The Price You Pay When You Pay Attention

You have to pay attention to your goals if you ever want to achieve them. But while you pay for this attention with your time, there is something else you sacrifice when you decide to attend to something: everything else you could be attending to. 

When we sit down and write, we are also deciding not to have a conversation, go for a walk, or eat a sandwich. We might decide to do these things later, but at that point, those decisions will be at the expense of other options.

As noted on the Farnam Street blog, we are often motivated to try and achieve too much, from maintaining relationships to advancing our career, while traveling, reading, and keeping up with current events. “Every day we are faced with choices on how to invest our time, and we all can be guilty of the same thing: Taking on too much without properly understanding the costs.”

Opportunity Costs

Every decision, every act that consumes our time, comes with tradeoffs. Despite our efforts, we can only do one thing at a time, and everything we don’t do that we might actually want to do becomes an opportunity cost—the price we pay for doing what we’re doing. 

Some have speculated that these opportunity costs are behind the effort we experience when trying to focus on something. The more possibilities trying to tug us in other directions, the more difficult it is to stay on task. 

The authors write, “Because some systems, especially those associated with executive function, have multiple uses to which they can be put, the use of these systems carries opportunity costs. We propose that these costs are experienced as “effort,” and have the effect of reducing task performance.” 

This isn’t just willpower—it’s not necessarily a battle between your long-term goal of getting healthy and a short-term goal of eating cake, although these options certainly add to the difficulty. It might be between two very valuable goals: say, writing your book and learning a language. The traditional self-help recipes for self-control won’t apply if you don’t know which option is genuinely better.

It’s very likely that there are many things you would like to do. Things that would improve your life. And with every additional goal or value, comes added distress when one must take precedence over the others. As methods for self-education have proliferated, the more potential you must leave untapped. 

One Thing At A Time

“Part of the downside of abundant choice is that each new option adds to the list of trade-offs, and trade-offs have psychological consequences. The necessity of making trade-offs alters how we feel about the decisions we face; more important, it affects the level of satisfaction we experience from the decisions we ultimately make.” —Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice.

You can’t do everything at once. You have to commit to one course of action at a time. Properly commit. If you can’t figure out what you really want to do, you’ll either fail to make a decision and end up going nowhere, or you’ll struggle to fully invest in anything and won’t make it very far.

Maybe it’s true that you can be anything you want, but you cannot be everything you want. You will have to let go of some dreams, some goals, in order to properly achieve others. Therefore it’s essential to prioritise. Not just health over immediate indulgences, but possible futures, each of which might be as appealing as the next. 

How you spend your time is how you spend your life. Where you place your attention will determine where your time is spent. I don’t mean to sound like a productivity-guru, I’m not advocating a life of constant doing. But we must be conscious and decisive. Evaluate your possibilities and commit to one. While you’re investing your time in it, invest all of your energy and attention. Try not to second-guess or wonder what might have been, but look ahead and ensure that the path you’re on leads to a better you.

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