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How To Hone The Power Of Attention

By Julia Mossbridge, MA, Ph.D., “Dr. Julia”
Science Director, Focus@Will Labs

Note: This is the second of a four-part series on what I call the “attention garden.” The goal of this series is to help you become aware of, hone, and harness the power of your attention. I previously explained the metaphor and the scientific background (part one), here I help you choose what to plant (part two), and next I will examine tools for tending your garden (part three) and discuss the importance of harvest time (part four).

Okay, so I explained the metaphor of your attention garden in my last post, but for a brief review of the metaphor, here’s an excerpt: “Think of attention as a space in your mind, like a walled garden – you can’t look outside the walls – you can only pay attention to what’s inside them. There are also special tools to tend to your attention, and these tools are simple. While there are a few common pitfalls to avoid, basically you plant something in your attention and it grows.”

Great! So what do you want to plant? Let’s talk about this question. What is it really asking? Your attention garden is essentially a magic place that grows anything. So the question is asking, what do you want to grow in your life and your work? It’s also asking – what don’t you want to grow?

A quick story about how your attention garden can help you. I’m writing this on an airplane, having just barely missed my flight. I was already running late because of traffic, but on the way to the terminal I realized that I’d left my wallet in my rental car (Note to self: Put my wallet in my attention garden). I only had 25 minutes before the plane was leaving, and I had to get back to the rental car facility, find my car, get my wallet, and get to the plane – which was an airport-train ride away.

This scenario easily could have led to 25 minutes of worry followed by hours of regret and self-shaming. But as I rode the airport train to the rental car center, I noticed something important. I hadn’t been worried. I had been working efficiently, making smart decisions about escalators versus elevators, etc., but I wasn’t worried. In fact, I was noticing the beautiful blue in the sky through the windows of the train. And as I headed into the security line when I got back to the terminal, I noticed the kindness of the people around me, one of whom gave me the gift of TSA precheck, allowing me to make it to my gate with zero minutes to spare.

So what does this have to do with my attention garden? At some point I noticed that it has become a useful habit not to plant worry in my garden, and instead to plant what I want. I was focusing on making the flight, the kindness of strangers, the compassion of the stewardess who let me on the plane after the boarding deadline had long passed.

I had planted the idea that I would make my flight in my attention garden, so my attention was on it. And I had not planted worry. If I had, I wouldn’t have been able to think as clearly about what I needed to do, and I probably wouldn’t have made my flight.

While this example is full of drama, it’s nonetheless similar to the situations many of us face each day at work. We have some task that’s not yet done. We have to attend to the task to get it done by the deadline, but if we focus on our anxiety, the task is less likely to get done well or even done at all. We need to plant the task in our attention garden and not the worry.

I don’t mean to make this sound easy. The choice about what to plant in your attention garden is often not a choice, because many of us have a lifelong habit of letting your externally-driven (exogenous) attention be in charge. We spend a lot of time allowing the phone ring or the TV pull us away from our intended focus. So much so that we can believe that our attention isn’t ours to control. We can forget that we have internally-driven (endogenous) attention that can control the object of our focus, and our productivity wanes.

Because we forget about this control or we get out of practice at using it, most of us don’t even know we can choose what to plant in our gardens. A colleague of mine told me his attention garden needs weed killer. I know the feeling; this happens because we spend little time consciously choosing what to plant in our attention gardens, and probably even less time tending to our gardens.

To figure out what to plant and what not to plant, there’s an experiment you can do. It’s kind of like a trust experiment, in which you are trusting some part of yourself to know what kinds of seeds to plant. By the way, notice that I am calling them seeds. That’s because sometimes all you know is the first step, you just have the seed, and you have to trust that planting it is a good idea. Here’s the experiment.

  1. Get a piece of paper and a writing implement (really, consider not using a computer – it is my experience that the parts of ourselves that know what kinds of seeds to plant can often speak better through handwriting).
  2. Now quickly write down three things you want.
  3. Somewhere else on the paper, quickly write down three things you don’t want.
  4. Around the three things you want, draw a walled-off garden, or a garden box, surrounding those three seeds. Make sure the wall or box doesn’t include the boxes-garden-open-vegetablethings you don’t want.
  5. Congrats! You have intentionally planted your first three seeds!

It’s important to ask yourself how this experiment made you feel. Some people, when they do this experiment for the first time, feel incredulous. “Sure, I want these things, and I don’t want the other things, but it can’t be that simple!” If you felt this way, then rest assured, you’re right. It’s not that simple. There are tricks and tools for tending your garden, which I will discuss next week. But it IS that simple to just get a first glimpse of what you want. It’s pretty clear what you want, at least it’s clear to the part of you that knows these things. But what gets in the way of planting these seeds in your attention garden is usually fear, shame, and guilt. These are some of the other feelings that might have appeared during the experiment. It usually works something like this:

  1. I want these things!
  2. I can’t have them, because something bad will happen (fear), I don’t deserve them (shame) and/or others will suffer somehow if I have them (guilt).

So even before your seeds get planted, these feelings arise and spill the seeds from your hand. Then what you want has no chance to take root. Instead, fear, shame and guilt are planted.

One solution is to put fear, shame, and guilt in that same area of your paper where you listed the things you don’t want in your garden. Then, plant the opposite of these feelings in your garden. Maybe you plant courage, self-nourishing, and compassion. Just see what you feel the opposites are, and plant those.

In this way, every time you find yourself focusing on a feeling or a task that you don’t want to focus on, you have a place to put it – outside your garden. And you have a place to put the opposite feeling – right inside, where it can be focused on. There it can be nourished, so it will grow into something wonderful – something that you may not even be able to predict right now. What if you end up not liking what it grows into? Then it’s weeding time!

There’s an important subtlety here that’s critical to take into account. There’s a difference between a habitual feeling that keeps showing up and preventing you from moving forward on a task or in a part of your life and feelings that are not pleasant, but need to be attended to. For instance, if a friend just died, your feelings of grief will need attention, and if they are attended to, they generally grow into positive memories about your friend.

My experience is that feelings that need attention will show up in your attention garden no matter how often you try to put them aside. If you find that happening – if any unpleasant feelings show up in your garden and thrive there, there are ways to manage this that I will discuss next time.

As promised, next week I’ll describe some tools for nourishing and weeding your attention garden. Until then, it’s worth planting whatever you want to grow more of right there, inside of your newfound plot of land.


Note: I usually listen to Focus@Will when I write, to keep on nourishing my attention garden. However, I was on an airplane as I wrote this, and I didn’t want to pay for web access. So my fix was to imagine that I was listening to the new UpTempo channel on Focus@Will. It was almost (but not quite) as helpful as the real thing!


About Julia Mossbridge:

I am a parent of a 16-year old composer and a partner to a wonderful human being. I give talks about work engagement, authenticity, and aliveness. I am working on changing the culture of Silicon Valley to move it toward a greater appreciation of the gifts of being human (watch a video of me giving an hour-long talk on this topic). I am the author of Unfolding: The Science of Your Soul’s Work, and my upcoming book co-authored with Imants Baruss, Transcendent Mind: Re-thinking the Science of Consciousness, will be released by the American Psychological Association in August 2016. I am also the Science Director at Focus@Will Labs, Director of the Innovation Lab and a Staff Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and a Visiting Scholar in Psychology at Northwestern University.


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