Attention Budgeting Part 2: Values & Environment
7 minute audio/ 5 minute read.
Does your attention reflect your values? In a world full of distractions learn ways to tweak your environment and train your “attention muscle” to pay attention to what’s truly important.
Expense Tracking vs Budgeting
In part one of the attention management series, I talked about the importance of tracking your attention. The reason being, by taking inventory of one of your most precious resources, you gain a potentially life-changing insight. With over 50,000 thoughts running through your mind on an average day, attention is the energy that allows us to choose one thought over another, and ultimately one experience over another. But looking at the expense report, ie a history of where your attention went, is only the first part of the puzzle. It’s budgeting forward and telling your attention where to go, that’s the true game changer.
Most of us don’t think about our attention budget because we assume that smart attention spending habits will just develop naturally as we grow up. That’s far from the truth. In today’s world, leaving your attention up for grabs is akin to letting a child roam a candy store, and assuming self-control comes naturally.
Why is Budgeting So Important?
I have never met anyone who woke up on the first of the month, threw off the covers, opened the blinds, stared into the distance and declared, “This month I plan to allocate 40% of my attention to reality TV, 20% to youtube cat videos, 20% to stalking my ex’s ex’s on social media, and the split whatever’s leftover between friends, family, fitness, and my big dream!”
But at the end of the month, if audited for attention, plenty of people would face this breakdown. The reality is, attention without direction is cash is on the table. If you don’t take ownership of your attention, the world will snatch it away, leaving you scattered and frazzled, wondering where your peace of mind went. To steward your attention wisely, you must protect it and direct it.
Smart attention budgeting starts with clarity of values. As the oft-quoted phrase goes, no matter what someone says, their calendar and their checkbook tell their true values. While time and money are indeed revealing, your attention tells the story of where you truly show up. You value what you agree to attend to.
The question is when you hold your attention spending report up next to a list of your most deeply held values, does it match?
If the answer is yes, your life will have a sense of congruence to it, and you can go ahead and throw yourself an attention alignment party. But if the answer is no, and you don’t put your attention where your mouth is, sooner or later the disconnect will catch up. For example, if you say you value hard work and health, but pay your attention allowance to gossip, video games, and twinkie taste testing, something will feel off. You will either feel torn in your heart, or live in a bubble of self disillusionment to soothe your stressed out conscience.
Just as in the financial world, a values-based attention budget is meant, not to be restrictive, but to help you spend and invest your thoughts in a way that aligns with what matters most to you.
Tips for Sticking to Your Attention Budget
Unless you are a complete attention ninja, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to control your mind all of the time. That said, there are a couple habits and practices that help you stick to your budget: no hidden fees or attention tax required.
Set up Your Environment and Monitor Your Stimuli
Your mind works hard enough as it is; making your attention play defense against excessive and counterproductive stimuli all day, will burn a hole in the budget before the end of the day. The goal, here, is to make your environment work for your values, not against. You may be relieved to know that you don’t have to uproot yourself and move to a certified geographical blue zone in Nicoya, Costa Rica to make your environment conducive to your attention budget — you can make a couple tweaks right where you are.
Here are a few practical examples:
If you value learning, set up a bookshelf of great books in a place you can see it every day.
If you’re trying to make budget cuts on boy bands, don’t plaster your dorm room walls with One Direction posters. Put up post-it notes of the quadratic formula, or Bible verses, or whatever you’re studying, instead.
If you value high-quality conversation, skip the bars that force you to shout, and take a walk in a calming place that makes your souls relax and hearts open up.
If you value sleep, don’t share a bed with your phone. The screen is just too tempting, and something always happens.
Train Your Attention “Muscle”
Sometimes, paying attention to the right things is less about changing your environment and more about noticing what is already going on around you. Our brains are wired to pay attention to emergencies and threatening situations. This “negativity bias” used to help humans survive, but nowadays it’s not the mental pathway you want to invest in paving. Instead, practice noticing the good, and fund the forging of a thought superhighway of beauty, love, and gratitude.
If a friend calls to check in on you, make a mental sticky note that says “I am loved and supported.”
If you tackle a task that you’ve long been avoiding, celebrate the end of sloth and the beginning proactivity.
If you’re hiking out in nature, narrate the ideal situation out loud by saying “here I am with a great friend, having a conversation among the sugar pines, and I am so grateful.”
By intentionally sprinkling attention on these pockets of joy you adjust the lenses with which you see the world. Over time you will become an agile attention ninja who can swiftly leap over distraction, avoid downward spirals, and take deep dives into present moments.
Alas, when your values are clear, your environment favorable, your mental sticky notes ready, and your attention compass pointed, your budget is good. Whether you have 40 thousand thoughts left to go, or merely 40, budget wisely and enjoy the payoff.
*Next week I’ll talk about investing, and the best and worst ROI for your attention. Stay tuned.