(6 minute read)
If you browse the self-help section of almost any bookstore, there seem to be nearly infinite principles, strategies and tips for living well.
But it goes deeper than self-help. Psychology, religion, philosophy and other fields all offer advice for how we ought to conduct ourselves and treat others. Meditate. Be more productive. Journal. Live in the now. Love thy neighbor. Be more assertive. Be grateful for what you have. Strive for more. Focus on the positive. Prepare for the worst case scenario. Be self-aware. Accept yourself.
It can be overwhelming.
But what if there are far fewer self-improvement principles than we think there are?
Even though there may appear to be endless pieces of advice out there, there is a lot of overlap between seemingly different ideas. For example, there might be 100 books on productivity, each with 20 pieces of advice. But this doesn’t mean there are 2000 distinct productivity principles. It just means that the same idea can be expressed in different ways, from different angles, and through different lenses.
Having been a student of personal development and other related fields for the past 15 years, I’ve been exposed to a massive amount of ideas. Recently, I’ve been thinking about the best way to organize this information in order to make sense of it all.
To that end, I’ve identified three distinct categories into which most life advice/wisdom might be sorted. It’s a simple framework and is still under construction. But there does seem to be something to it. At the very least, organizing information helps your brain remember it more efficiently and effectively.
The first of these three categories (or “meta-principles”) is: PAY ATTENTION. I’ll explain the other two categories in separate blog posts.
The Many Different Ways of Paying Attention
Broadly speaking, this category has to do with becoming aware, observing, noticing, and focusing. There is a ton of wisdom packed into the phrase ‘pay attention.’ It turns out that many of our problems can be solved by simply paying more attention. This principle takes various different forms but is the fundamental idea behind many important self-development concepts. Here are a few of them:
Meditation is essentially about paying attention to your breath or to the present moment and observing your thoughts without judgement. The same could be said about mindfulness in general—it’s about paying attention to reality as it is now — to what you are doing or thinking at this moment. When people say, “Be more present,” what they are actually saying is, “Pay more attention to this moment.”
Gratitude is about paying attention to the good things in your life. Gratitude requires our constant awareness because our brains have a tendency to take things for granted or grow accustomed to positive circumstances, a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation.
To be a good listener, the most important thing you can do is pay attention to what the other person is saying. Not just with their words, but also with their tone, facial expressions, and body language. Doing so will help you respond in the most effective and appropriate way to what is being said. It will also make it more likely that you will learn something useful from the other person. Paying attention during conversation can also help decrease social anxiety and self-consciousness by taking your focus off of yourself and placing it on someone else.
The concept of self-awareness is fundamentally about paying attention to both the positive and negative aspects of yourself and their effect on others, then using this information to make more informed decisions about your life. You can also think of self-awareness as observing yourself from an objective, third-party perspective.
Emotional intelligence is about being aware of your emotions as they arise (and even before) and responding to them intelligently. In other words, it’s the act of paying attention to your emotions.
A big part of effective learning and recall involves paying close attention to the information you consume. If you read a whole page and can’t remember what it’s about, it’s likely you’re not paying close enough attention to the material. Memory coach Jim Kwik says learning isn’t so much an issue of retention as much as it is an issue of attention.
A big part of managing anxiety is about learning to pay attention to what you can control (as opposed to what you can’t). Your brain constructs your reality based on what you pay attention to. Learning to manage and direct your focus is key to improving virtually every aspect of your life.
The concept of “deep work” or prolonged concentration is the ability to pay attention to the task at hand to the exclusion of all other distractions. On the other hand, ADHD is the inability to pay attention for a sustained period of time.
Self-care is about giving special attention to what you need in order to feel good and maintain balance in your life.
What are your thoughts?
Am I onto something? Where else do you see the principle “pay attention” show up? Have I gone off the deep end? Let me know in the comments!
Ruben Chavez is a writer, personal development educator, and host of The Think Grow Podcast. He has created a community of over 3 million readers across his collective platforms, including his popular Instagram page ThinkGrowProsper. Along with this blog, these platforms are his way of inspiring and connecting with thoughtful, creative, and ambitious people just like you.