Pay Attention To Your Attention So You Don't Get Lost

Pay Attention To Your Attention So You Don't Get Lost


On June 18th, 2021, Andrew Devers went on a short 3-mile hike along the Pratt River Trail in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington state. He had hiked the trail before. But his mind was not on the trail that day. He was distracted and failed to notice a sign warning that the trail ahead was unmaintained. As Andrew said: "It was like when you’re driving on the highway, deep in thought, and accidentally pass your exit." Ninety minutes later, he found himself on an overgrown and thorny trail, and because he was wearing only a T-shirt and shorts, he decided to turn around. When he did, he found a completely different landscape from the one he came through. Nothing looked the same, and he couldn’t determine which direction to hike. Nine days later, he spotted a familiar spot, and soon his friends found him. Andrew got his life back. We, too, can get lost, in our emotions, in our thoughts, and in the relentless cacophony of external distractions. But we can also get lost in life and end up on another path, not of our choosing, unless we pay attention to our attention.

Time To Read: 12 minutes

Key Takeaways

  1. Meta-Awareness: The skill of being able to mentally break free of the daily trance of living (fueled by our internal world - thoughts, emotions, urges - and the external world - hustle, productivity, notifications, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, texting...) to wake up and become aware of what the hell these forces are pushing you to think and do without your consent! Meta-Awareness is a superpower of paying attention to your attention, to get up on the balcony of your mind to observe the contents of your consciousness, as if you are a neutral third party.
  2. Goals Drive Our Attention. Whether it is being sucked into a banner ad for a new pair of shoes on a webpage, the sudden and inexplicable desire to eat potatoes chips while writing a paper, or making a conscious decision to work on a manuscript for the next two hours, our attention, whether conscious or unconscious, is always driven by a goal, no matter how trivial the goal may seem.
  3. Goal Neglect: The mental grip or enchantment of being so sucked into a goal, like a directed spotlight, that we neglect our most important personal goals for the smaller one that has hijacked our attention. Think of getting drawn into answering a text while in the middle of a conversation with a loved one.
  4. Meta-Moments: When you wake up from the mental trance of internal and external distractions and realize that your attention is on autopilot and has a life of its own. Think about going way down the rabbit hole of searching YouTube for the best note-taking app (guilty and a repeat offender!), and 20 minutes later, you suddenly snap out of it and wake up (MetaMoment) from the trance
  5. Mind Wandering: Is not the problem. The problem is mind wandering without meta-awareness.

Meta-Awareness Gym: Meditation is the gym we go to strengthen our Meta-Awareness muscle (especially with the Waking Up app), which helps us notice and create more Meta-Moments out in the wild forest of our lives.


We all live in a mental trance most of our waking hours, a trance fueled by the combination of being lost in thought and responding like rats in a cage pressing the technology pellet lever over and over for the next dopamine hit of our brave new slot machine-like world of electronic stimuli.

The Internal Trance

When we are mind-wandering and lost in thought, we think about what is NOT happening around us. We ruminate about the past, what might happen in the future, or even shit that will never happen. The internal trance is driven by external stimulus-independent thought (interpretation - thoughts and stuff just show up on their own), driven by the Default Mode Network of our brains. This is our human superpower. It endows us with the ability to integrate our past experiences with our brain's ability to run simulations of the future to predict and plan. But at what cost?

In the paper A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind (published in the journal Science), the well-known psychologist Dan Gilbert found that people's minds wandered 47% of the time, regardless of what activity they were engaged in when at the time their minds started to wander, except when they were making love (I wonder if they were afraid to admit their minds were wandering??). Ok, so what? Tell me something I don't know!

Well, they also found (as the title suggests) that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind, regardless of what activity they were involved in at the time of mind-wandering. But it gets worse. It didn't matter what the hell they were thinking about when they were mind-wandering. Even if they were thinking about pleasant topics (42% of the time), unpleasant topics (27%), or neutral topics (31%), mind-wandering made them unhappy.

Their conclusion? Although negative moods are known to lead to mind-wandering, mind-wandering can also cause a negative mood and unhappiness. The mind can be like a bad neighborhood that you should, in general, try to avoid.

But mind-wandering has another possible dark side besides making us unhappy. It can serve up a plate of tasty distractions. Sudden, inexplicable urges can surface unbidden from our subconscious cauldrons that nudge or push us to some goal, not of our choosing. I am writing this newsletter; it's hard work, and my mind, on its own, says enough, and it showers me with mental confetti for a bit of relief. Suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, I get an internal urge to check out that new webcam from Elgato I have been pining for (true), and 25 minutes later, I have a Meta-Moment when I finally wake up from the trance and find myself down the internet rabbit hole of webcams. Twenty-five minutes gone, for good, and no webcam to show for it.

