Beat procrastination with this simple tool to align intention and attention – Integrally Alive Podcast

What are you NOT going to pay attention to today? Continuing the Series on Starting your year with a sustainable mindset:

We’ve seen the importance of rest and how to do it effectively to be in a good state in order to set sustainable goals, thanks to a few of the principles from permaculture, then we made sure to define success with flexibility.

So today we are moving on! And for that, we need to align our attention, with our intention… Why and how?

This summer I lived in Rome, Italy. I couldn’t leave Rome without visiting the Sixtin chapel. As you might imagine, or you know if you’ve been there, it is a seriously popular attraction. To visit it, you first go through a whole museum, that’s so packed with antic goodness, that you could spend days admiring all of it.

There were a fair amount of visitors, but I could mostly look at the art undisturbed, and take as much time as I wanted. And then I arrived in the Sixtin Chapel. And suddenly, it is as packed as the metro in Paris at peak hours.

There are people telling you were to go, and not to go, so everyone is packed in the middle of the room, some trying to exit, some trying to take picture though it is strictly forbidde, some trying to watch the paintings, kids just going around…

After a few minutes of this circus, I was paying more attention to finding a good posture than actually admiring the paintings. As you know, most of it is on the ceiling, which doesn’t make it easy or comfortable to look at for an extended time. I had to pause, and remember my intention: seeing the paintings. And refocus my attention accordingly.

Does that feels familiar to you? OK, maybe not visiting the Sixtin chapel. But we begin with an intention, then things pop up, and a few minutes, hours, days, months into it… We realise we are spending our precious attention on things that are not priority. Sounds familiar now? Welcome to being human.

Selective attention and 7 plus or minus 2 chunks of attention

Last year I talked about selective attention. Basically, we are only able to retain a small amount of information in our working memory. A famous paper in a Psychological Review by George Miller says that we can process 7 plus or minus 2 chunks of attention.

More recent studies have estimated the processing capacity of the conscious mind at 120 bits per second. Our consciousness has a bandwidth, or window, like your internet connection. Whatever information that overloads it at any one time doesn’t get in our conscious attention. Because of this limited bandwidth, we have an “attentional filter“, which is mostly unconscious, but that we can influence consciously, to automatically ignore the information that is not important at that moment

Attention is in the present, intention is in your future

What about the link with intention?

Attention happens in the present. So when we are overload with information, which if you don’t live in a cave, happens to you daily, we make a constant choice toward what we pay attention to.

Intention is linked to the future: We imagine something that we want to get to. Ideally, we then use our intention like a compass to direct our attention to things that are important to create that. (the past episodes were all about how to do that in a sustainable & efficient way)

We have mainly three ways of getting stuck in that process:

  • the draydreaming limbo
  • the tunnel vision, oriented action
  • fake efficiency, or the trap of productivity

Stay out of the daydreaming limbo!

When we take intention into our present, we are daydreaming. It can be great sometimes as an exploration of this intention, to define it more clearly and really really know what we want. But there are ways of doing this that are effective (and if you’re interested I’ll do an episode on that, just tell me), and ways to just get lost in dreamland limbo.

It feels good, so good we’re not getting anywhere. It even can make things worse, because now it can make us feel terrible in our present situation. As a result, instead of taking action now, we are putting our attention into the future, and our intention in the present, but as a way to escaping, not as a motivation to go towards it.

And if you’ve been there, and I certainly have, I have a great imagination… Welcome to being human!

Don’t let your vision become tunnel vision

An other main way we misalign attention and intention, is when we focus so much on our outcome, that we don’t pay attention enough to what is happening.

A lot of it comes back to what I presented last week: setting flexible checkpoints for your intention. If you have a fixed intention, you might fall into a tunnel vision to exclude anything that doesn’t fit in. Eventually, this brings up a tendency to force things in that direction.

We end up paying attention with a too narrowed bandwidth, and being unable to adapt our actions to the current situation to keep aiming for our intention. Think about a sailing-boat that would never change course, even when the wind and waves conditions changes… Ineffective at the best, dangerous at the worst.

Rather than productive, be efficient

Finally, one of the most common way we misalign attention and intention, is when we focus so much on our present, that it sets back our intention to an invisible background. We loose sight of our outcome, and get lost in the myriads of information coming at us.

It can lead to procrastination and inaction, but also to being super productive, just not in the direction of our intention. In any case, the compass we use to focus our attention is off. It is totally disconnected with our intention. We lose sight of our priorities.

Reclaim your attention!

Did you identify where you most have the tendency to get lost? Is it daydreaming, forced action, productivity… A bit of everything?

If you are a human, chances are you experienced all of them, and you might recognise a tendency for one more than the other.

So here is a simple exploration to get us out of these traps and make sure our attention stays aligned with our intention.

Remembering your intention to direct your attention

First, it really helps to notice what your tendency is, so that you can recognise when it is happening and that often is enough to stop it… When we see it soon enough. And that comes with practice. So instead of beating yourself up the next time you realise you’ve been daydreaming instead of taking action for example, celebrate your awareness.

Ok, you’re still doing it, but now you see your behavior, so you are in a position to change. Then, notice how your attention changes:

  • What is usually distracting you?
  • What is usually overwhelming you?

Ask yourself these questions and observe over a few days. Take notes if you need to, writing doesn’t lie, contrary to memory.

Then when you have an idea of what sets your attention off… Set a NOT to-do list! List everything that is NOT priority now.

It might be things that are interesting in general, maybe that you will need to do later. But now, they are distraction from your intention. Put all of these things on your NOT to-do list.

And now comes the magic: Your intention is showing you were to go and what to pay attention to. Your NOT to-do list is saying you what to avoid. As long as you follow them, you have no room to get lost anymore.

All the episodes of the “Start a sustainable intentional year (and decade)” series:

Resources cited in the conversation

We all have attention deficit disorder

Why It’s So Hard To Pay Attention, Explained By Science

The processing capacity of our conscious mind is limited.

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