Pay attention: this may be the biggest lesson I have ever learned

Yesterday I formally graduated from Sydney University with an M.Sc. in coaching psychology.

I have to thank my wife Laura and my children, Amelia and Luisa for allowing me the time to study and helping me to get through the course. Their sacrifice was huge.

I’ve also been reflecting on what I’ve learned and trying to think whether there is one single, big important lesson or theme that I can distil from hundreds of hours of study, thousands of words of assignments and mountains and mountains of reading.

Of course, I have learned many lessons but one that comes immediately to mind, something that I’d like to pass on to my children perhaps, is this:

The quality of your life, the quality of your relationships and the quality of your performance, is largely determined by where you place your attention.

Attention seems to be a critical component of so many aspects of psychological well-being and adaptive functioning. Therefore, if we can be intentional with our attention, we can go a long way towards optimising the way that we live our lives.

Here are some examples.

Coping with difficulties

If you place your attention on solving a problem you are struggling with, rather than on the way you feel about the problem, in most cases, you will have more chance of coping better with your struggle.


Similarly, when pursuing your goals, you’ll have more success if you pay attention to the processes involved in achieving your goals, adjusting your approach in accordance with the feedback you receive, than if you focus solely on reaching a specific end result.


Placing your attention on the present moment, rather than ruminating on past difficulties or speculating about future unknowns, will help you resist anxiety and stress and enable you make to better choices and more informed decisions.


You can regulate the extent to which your emotions are hijacked by negative self-talk and limiting beliefs by paying attention to the way that you are thinking (your meta-cognitions), instead of attending to the thoughts themselves. By developing this attentional capacity, you can access your thoughts and beliefs about situations as they arise and evaluate their true worth, discarding those that are unhelpful before they trigger a negative emotional response..


You will fare far better in your dealings with others if you pay attention to what those others are saying, by truly listening to them and hearing what is important to them, than you will if you focus mainly on your own point of view.

Perspective taking capacity

Finally, if you can develop the ability to expand the scope of your attention, learning to take in multiple perspectives and work with the complexity and ambiguity that you will find when you attend to the bigger picture, you will be wiser than most and will have reached a level of personal development that does true justice to the human mind and spirit.

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