Now, before we throw the baby out with the bath water, there is a form of mind-wandering that is very useful: to ponder. As I write this article, I am focused on the goal of writing this newsletter post. My mental spotlight is shining on one spot: the computer and the words. I have learned to intentionally use non-focused times like a walk outside, a shower, working out, or cooking to let my mind wander with a bit of direction or to ponder on things I care about or am working on, like this newsletter post.

Almost without fail, the magic happens as insights, ideas, connections, and solutions surface from the deeper regions of my subconscious mind. I used to do this all the time in the past (without any idea of how or why) when I would ponder complex surgical cases here and there in the days before the operation, and routinely, alternative approaches or solutions surfaced that positively influenced the patient's outcome.

The External Trance

But the trance we all live in most of the time is not just that of mind-wandering. We have been sucked into a trance engineered by the world of the internet and all of its foot soldiers (Email, Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, Google search, ads, to name a few) that have overrun the power supply of our prefrontal cortex to contend with the daily tsunami of external stimuli flooding our mental inbox.

Picture this. It's 1983. I was an intern at the University of Minnesota on teaching rounds with Dr. Mike Eisenberg, a professor and well-known cancer surgeon. My job was to push a cart with the patient charts - green plastic 3-ring binders straight out of Office Max. The charts had tab separators for the order sheets, the history and physical, the daily notes, the lab results, and the radiology reports. I wrote the orders and scribbled a typically useless note (usually a variation of "doing well, no problems") as we sauntered down the hall from room to room. On this particular day, Dr. Eisenberg told us why he chose an academic career: he loved to do 3-4 big cancer cases a week and the rest of the time sit in his office where he thought and wrote papers.

Fast forward to now, just 40 years later. We are glued to computers, phones, and ipads (even dining with them immersed in a one-way conversation), we are drenched by a firehose of information every day, and we are in a casino-like new world reality filled with lights, noise, notifications, and the iPhone slot machine that crushes us with relentless distractions and diversions, all of which slowly robs us of our agency and our attention to our deepest aspirations, goals, values, priorities, and preferences.

The devastation from these relentless external distractions is ubiquitous, as demonstrated by Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics and author of Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness, and Productivity Gloria studied Attention Shifting in the real world, in living laboratories (like Microsoft) where people work, using software to track clicks and computer use and heart rate monitors to measure heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of stress. (HRV is the fluctuation of the length of heartbeat intervals, and since the autonomic nervous system profoundly influences our heart rate, HRV reflects the ability of your autonomic nervous system to respond to stimuli. A low HRV, or very regular heartbeat interval, can mean your autonomic nervous system is a mess and not responding as it should.)

Gloria found that the average time between attention shifts was only 3 MINUTES and 5 SECONDS. The impact of all this constant Attention Shifting:

  • work becomes fragmented
  • lowered productivity
  • it drains cognitive resources (i.e., you feel mentally fatigued)
  • it creates stress - literally - HRV becomes regular and not as responsive

The result? We feel frazzled, drained, and stressed at the end of the day, and chronically, day after day😵‍💫😡.

Attention Is Always Goal-Directed

A crucial concept highlighted by Dr. Mark is that our attention is always goal-directed. Whether your mind hijacks your attention (like my desire for the webcam) or if you set out to intentionally accomplish something, your attention is always goal-directed.

The mind has a mind of its own. Inside that dark, silent vault of our skulls sits a 3-pound football that is trying to make sense of our internal and external world. It takes in all of the millions of bits of information thrown at it per second, stirs it up with our memories and thoughts, and grinds away to get us to do things our brain wants.

An army of 100 billion neurons firing away is trying to put it all together to make us comfy and safe. That is a big army and a powerful force pushing us to do what it wants, and it helps explain why we are all so prone to succumb to its power.

What to do? We cannot go back to my nostalgic era with Mike Eisenberg. It's over. And it is impossible to control what mental bullets the army of neurons shoots into our mental neighborhood. Short-term tactics like turning off notifications or distractions to avoid thoughts are just that - tactics that fall apart when we get tired and our discipline fades, as it always does. It is not a fair fight!

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu tells us what to do when we are outnumbered and not in a fair fight:

"To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill."

"To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill."

Meta-Awareness - The Way To Subdue the Enemy

Viktor Frankl famously said - “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” That Space is Meta-Awareness.

By developing the Meta-Awareness skill of recognizing when you are in a trance or prone to go into a trance, we can jump up onto the remarkable mental balcony afforded only to us human beings - the ability to be consciously aware of what is going on around us, and what is going on inside our mind and bodies.

Jocko Willink, the ex Navy Seal, says, Discipline = Freedom. So, like anything in life, making a commitment to develop your Meta-Awareness combined with the discipline to practice can set you free of being a slave to our internal and external world, if you practice.

