What We Pay Attention To Becomes Our Purpose

What We Pay Attention To Becomes Our Purpose

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6.4 The Danger of Being Vague

Today, there is literally an infinite amount of distractions that can seize our attention. Thanks to the internet you could spend a lifetime watching online videos and not scratch the surface of everything that’s there. As at 2019, 500 hours of video were uploaded to YouTube every minute1. Thanks to emails and instant messaging we’re expected to keep in touch with hundreds, if not thousands of people. And thanks to cheap air travel, we have the ability to travel to any corner of the World.

Our Purpose Doughnut is hollow in the centre, vulnerable to being filled by distractions if we aren’t clear on our purpose. “Nothing” will always get filled by “Something”.

In the absence of purpose, there is a greater chance our brain opts for the activities that give us dopamine, endorphins and other short-term pleasures over activities that are better for us over the long run.

If we do our grocery shop without a shopping list, there is an increased chance we fill our trolley with things we think we want, and discover that we’ve forgotten the things we need when we get home. But inflexibility and being single-minded about our purpose has its downsides too, we could miss out on special and produce in season. So what is the right balance?

I use the mantra borrowed from entrepreneurship: “Strong convictions, loosely held”2. We follow this principle when we go to the shops ‒ we take a shopping list with us, but remain flexible about buying seasonal produce that looks good. We ought to apply this to our lives as well, to have strong convictions about our purpose, but remain open to opportunities.

As for vague purpose statements like: “to inspire everyone to greatness”, “to be kind”, “to live a meaningful life” or “my family comes first” ‒ do these protect us from the infinite distractions?

Our purpose is meant to inspire us, get us out of bed, energise us, peak our curiosity, help us prioritise, block out distractions, embolden us with courage, help us avoid depression, give us the fuel to keep going when things are tough, drive us a little crazy, give us a sense of satisfaction when we make progress, fill us with a sense of pride and give our lives a sense of meaning.

As I see it, the problem with vague purpose statements is that they might not serve the original purpose of having a purpose.

6.5 Purpose, Not Purpose

To recap, seven kinds of pursuits are good for us over the long run: Doing Good, Mastering, Giving, Caring for Self, Investing, Creating and Bonding.

Whilst seven is easy to comprehend, in practice we need something simpler to help us stay on the path.

Let me demonstrate: how many of us can name each of the five levels on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? I can name only two3. What about Porter’s Five Forces, can you name them all? I can only remember three4.

If we can’t remember five, what chance do we have of remembering seven? I made the assertion earlier that if we are vague about our purpose, then we risk letting distractions occupy our attention. This is too important to get wrong.

On a day-to-day basis, I adopt a much simpler model. I think of everything as being Purpose or Not Purpose.

It isn’t possible to be purposeful all the time. We all have to do things we don’t like such as emails, commuting, getting the broken dishwasher fixed etc.. The aim is to minimise these where possible. Once in a while, I will list everything that is demanding my attention (work, social and personal), and try to halve them by delegating, automating or eliminating.

Sometimes we grant favours, take on jobs or accept social invitations on a whim, only to realise later that it is distracting us from what we really want to do. I don’t always have an excuse for these obligations, and I just want to lie on a couch and stare at the ceiling’ somehow isn’t an appropriate response.

The benefit of the “Purpose, Not Purpose” model is that it gives us the best chance of making the right decision ahead of time, so that we can invest our time in the things that we want to do (even if it is lying on the couch, staring at the ceiling).

6.6 The Distorted Doughnut

My Mother was always conscientious about nurturing our independence. You could say that it was her purpose in life. From a young age she involved me in the kitchen, and persisted even if I showed no promise and plenty of mischief. Nonya cuisine can be very labour intensive, so we were often roped in to help whisk, knead, fold, and pinch.


Making doughnuts is one of my fondest memories. Hers were different to the ones you get in the shops: they were more substantial, less oily, and crunchy on the outside.


The doughnuts I produced were never perfectly formed like Mum’s. They were misshapen, bloated in parts, and too thin in other areas.


There were times in my life when it felt like my Purpose Doughnut became distorted like the misshapen ones I made when I was little. For example in my late twenties, I worked far more hours than I needed to.

Work crowded out everything else including family, health and social. I gained a lot of weight, saw very little of my family, lost touch with close friends, and read narrowly.

I don’t blame my superiors, as the decision to work was my own to make. The job was demanding, but looking back now, had I worked an hour less each day to go for a run, I doubt my bosses would have noticed. The problem was that I was too eager to please, lacked upwards management skills and didn’t have a clear sense of purpose.

This is the benefit of the Purpose Doughnut. It enables you to maintain perspective, to give you the courage to say “no”, and to be true to yourself.

Make no mistake, misshapen doughnuts don’t make very good eating. The bloated bits are under cooked in the centre, and the skinny bits are like breadsticks soaked in fat.

Being the self-sacrificing mother that she was, Mum always let me eat the perfectly shaped ones.

Thank you

Thanks to Jane Weir and Dr Jocelyn Rikard-Bell for guiding my thinking on this topic. And thanks to Penelope Terry and Jermir Punthakey for reviewing early drafts.

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© James Lau  July 21, 2020

  1. https://www.statista.com/statistics/259477/hours-of-video-uploaded-to-youtube-every-minute/
  2. Phrase coined by entrepreneur and venture capitalist, Mark Andreeson. I believe it borrows from the field of forecasting in supply chain management: Paul Saffo’s, “Strong opinions, weakly held”. https://www.saffo.com/02008/07/26/strong-opinions-weakly-held/
  3. They are in order from bottom to top: Physiological Needs, Safety Needs, Love and Belonging, Esteem and Self-Actualisation.
  4. Supplier Power, Buyer Power, Competitive Rivalry, Threat of Substitution and Threat of New Entrants.

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