Pay Attention to What You Pay Attention To

by Patrick McNerthney

I try to complete several projects each week, some that I don’t think are very important, and others I feel the world cannot live without. I realize that’s an odd statement, so bear with me here. 

These projects involve following up on promises I made (including promises to myself) that I, at my convenience, choose to ignore. Let’s dive into this, it only gets weirder but it will make sense in the end I…promise. (Yes, I just did that.

Case 1: Manual Labor

For example, I’m slowly chipping away at fixing the fence for my neighbor Craig, expanding our patio for my wife(it was partially destroyed by our tree removal drama, long story), and fixing the car window, technically for my son, even though he’s a long way from driving (another long story). All of these are promises I made to others.

(Expanding our patio involves pavers, which are those little square things that weigh approximately 9000 pounds each.)

Doing this work is hard and sweaty and smacks of effort, thus making these tasks fairly easy to blow off, make excuses for, and generally deem unimportant. Mostly so I can watch sports and take naps. 

Case 2: Emotional Labor

There are several other projects I work on each week that I think are very important, to the point that I address them Monday through Friday, in 30-minute increments each. All of them involve writing in one way or another, and all of them reflect promises I made to myself. 

Yet each day I look at this important “to-do” list and think, “I don’t want to do any of these things,” so I procrastinate or (worse) simply don’t do them at all. Which is counterintuitive and just plain weird: Why don’t I want to do something I think is important? (Plus I LOVE writing.) Why won’t I keep a promise made to myself?  

What the Heck Is Going On

I realize in each in of these cases I tell myself a story about the work in front of me, and that story 100% comes from what I’m paying attention to. 

(What do you pay attention to in this image? Is there something else you could pay attention to?)

In the first case, I’m paying attention to my feelings of annoyance and frustration over having to devote time to fixing things that go wrong or break. (Secret: In life, things always go wrong or break!) So I tell myself a story of unfairness and things being “not my fault,” and subsequently decide the work isn’t important, which is a perfect way to avoid it.   

In the second case I’m paying attention to doubt and fear. So I tell myself a story that goes something like this: “You’re just wasting time, this won’t go anywhere, ever be seen, or even matter. And by the way, there are no tangible, measurable results to all this, like money, or seeing an effect.” So even though I think writing is important, I talk myself out of it and subsequently, avoid it.   

The Takeaway

It turns out that whether or not we think the work we do is important has no relation to loving the task, being good at it, earning a reward, or otherwise being compelled – even by a promise. Rather, our work is  simply motivated by what we pay attention to – because that creates the story in our heads, which in turn defines our actions:

  • Manual Labor: If I pay attention to the fact that it’s summer and beautiful out and I like being outside, and that I also feel satisfied when I’ve fixed something, I tell myself a story that goes: “Have fun with this, and when you’re done, go ahead and have a beer to celebrate a job well done.”

And I simply begin. 

  • Emotional Labor: If I pay attention to the fact that my mind constantly, joyously gravitates to the weird and ridiculous things that happen in life, and I feel fulfilled describing them on paper, then I tell myself a story like this:, “Hey, entertain yourself for an hour okay? It’s way better than watching TV. And, it makes you happy.”  

And I simply begin. 

So let’s bring this home: How do we improve our lives and the lives of those around us? How do we keep from feeling overwhelmed? How do we change anything? We start by paying attention to what we’re paying attention to – if it’s not helpful, we consider the alternative – 

And simply begin.

Fine Art Miracles invites you to consider what you pay attention to each day you care for your beloved elderly, children with challenges, or anyone who simply can’t care for himself one hundred percent of the time. If you need some inspiration, some hope, or some evidence that your work matters, please reach out and learn about creative expression and the impact it has on underserved populations struggling with constraints that limit their capacity for self-care.

Art Therapy, Dance & Movement Therapy, ART2GO packages, and Music Therapy are programs that create connection for your residents and loved ones – connection to their past, relevance in the world, community, confidence, self-worth, and sense of mastery. Connection that breaks the constraints they live with every day, even if just for a moment. 

And that matters.

Well, this little project took longer than I expected and guess what? Craig fixed that fence before I could get to it. Neat! So I bought him a beer and started the sweat and grunt-inducing rearrangement of the pavers for our patio. Maybe, when I’m done, if I ask real nice, they’ll let me come over and have a cold one. 

New project: I promise myself to enjoy it! 


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