Some of us are naturally endowed with a strong Meta-Awareness skill set, just like we are all born with different strengths and personality traits. But the rest of us need to train our Meta-Awareness muscle, and the gym is meditation.

There are many apps for meditation practice, and some can be very effective in creating a calm state of mind or for practicing the ability to focus our attention. These are valuable reasons for having a meditation practice. But in my opinion, the real value of meditation is to develop the ability to intentionally get up on your mental balcony to see what is going on and immediately enter that Viktor Frankl space, so we can choose to respond or not, and if so, how.

My strong recommendation is to use the Waking Up app by Sam Harris. Sam and his remarkable contributors focus on developing the skill of becoming aware of both internal (from the brain and body) and external (from the outside world in the form of sound, taste, vision, touch, and hearing) appearances in consciousness while meditating so that you can implement it in your daily life, on the street. Just 10 minutes every day will do the trick.

Benefits of the Meta-Awareness Space

Reframe Events. The space allows one to look at failures, problems, and setbacks realistically and the ability to reframe them as potential growth and learning experiences.

The Self Inside Our Heads Dissolves. This may be tough for some of you, but there really is no self inside our heads. It feels like it, sure enough. But there is only consciousness, and all appearances in consciousness are but a virtual representation of everything, including this thing called I. By realizing that the I is a virtual construct in consciousness, we create distance between the sense of fusion with our thoughts and emotions and our ego. Now, instead of saying I am sad, one might say I am experiencing sadness. See the difference?

The Wisdom of Impermanence. Everything changes, constantly. Our bodies, the world, our minds, everything. Being glued to the way things are (psychological attachment) and avoidance of the reality of change (aversion) creates suffering. The middle road is to embrace the reality of change and impermanence. It still hurts when my children leave after a visit, but it is, in its own way, beautiful. It allows one to just relax with the reality of reality.

Emotional Contagion. Emotions are wildly contagious, and we are all emotional viruses. Are you aware of the emotional contagion you deliver to people in your orbit every day? The Meta-Awareness Space allows you to decide what emotional influence you want to deliver, instead of the lower reaches of your brain deciding.

Seal Your Lips. The Space of Meta-Awareness can help you avoid saying something that ends up hurting or alienating someone that you will later deeply regret, which will make you want to avoid them, which you could have avoided, if you had avoided saying what you said.

Body and Mind Awareness. Connect with your body and mind and learn the signals that help you (i.e., your 🧠) recognize when there are problems. A simple example: you plan to run 4 miles today, but your knee is stiff and sore. Your brain floods your mind with "one day missed won't matter" (rationalization), or "it's too late anyway (excuse)," or the run could make it worse" (justification). The Space of Meta-Awareness gives you the mental tools to blow off the BS excuses and the ability to discern if, indeed, it is a good idea to take the day off or do something different, like a walk.

Perspective of Others and Really Listening. In a conversation, do you intentionally imagine being in the other person's shoes to understand their point of view fully? Can you drop your perspective to get into those shoes without judgment or dismissal? Can you shut your mouth and pay attention long enough to do this?

Emotional Tsunami Barricade. We all get really triggered by some things, and many of these triggers can elicit an emotional storm out of proportion to the trigger, usually related to a very deep value or past life experience that can wash over us and drown our ability to think straight. Being able to recognize the start of an emotional tsunami storm and run for mental shelter before all hell breaks loose is a superpower.

Mentally Walk Past Self-Criticism. We all do it. "I can't believe how stupid I am!" or "You f,.,ing asshole" our brains say to us. Now you can hear it, and walk on by, and by separating yourself from the words, their power fades, and believe it or not, the meany inside will eventually give up.

Begin Again. My wife Lea and I got into a bit of a tiff last week. Actually, it was a bit of a situation. Later, lying in bed, I put my hand on her shoulder (she had her back to me) I pulled her over gently, put my face in front of hers, and said "can we begin again please?" and kissed her. We had a great day the next day. This works for anything where there has been a setback. Just let it go and begin again.

Focus On Your Values, Priorities, and Goals. THIS IS THE BIG KAHUNA. We can all end up subordinating ourselves, our authentic selves, to the world at large. By authentic I mean walking the talk of our internal values, priorities, preferences, and goals in life. By subordination, I mean living a life of shoulds or what others or the internet thinks is best for you. Over and over, I see people mired in a life foisted upon them by the culture of our society or parents or schools or shoulds. In my opinion, the real project of living is to ignore the background noise, figure out what those values, priorities, preferences, and goals are, and live your life by them, and not someone else's. Meta-awareness is the mental compass that will keep you on the right path, to real freedom.



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