happy relationship

The secret to happy, successful relationships boils down to two things: your attention and your intention. I’ve been talking about the importance of focusing your attention and setting your intention for a while now. What I haven’t done, is explain the difference and how these two concepts work together to bring happiness and success to all your relationships. Your attention activates and your intention transforms and today I’m going to teach you how to do both!

10-minute read

Let’s Talk First About Attention in Your Relationships

Attention is where you place your mental focus. I’m sure you’ve heard someone say, “Where attention goes, energy flows.” And that’s exactly what happens. When you place your awareness on something specific, you’re making it a priority in that moment; you’re saying it’s important.

Reading this right now, you might be realizing how many things you give your attention to that really aren’t that important to you. I mean, it would be so much better to put your attention on getting fit, spending quality time with your partner, and putting in your best effort on that project at work. But, when it comes to these things, we often find that we “don’t have the energy” or we look up after an hour of scrolling through social media and realize we no longer have time or the energy to go to the gym.

This is because your attention is fueled by your willpower and the things that are likely the most important to us, take up more of our willpower – they use more of our emotional bandwidth, unlike looking at blooper videos of your favorite sitcom on YouTube.

In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, author Cal Newport talks about imagining your attention as a currency. Throughout the day you can spend it on things that are expensive and things that are cheap. Here’s what’s interesting: things like reading, writing, any kind of deep work, having important conversations with your partner and other meaningful activities require more of your attention units, but actually cost you less when it comes to building your attention reserves. These activities are “cheap” because they build your ability to hold your attention longer in the future.

Nothing is more important to building successful relationships than how you spend your morning time. Learn how to structure that time best right here:

On the flip side, however, you’ve got shallow work like updating your Facebook status, watching videos on YouTube, or playing games on your phone. These activities require far less of your attention, but they cost you more of it. They lead to something called attention residue and set you up for having a short and inattentive attention span. They’re expensive!

So, whatever requires less of your attention costs more in terms of overall attention benefit, and what requires more of your attention costs you less! 

I want you to examine each day from a cost-benefit analysis. Are you spending the majority of your time on the things that require more attention, but cost you less (playing with your kids, reading a book, finishing that project, focusing on your workout) or are you spending more time on the stuff that doesn’t take much attention but is expensive in the end? (Things like spending time on social media, playing video games and watching three-minute YouTube videos).

I’ve written about how to overcome your time and attention management problems but for now, let me say this: Treat the information you consume like the food you put into your body. How much of it is junk or empty calories?

I also want you to keep in mind that your past doesn’t equal your future. Your past equals your present. It’s everything you’re doing now, today, that equals your future. So, even if you’ve had a long history of placing your attention in unhealthy places, you can change all that today because what you begin to place your attention on will blossom and grow while the opposite is also true – what you stop focusing on will wither and diminish. While you’re paying attention to some things and elevating them, those things you’re not paying attention to anymore will fade and become less important.

A big piece of this is to pay attention to what’s in the present moment, not what’s in the past. You can’t move forward if you’re focused on the past. What’s happened before doesn’t have to have any bearing on what happens today or tomorrow. In fact, as you focus on things from a new perspective, you’ll be changing the outcome.

How Frequency and Recency Matters for Your Attention (and for Building Successful Relationships)

Your brain is all about frequency and recency. Your brain pays a lot of attention to the things you do more often and which were done recently. It thinks these things must be important because you’re doing them over and over and you just did it this morning. This brain chemistry can be used for good or evil.

For evil, if you’ve been spending a lot of time playing games on your phone, and it’s something you do throughout the day, your brain will see this as important because it’s frequent and recent. So, it’ll remind you to play games on your phone (we experience this as an urge or craving). It becomes a vicious cycle.

However, the opposite is also true. For example, let’s say you want to be more mindful. If you just tell yourself, “I’m going to be more mindful today” it doesn’t work because there’s no frequency or recency to this new behavior so your brain gives it no importance and you’ll get to the end of your day and realize that you forgot to be mindful all day.

However, if you’ve read my article on how to make mindfulness a consistent habit, then you know that my favorite hack for this is to set a reminder on your phone for three times a day. When it goes off, notice where your brain was and bring it back to the present. The more you do this, the more the brain sees it as important because you’re doing it frequently (at least three times per day) and you’ve done it recently (just a few hours ago). In just a few days, you’ll notice that even when the reminder doesn’t alert you, you’ll find yourself noticing your thoughts and being mindful of yourself and your feelings. You’ve trained your brain for good!

