How To Control Your Attention When You’re Feeling Anxious

control your attention
5 min read

As I’m writing this in June 2020, we’re going through the rockiest months in decades. We have a health crisis, an economic crisis, and a social crisis on our hands. Most of us are dealing with challenges to stay focused on our tasks. Our attention is all over the place.

One of my readers replied this on one of my member-only emails, a monthly 1000-word email that I send out to my clients and students:

“I just caught myself scrolling up and down your email: I know its important, but at the same time I already am thinking about my next task and cannot even focus on finish reading the email. I think I am going through some kind of entrepreneurial anxiety, so much information, difficult to filter, and therefore lacking focus.”

I can relate to that challenge a lot. The reader hit the nail right on the head. We’re dealing with information overload, and as a result, we get anxious.1This study by David Bawden and Lyn Robinson from City, University of London, explores the relationship between information overload and anxiety. The study was published in 2009. Today, the dynamics are even worse.

We want to know what’s going on in the world and our communities. We want to stay informed and do something, but is it worth the anxiety?

If you want to get over that type of anxiety, learn to control your attention. Here are four tips to help with that. 

1. Consume Better Information

One of my favorite personal development books is The Power Of Compounding by Darren Hardy. In that book (which I highly recommend reading during these volatile times), Darren mentions how the concept of “Garbage In, Garbage Out” negatively impacts our outlook on life. 

If you consume fear-inducing content from mainstream news outlets, your output will be the same. 

I like to look at it this way: Fear in, fear out. 

If you allow fear in your mind, you can’t expect that it won’t affect you. Force the most self-confident person in the world to watch cable news for a week, and they’ll turn into a shell of themselves. No one is immune to the impact of fear-mongering. 

So be mindful of the information you allow in your mind. Instead of relying on your social media feeds or the tv, be willing to seek out multiple sources. And also try to get it from individuals, not organizations. There are many writers and journalists who don’t answer to companies or ideologies. 

2. Focus On Actions, Not Words

Don’t be concerned with appearances. You don’t have to prove all the time that you’re against social injustice or that you feel bad for people who are affected by Covid-19. It seems like people worry more about what they say about something than what they do about something. 

Give your attention to things that actually make an impact on the world. I like how Nike has been handling social issues for the past few years. They showed support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the past by openly supporting Colin Kaepernick in 2018. They took a lot of heat for that, but they still proceeded.

I also like how Alex Ohanian from Reddit gave up his spot on the board to promote diversity. Those are real actions. When you do the right thing, you don’t have to be anxious and think about all the things you should do.

3. Be Nice

One of my priorities is to be nicer to people in real life. This is something I’m working on for a while. For example, I have the tendency to get pissed off when something I pay for doesn’t work properly. The other day, the hosting company I use took down my site because they suspected malware on my site. And when I tried to get in touch with the company, it wasn’t that easy.

I first started a chat on their site, and the support person couldn’t help. He told me to reach out by email. I had done that already and didn’t hear anything back. That pissed me off. But I decided not to let my emotions take over.

I called their technical support, and I chose to be nice from the start. In the past, I would call them in an annoyed manner because the person on the chat couldn’t help.

Turned out the support guy, Michiel (Dutch name), was awesome. He was working from home, and I could hear his baby. “He’s sitting on my lap while I’m working. I love it,” is what he said. He eventually fixed the problem (my site was fine, it was something else). 

I’ve learned that being nice is the best option because it requires less energy. When you get pissed off, your attention goes to negative emotions. And that causes anxiety.2This article from Psychology Today explores the relationship between anger and anxiety more in-depth. They also share the research that backs this up. Avoid that by being nice. 

4. Avoid “Small” Missteps

I caught up with my good friend Quincy last weekend after three months because of social distancing. When I asked him how he was, he said: “Man, I had some KFC two days ago and my gut still feels off.” Yes, I know what you’re thinking. He did spend more time than usual on the toilet. 

It sucks. And since we’re not robots, we all know how it feels to get off the path. We all have moments of weakness. For some people it’s going wild on a party pack of potato chips, the other person loves to watch back to back seasons of a tv show the whole weekend, and the other person just feels like giving up and doesn’t get out of the house.

It’s okay to have a cheat meal or take a break. I’m not talking about resting or enjoying life. I’m talking about thinking that “one piece of chocolate won’t hurt.” Well, it does hurt if you do it every day.

When you make one misstep, it’s easy to make another one. And before you know it, you lose all your momentum. Now, you’re back at square one.

Why does this matter to your attention? Because it takes a huge amount of energy to get started again. And that means you always have to focus on getting started, and not making consistent progress. 

Your Attention is Everything

“But I can’t control what my mind does!” False. You do have the power to control your thoughts because you can ignore all the crap. That’s the trick. Ignore the useless thoughts. It’s a matter of practice.

I’ve been practicing for years now. I used to be all over the place with my mind. I couldn’t focus on a single task for more than five minutes. But I realized how important this topic is. Managing your attention is about deciding what you will focus on in life. Because that’s what this is. You’re controlling your mind when you’re controlling your attention. As a result, you’re controlling your entire life!

But it all starts with managing your mind’s input. So see yourself as the gatekeeper of the most valuable resource on earth: Your mind. When you nurture it, eventually, it will do anything you want. 

If you want peace, it will give you peace. If you want action, it gives you action. 

You get the deal. You’re in control of the most important tool in life.