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Weekly Blog #61 - On choice and attention...

I'm in quarantine again. Two weeks in a hotel on the north Bund back home in Shanghai. It feels like a 3-star-hotel-prison to be honest. However, taking everything into account the circumstances and the food could be worse. And as I did exactly 6 months ago, I am getting used to it quite quickly. By the way, the title picture is taken through the spy-hole of my door. This door won't open for another 10 days - but the view out the windows is pretty neat.

Fortunately or not, I have a lot of time on my hands. Of course, there's work to do and I have a good feeling about the progress I'm making in this regard. But you can't focus on the same task for 2 weeks straight, 12 to 14 waking ours of your day. At least I can't. So, I have to choose how I spend my time. A lot of that comes down to what I choose to pay attention to. I could decide not to choose actively and let my attention wander to whatever pops up on my phone, in my social media accounts, etc.. But that's not really an option.

Learning that I am able to decide what I pay attention to has been one of the main things I've come to understand since quitting my previous job. That might sound strange to some, but let me explain. I could start of by elaborating on how much attention there actually is to spend. For example in regards to the amount of information our brain can deal with at the same time or the amount of sensory impressions our body can process at any given moment. Even though that's important to understand, I'd rather choose a different, more generic approach: We are massively influence in what we do and how we do it by the outside world. Not only regarding big life decisions such as who we spend our time with, what we do for a living, where we live, what car we drive... There are psychological factors that have been coined with marketing terms like priming and anchoring. They basically work like this: we are provided with a piece of information or a signal - consciously or subconsciously - and the next thing we do is related to that piece of information. Sometimes more strongly, sometimes less.

For example, watching an add about ice cream makes us either subconsciously crave ice cream when we feel like having something sweet next time or it makes us specifically not want ice cream - depending on whether you like ice cream or not in general. I realized that quite recently while being back in Finland. There has been so much advertisement for ice cream on TV and on my phone that at some point - even though it was the best June-weather in Finland since the start of weather recordings and I felt like having ice cream from time to time - I didn't get any because I felt saturated after seeing it so much on the screen.

Small side note: I rather had this instead of ice cream...

If we understand that these things influence us we can decide if we pay attention to them or not. Sometimes it's difficult because the messages are hidden and we are not able to realize that we are being influenced. You could call that good marketing. But in many cases we can actively choose what we are influenced by and what not.

Let's take a look at that from another perspective. During working hours there are a lot of things that we can't entirely control. Distractions, phone calls, e-mails, new, unexpected tasks, etc.. For some of these things we can decide: do we pay attention or do we let the phone ring and not get distracted? Others are just too important to let them slide. But what happens after work? What happens if we get home and have the opportunity to define what we want to do with our free time? I bet that for each and every one of us there are days when we don't feel like doing that. When we don't feel like paying attention to anything anymore and just let go. Sometimes we just let things slide and let everything and everyone around us decide what we pay attention to and what our actions are. That's fine. Sometimes. But it mustn't become a habit. There are better options. We can make decisions on whether or not we watch TV or be creative ourselves, whether or not we cook our own food or just order it, whether or not we spend time with our loved ones or play video games.

Here's the thing: if we decide what we pay attention to ourselves and not let others decide, our subsequent actions ultimately define who we are. "I am a Netflix binge-watcher." "I am a home-cook." "I am a loving and caring husband." "I am a runner." "I am a social network surfer." "I am a musician." "I am a writer." Don't get me wrong - my point is not to judge any of the activities we choose to do. Do whatever turns your crank, man! My point is that we have to choose actively and consciously. That we have to pay attention to our own actions and identify when we are and when we aren't in control of them. And that we have to take responsibility for that.

As I've mentioned before: it's been a huge step towards a better and more productive life for me to turn my blindness in this regard into willful blindness in the first step (hence starting to understand that I'm being influenced in regards to what I pay attention to but not doing anything about it). The second step is to overcome willful blindness and actively choose to work towards the more meaningful things by paying more attention to those. It's tough, no doubt about it. But it's such a relieve realizing - at least sometimes - when our perceptions, thoughts and ultimately our actions are subconsciously being manipulated by others and being able to actively work against that. And no, this is not supposed to sound like conspiracy theories and I'm not asking you to wear an aluminum hat! All I'm saying is this: start paying attention to yourself, your thoughts and your actions. Are these yours or do you feel like you're acting on behalf of someone or something? If so, decide on your options and choose what is really worth paying attention to.

There's a reason why it's called "paying" attention. It's a valuable currency - and it's limited. Spend it wisely.

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