The Power of Attention: What you focus on, you get more of

(This post is the beginning of a series on The Seven Powers for Self-Control, from the book Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, by Becky A. Bailey, PhD.)

Three weeks ago, our dog Lucy underwent her second of two rear knee surgeries. After completing the first one, the surgeon sent home a detailed list of rehabilitation activities and advice. One of the key concerns has been that as the dog begins to feel better, she’s not aware that her body is still healing and she needs to go slowly.

In the walking regimen which begins in about the third week, we are instructed to take her for SLOW leash walks. And also to leash her when we take her outside for a potty break.

Now think about this for a moment.

For those of us who are inclined to speak to our dogs, how does one communicate the need to move slowly? Particularly if one mistakenly forgets and allows the dog to go out into the yard on their own?

In the beginning, after the first surgery, I caught myself yelling: DON’T RUN!

Which is funny when you think about it. The dog has no idea what I’m saying. I’ve never taught her that command. It’s just me focusing on what I DON’T want, and verbalizing that.

I realized that I was coming from a place of fear. I was afraid of her getting hurt, and that became my focus.

And what do we know about focus?

What you focus on, you get more of.

It all begins with Self-Control

In her book Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, Becky Bailey explains that in order to get the behavior we desire from our children, we must first look inward and evaluate our own level of self-control.

We model for our children every single day. We are modeling when we feel good, and we are modeling when we feel other-than-good.

It’s pretty easy to be kind and thoughtful when you’re in a calm or happy mental state, isn’t it? Not so much self-control is needed in those moments.

It’s the other moments where our example becomes powerful.

In the book, Bailey shares her Seven Powers for Self-Control. These powers shift your focus from blame to solutions, from guilt to action, from punishment to teaching, and from reasoning to results.

The first power is the Power of Attention.

What you focus on, you get more of

In the real estate coaching program called BOLD, there are a number of “laws” that participants discuss at various points. One of my favorites over the years has been “what you focus on expands.”

So naturally, I was delighted to see a version of this in Bailey’s book. Both wordings describe the same principle:

Whatever you focus on will become amplified and you will get more of it.

So what does this mean?

Most people know more about what they DON’T want than about what they DO want.

Ask a Minnesotan where they want to be in five years and there’s a fair chance they’ll respond with something like:

“Well I can tell you that I DON’T want to still be in this freezing-cold state by then!”

This answer doesn’t not tell me where they want to be in five years. However it’s likely to indicate where they WILL be in five years… still here in this freezing state. Because that’s what they are focused on.

Can you think of a time when you corrected a child for a misbehavior?

Did you tell them to STOP doing a thing, or did you educate them on a different method for getting what they want?

As I reflect on how I’ve corrected my child over the years, I cannot think of a single time (before reading Bailey’s book) where I offered him a method for meeting his needs. On the contrary, it was all STOP and DON’T. I was focused on what I DIDN’T want.

And guess what I got more of, as a result of that communication?

The Power of Attention allows us to teach and grow skills

When my child misbehaves, I have choices.

I can focus on the negative (what I don’t want- this behavior) or I can focus on what I DO want, which is loving communication and a solution to the challenge which resulted in the behavior.

Scolding, chiding, threatening, bargaining or giving in are all behaviors that I might choose from in that moment. And each one of those will teach my child something about 1) who he is to me, and 2) how to get what he wants from others.

These moments therefore become incredible opportunities to help our children learn and grow.

When you are upset, you are always focused on what you don’t want

Bailey explains that even for those of us who believe we are focused on the positive (what we DO want) a simple test will tell us how often that is actually true:

The test is to keep track of the times you get upset. And think about what is happening in that moment.

Bailey argues that when you are upset, you are always focused on what you don’t want.

So what do we do?

Our dog Lucy is really feeling better these days. This morning she saw a rabbit on our walk. We must be very careful over the next few weeks to ensure that she doesn’t re-injure herself.

So we say to her:


And we praise her when she moves slowly.

We’re teaching her a new command, which signifies what we DO want from her. And using positive reinforcement which will help her to learn.

(It’s a heck of a lot more effective than DON’T RUN!)

What we focus on, we get more of. Our task is to become aware of our language, both internally and externally, and pay attention to where our focus is.

We must begin with ourselves.

And then practice. We can practice with ourselves, with the other adults in our lives, with our pets.

And we especially must practice this with the children in our lives.

They deserve that from us.

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