What you place your attention on elevates that thing and what you take your attention away from diminishes. It’s that simple (although I didn’t say it was easy, if you notice that you’re having trouble quieting your racing thoughts, you can check out my article on how to silence your inner critic).

Wherever your attention is, you’re giving power (unconsciously or consciously) to that thing. It’s time to pay attention to your attention.

Our attention is the most valuable gift we can give to our partner (or anyone).

Where you put your attention, your energies will direct you. You know what all race car drivers have in common? They never look at the wall because they know that wherever you’re looking, that’s where the car is going to go.

This is how you have to treat your attention in your relationships. You need to look at where you want to be, not where you don’t want to be. Focusing on your partner’s short temper, forgetfulness, or the dirty underwear he leaves on the floor, is like focusing on the wall. Focusing on how unfair your mother is, is like focusing on the wall. Replaying revenge fantasies about a coworker is like focusing on the wall. Nothing good will come of it and you certainly won’t win the race.

Take a minute and think about where your focus is before you’re in a love relationship. You’re focusing on getting into one. You have dreams maybe of marriage and kids or of just growing old with someone you love. Maybe you spend time setting up online dating profiles, speaking to your friends or your sister about it, your coworkers, etc. Maybe you start eating well and exercising. No matter what you’re doing, it’s A LOT of attention isn’t it? When you’re dreaming about being in a relationship, you’re not focused on the negative. You’re not imagining future fights you might have. No, you’re imagining the romance, the sex, the laughter – all the good stuff.

Now, fast forward to a romantic relationship you’ve been in or are in now. Is it the same? Are you consistently focusing on the good stuff or the bad stuff?

We know from the research that you’ve got to be a little delusional to have a happy, satisfying long-term relationship. You’ve got to consistently turn your attention to all the wonderful aspects of your partner and turn away from your complaints and judgments.

The same is true at a job. Think about any time you’ve been unemployed. You’re completely focused on getting a job and go into all interviews showing your best self and ready to say “yes” to just about anything. You get the job and you’re grateful, hopeful and excited. Then fast forward six months or a year. Are you still appreciative about your position, or are you focusing on some coworker you hate or how unfair it is that Jill got promoted ahead of you?

Your attention is one of your two most powerful assets. Now let’s get the second one: your intention.

Another big influencer of your attention (and another secret to successful relationships) is your Reticular Activating System (RAS). Learn all about it right here!

Setting Intention is Another Key to Successful Relationships

You can’t have amazing, successful relationships without knowing where you’re going; setting intention is like setting a goal, each day, all day, for each of your relationships. Saying, “I want to be happy” isn’t enough; You need to get SPECIFIC. You know how they say be careful what you wish for because you might get it? Well, that is one true statement and that’s what’s happening every day in your relationships. You need to be very clear about what you want.

When you change your intention, your actions change.

A difficult piece for most people to understand is that you need to focus on what you want, not what you don’t want when setting intention.

Keep This in Mind When Setting Intention for Successful Relationships

1. Stop complaining about your partner and about your relationships (or just in general).

I’ve already talked about why we complain and how to stop it, but I want to give you a little reminder here. Complaining, like any other activity, activates the neurons in the brain and trains them to remember the pattern. Every time you complain, you’re teaching your brain to fire the same mental pattern which creates neural pathways just for complaining about Ted at work or how ungrateful your spouse is. Every time you do something or have a thought repeatedly, you’re wiring your brain. You don’t have a choice about this. What you do have a choice about it what you wire it for.

2. Stop telling the same story about your relationship.

As you repeat that same story over and over, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because your brain has a confirmation bias which means you’ll look for evidence to prove yourself right.

3. When you say things like, “He never does X” and “She does Y all the time” you’re training your brain to look for those things.

Our brains can’t think in the negative. What we focus on, we get. If you focus on “I don’t want debt” all your brain hears is “I want debt.”  When you say, “I wish my mother would stop nagging me” your brain hears, “I wish my mother was nagging me.” I’ll say it again, your brain does not think in negative terms, it just thinks with the messages you give it.

Instead of thinking and focusing on what you don’t want, think and focus on what you do want. Not only will you get to where you want to be, but you’ll also feel better. This, in turn, will have you acting differently, which will bring you much more of what you want.

Setting intention is easy. I call it the 18-Second Shift because it, literally, only take 18 seconds. Learn how to do it, right here:

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