Tag Archives: happiness

Attention Is a Limited Resource

I rarely remember it, but I’d be a better writer if I did:

What we think about matters. Because attention is a limited resource.

Sometimes I remember to be reserved about what I pay attention to and I discover more time to write. But I hardly ever remember to consider what I pay attention for.

Or put another way, Why I’m paying attention to what I’ve chosen.


I met my youngest brother for lunch this past week because it’d been a while and my mom pushed so we went for sushi. He just turned 33 which means I’m now 41. He said it was his treat. It was a little hole in the wall near his office. We talked about relationships and theology as we always do.

On the way back we discussed the effort required to do things we find difficult amidst life’s busyness and demands. He has two kids under 2 so I knew he was serious in that way only the sleep-deprived can know, and maybe that’s why inspiration struck just then as I pulled away from the corner.

With singular clarity, I could see how motivation is truly all that matters. We agreed that doing things just because we should leads to apathy and failure, and hard things like reading the Bible, working out or writing a book just to do it become a chore. But if you knew you’d be going out to use it for others, you’d be motivated. You’d read to share, work out to help others, write to inspire. And that would change everything. The simple idea of doing it for others could create powerful motivation.


The difference could be simply a matter of doing something not for yourself but to share it.

We talked more and I said how taking consistent baby steps has been the only way I improve, but that it’s difficult once passion wears off. My question was how to stay motivated through the day in, day out.

Knowing you need to share it with others is good, but I already sensed it wasn’t enough. There had to be something more.

I came home and asked Ellie what motivates her to draw.

“Seeing it done, and getting the ideas out,” she said.

“Do you also think about sharing it, having others enjoy it?”

She said yes, and when I asked why she likes drawing so much, she said it’s because it’s fun and expressive and challenging.

“And you like the challenge?” I asked.

“Yeah. Because it makes me get better.”

Improving, getting better is definitely an important motivator. But what if we get discouraged and don’t see progress? The common lie may creep in–that we don’t have the time to push to produce at the next level.

Sure, it’s painfully true that everyone makes time for what they decide to, and choosing more than the default Internet-trolling-forever is a simple matter. Knowing that once your attention is paid out, it’s gone is a good truth to remember in our new world of noisy feeds and information whiplash.


But even if you don’t feel affected by it or you have a high capacity for maintaining focus, everyone has a limited bandwidth of attention. And as a culture we’re quickly approaching critical overload. Try to think of a number for how many songs, movies, shows, articles, news items, websites, blog posts, books, video games, interviews, radio broadcasts, podcasts, youtube videos, seminars, studies, journals, conferences, festivals, conventions, retreats, parties announcements, and gatherings you’ve engaged with in the last week.

Add the overwhelming dose of random friend and family information and ubiquitous advertising, and how much attention do you think you have left for what’s supposedly important to you?

Feeling guilty yet?

Of course, what we think about matters. We can get distracted and end up paying our attention out to all the wrong things. Pretty soon we’re caught by our fears and limits, our old self. And no matter how we manage all of this, there’s only so much free attention to spend. How do we learn to preserve our attention for what matters?

The question matters, and you aren’t alone. Every week I work to help writers simply write. And what do you think they all say they need most?

Luckily, there’s something we can do about it. And all it takes is a decision. You are the only one who can give yourself this gift. And no one can take this away from you: you get to make this choice. So just decide:

“Today, I’m preserving my attention for who I really want to have it.”


Imagine if that simple change in your daily routine increased your happiness, motivation and productivity and one day you could trace the changes in your life back to this decision.

Imagine if the difference was just deciding to preserve your attention for what truly matters.

Here’s the real point: self-improvement is ultimately worthless. Even doing things to help others can lead to burn-out. So what is worth paying your attention for?

Results? The process?

Who should you do what you do for?

Now all the good Sunday school kids raise your hands because you know the right answer.

Every believer knows the goal is not producing results at any cost, but moving when he moves and staying beneath his cross.

As we sang in church, “Content to let the world go by, to know no gain or loss. My sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross.”


It wasn’t just the right answer in Sunday school, was it? We get too moved by all sorts of things. What if we waited and decide not to move in our sinful selves? In our shame and self? What if we chose a deeper motivation–a higher purpose–to pay our attention for and give all our desire to him?

What you pay attention to is what will define you. But who you pay your attention for determines who you will become.

This is the moment (I speak to myself here): you can choose. To look at your work through his eyes. To do it for him and see the world as he did.

Isn’t this how we shift the paradigm? Shift the focus?

Isn’t this how we’re enabled to see his love for us and others?

Choose in faith and there’s your motivation: to see how he gave what was reserved especially for you despite what you deserved. To simply allow you to do what he asked and remember him?

“As often as you do this.”

Choose to respond. Who do you say he is? Choose to love him back through your commitment to this work. Do you not yet fully believe? Is that what’s still in the way? You know he’s asked us to serve him to others,  and all we need is the desire, the want to. That’s enough. But you don’t know how to want to if you don’t?

Choose anyway. You don’t have to force it, just know the only alternative means you’ll have to carry all things alone—as if anyone ever could. We can only love him with the love he gives us. All we need to do is receive it.

If you knew this was the only way to inexhaustible motivation, wouldn’t you choose it?

What will you decide? What will you become?

Who will you pay your attention for?