Why We Lose Sight of What Is Most Important

It is useful to understand that human beings have two distinct systems in the brain that are in charge of choosing how time and energy are spent. One system - the habitual survival system - is only interested in getting you through the day...

You know the deal - you wake up in the morning ready to make your life, your relationships, and the world the best they can be. Then you answer your email, check your voicemail, scan some news sites, and look at some funny videos and photos your friends sent you...you get an emergency request from a coworker or a boss...you fixate on an argument that you had yesterday with a parent, your partner or a colleague...you spend some time entertaining anxieties and fears about your career, money, and/or family...you do some work, have some dinner, and then the day is over.

Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse who spent years working with people at the end of their lives, has written a book titled "Top Five Regrets of the Dying" based on what her patients shared with her. If the top five regrets were converted into values, this is what they would be:

I value an authentic life over the life others expect of me

I value balance over working compulsively

I value honest expression of feelings

I value my friendships

I value my own happiness

Perhaps these are things you value, and perhaps you would add others to the list. Whatever your list looks like, it is worth considering how much of your time and energy everyday is focused on what you value most. When things are not going the way you want them to, how quickly do you return your attention to the quality of life you want to create with your response? Why is it so darn easy to lose sight of what matters most in the hubbub of daily activity?

It is useful to understand that human beings have two distinct systems in the brain that are in charge of choosing how time and energy are spent. One system - the habitual survival system - is only interested in getting you through the day. It assumes that since you survived yesterday, whatever you did is worth repeating. The great part about the habitual survival system is that it helps you become more skilled at whatever you practice. This system turns behaviors into unconscious habits so that you can focus your conscious attention on other things.

The limitation of the habitual survival system is that it associates familiarity with safety. In order to encourage you to repeat familiar behavior, it produces all kinds thoughts and sensations that you experience as rules about what you can and can't do, what you must and must not do, who you are and who you are not, etc.... Because the habitual survival system is focused on anticipating and surviving threat, this is the lens through which it sees the world. When this system is active, the world looks as though it is full of obstacles and problems. The choices of response offered by the habitual survival system tend to be avoidance, aggression, and paralysis. One of the most useful things to understand about this system is that is is designed to keep you from seeing new and creative responses. In fact, it can create quite a bit of discomfort and resistance when you imagine doing things differently.

The other system - the exploration and growth system - is focused on what is most valuable and meaningful. It sees the world through the lens of possibilities, connections, and opportunities. It is the system that allows you to identify and keep important and inspiring commitments. The exploration and growth system offers options of response that are not dictated by circumstances. When this system is active, you can focus on what matters most and choose action that supports your deepest values and highest aspirations.

With practice, you can easily identify when the habitual survival system is active and switch activity in the brain to the growth and exploration system. When you repeatedly engage the growth and exploration system, and respond to life based on what really matters to you, there are two results: your quality of life is just plain better in every way, and your survival system eventually makes this a habit.

Okay, so the theory is all well and good, but how do you actually do it? The first step is to move activity away from the survival system of the brain by:

Observing sensations and thoughts, and seeing them as activity in your nervous system.

Opening your posture by expanding your chest and lengthening your spine.

Dropping your belly on the in breath and your shoulders on the outbreath.

The next step is to utilize the growth and exploration system by:

Focusing on what matters most to you.

Choosing the next, smallest, valuable action you can take.

Committing to take that action or schedule that action immediately.

This practice -- Mindful Self-Control -- is extremely powerful and it supported by a mountain of research. However, since it is a new practice, your habitual survival system will give you lots and lots of reasons not to do it. But this is YOUR life, and as far as we know, it is the only one you get. One of the most useful questions you can ask yourself is: "What am I choosing to practice right now?" And remember to be careful what you practice, because you are going to get better at it.

Have a practice that works for you? I invite you to share your experience in the comment section below so that others will benefit.

Dave Mochel is the founder of Applied Attention; a company dedicated to teaching people how to close the gap between what is most important and how they spend their time and energy. He translates research in neuroscience, behavior, and performance into simple principles and practices that can be incorporated into any activity or organization. The result of his work is reduced stress and anxiety with improved performance, relationships, and quality of life. For more information, visit www.AppliedAttention.com

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