• Emily Mathison

Where Focus Goes, Energy Flows

Updated: Aug 7, 2020

Guest Post by Alexandra Van Tol

In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, psychologist and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes that the “shape and content of life depend on how attention has been used.” What you pay attention to is what you invite into your experience. The more you pay attention to something — an event, a fear, a certain orange politician — the greater a part of your story it becomes. You can see this principle in action when you think about the friend who complains incessantly about her job and blames her ex-partner for her unhappiness.

"What you focus on grows."

To make it easier for us to grasp how attention works, Csikszentmihalyi breaks it down into something resembling zeroes and ones. Our nervous system — which includes our brain — can deal with about seven bits of information at any one time, or up to 126 bits every second. Our brains are pretty fast. A sound, an emotion, a thought, a visual stimulus — each counts for one bit. So you max out at 126 per second, or half a million per hour, or 238 billion bits over 90 years. Sounds like a lot: half a million bits of information per hour? Two hundred thirty-eight billion bits over 90 years? Well, yes, but you’re rarely processing that quickly that frequently. This is the higher end of the estimate — your system at full load. You can’t always process at 126 bits per second — that level of attention is exhausting. Notice how wiped you feel after a day of meetings? We don’t sustain that level of flow-through very well. To listen to your colleague’s story about how hard it is to explain memes to her grandfather, your processing slows down to about 40 bits per second. And when you’re showering, choosing your clothes, fixing lunch or drafting an email to a prickly stakeholder, you’re chewing the bits pretty slowly then, too. Long story short, we don’t have an endless amount of storage in the hard drive. But the files we work on are the ones we end up saving — so we ought to be selective about which files we give our attention to. As you learn to master your focus, you will get better and better at choosing where to put your attention. You will soon recognize those times when your attention slides into worry about the future, and take action to refocus on what’s happening now. You will notice when your conversation slouches toward gossip, and be aware enough to shift it toward something that builds your integrity instead. You will hear the siren song of vitriolic social media posts, and have the clarity to focus instead on items that inform rather than inflame. What you put your attention on is what you encode. You can encode doomsday thinking, despair, anger and judgment. You can encode a perfect body and the right profile. You can encode curiosity, self-regard and gratitude.

"You can encode anything you want, really."

Attention is like money: where you put it determines what you get. The result, says Csikszentmihalyi? “Entirely different realities will emerge depending on how it is invested.”

Photo credit: BK Studios

About Alexandra Van Tol

A multi-published author and well being educator, Alex Van Tol convenes vision boarding sessions where participants gain clarity on their life and career path.

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