slight, but significant difference. Allen noticed it too:

“Not ‘be in control,’ because that’s something that we work with, something I think you need to develop, but trying to control externally the world is a big addiction.”

Deliberate attention is good. Aware attention is better.

Talking To Ourselves

Even if you’re loaded with spare flashlights and batteries, you can’t just point your attention once and then go straight forever. You’re going to get lost. Naval Ravikant calls this ‘monkey mind:’

“The reality is if you walk down the street and there are a thousand people
in the street, I think all thousand are talking to themselves in their head at any given point. They’re constantly judging everything that they see. They’re playing back movies of things that happened to them yesterday. They’re living in fantasy worlds of what’s going to happen tomorrow. They’re just pulled out of base reality.”

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Photo by Mario Purisic on Unsplash

He explains that as children, we’re very connected to the real world, a trait we lose as we grow older and start long-range planning. While some projecting is necessary and useful, we tend to go overboard rather quickly. We get stuck in our visions and wave our attention spotlight around uncontrollably.

So, to get where we want to go, it’s not enough to be deliberate in using our attention. We also have to observe it. Therefore, looking inward and reflecting on where you deploy your attention is equally as important, if not more, than how much you can muster.

This isn’t easy, but Naval has some ideas:

“I’ve taken on this idea that I want to break the habit of uncontrolled thinking, which is hard. If I say to you, “Don’t think of a pink elephant”, I just put a pink elephant in your head. It’s an almost impossible problem. It’s more something that has to be guided by feel, than guided by actual thinking or thought process. I’m deliberately cultivating experiences, states of mind, locations, activities, that will help me get out of my mind.”

Funny how that works, isn’t it? In order to get more control over your attention, you have to let it go.

Wrong Means, Right Ends

Csikszentmihalyi’s book is titled Flow. The name itself suggests the loose nature of the state.

“To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.”

But it is not just letting go of external rewards. Flow also requires a certain degree of surrender to the task at hand. You don’t beat a hard level in a video game on first try, you beat it on the 17th attempt, when you barely care any more, but the gears magically click into place.

“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.”

Subconsciously, we know this. We induce chemical reactions in our bodies in hopes of controlling our attention all the time, according to Naval:

“In some sense, the people chasing thrills in action sports or flow states or orgasm or any of these states that people really strive to get to, a lot of these are basically just trying to get out of your own head. They’re trying to get away from that voice in your head and this overdeveloped sense of self.”

Food, alcohol, drugs, sex, exercise, these all rest on a choice to direct our attention a certain way and then let it drift for a while. We can use this same choice to recalibrate our attention flashlight, minus the escapism.

What blocks our way usually isn’t the obstacle, but our brain’s obsession with it. Once we let that go, we immediately regain internal control, even long after external control has gone. There are many ways to achieve this:

  • Meditating.
  • Taking a walk.
  • Visiting a place that triggers nostalgia.
  • Immersing yourself in a task that’s either repetitive, like washing dishes, or continuous, like reading, for an extended period of time.

Whatever the activity, if it puts you in a meditative state it helps you make this mental shift. Over time, you’ll see you can do almost anything this way. Allen agrees this is very productive:

“Being able to let go and say ‘wait a minute, let me just accept what’s going on, cooperate with what it is and then be in control of myself.’ But be aware of whatever’s new, whatever’s current, whatever’s present. Letting go is probably the idea that made the biggest difference in my life.”

The result is peace.

No Strings Attached

When you direct your attention once, but then adjust focus intuitively as needed, you get a calm mind. This is a state worth cultivating, Naval says:

“You can think of your brain, your consciousness, as a multi-layered mechanism. There’s kind of a core base kernel level OS that’s running. Then there’s applications that are running on top.

I’m actually going back to my awareness level of OS, which is always calm, always peaceful, and generally happy and content. I’m trying to stay in that mode and not activate the monkey mind, which is always worried and frightened and anxious, but serves incredible purpose. I’m trying not to activate that program until I need it. When I need it, I want to just focus on that program. If I’m running it 24/7, all the time, I’m wasting energy and it becomes me. I am more than that.”

No matter how much attention you can create, spend it right here, right now. Not up in the future, not down in the past. The most peaceful place on earth is always the present.

Be Water, My Friend

This is all very confusing and paradoxical, which is the perfect indicator that it’s natural.

Even if you had 100% of your attention at all times, you would choose to turn on the autopilot occasionally. Watching a movie, reading, music, or sensory experiences, like being outside, eating, swimming, you want your mind to wander during those. Creativity, inspiration, love, that’s when they happen.

At the same time, frantically chasing impulse after impulse, without any awareness of where your attention goes, would be equally disastrous. Who’s planning your goals, checking your direction, paying the bills, if you’re busy slinging feces at the other monkeys in the park?

So, what do we make of this imbalance? Let the pendulum swing, for true control comes from the inside. To lead an empowered life, you needn’t command what happens in it.

Know that while behavior change is helpful, it’s a pebble in the powerful river that is your mind. Remember to look inward and work with what you have. Choose where to go and when to flow. Don’t escape, exist.

Pay attention to your attention, and you’ll always be on your way.

This post is the last in my AntiTech series, where we use technology to fight technology in order to get back what we lost: our time and our attention. You can find an overview here.

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