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The Law of Repulsion

Posted on 20 August 2020

The more you focus on what you don€™t want, the more of it you€™ll keep finding to get rid of.

What you give most attention to nearly always assumes a larger role in your life. This isn€™t some nutty €œlaw of attraction€ nonsense; it€™s a simple observation of the way that the human mind works. People who become obsessed with the amount of dog-poop thoughtless owners leave behind on the street see it everywhere. It drives them mad. The rest of us simply step in it, curse, and forget about it. Still, you can sometimes learn even from what you step in.

I€™ve had it up to here with the €œLaw of Attraction€—about as goofy an idea as ever spawned a thousand web sites and helped lead gullible people astray.

Nevertheless, there is a kernel of truth hiding within the hype. The more you focus on something, the more you€™ll keep thinking about it and the bigger the part it€™s therefore probably going to play in your life—at least in the short term.

It€™s commonsense. The toughest element in breaking yourself of a habit is usually how very aware you become of what it is that you€™re trying to give up.

If you€™re always thinking about food (a common problem with people on diets), you€™ll constantly notice tempting goodies and be instantly aware how much you want to eat them. Until you decided not to watch TV so much, you were barely aware of the screen in your living room. Now it€™s a constant presence tempting you to switch on.

Getting more of what you don€™t want

In the workplace, as elsewhere in life, most people find it much easier to define what they don€™t want than what they do.

They don€™t want a boring job. They don€™t want a nit-picking or domineering boss. They don€™t want to work with people that they don€™t like. They don€™t ever want to work with Adam from Accounts again.

Managers are especially prone to this outlook. They sometimes spend so much of their time and attention trying to root out what they don€™t want that very little time or energy is left for working on what they do.

Of course, conventional management teaching and writing encourages this. It urges people to look for gaps in people€™s skills and concentrate on filling them. To look for all the ways their operations are falling short; to become paranoid about variances from the plan and any mismatch between expectations for profits (in reality, these are mostly little more than over-enthusiastic dreams) and the reality. Only last week, Dell admitted that some executives had falsified accounts to match profit expectations; another case of leaders focusing on what they hadn€™t achieved, not what they had, with embarrassing consequences.

Nature abhors a vacuum

If you focus mostly on negatives, you€™ll find more and more of them. If you only know what you don€™t want, not what you do, you€™ll create spaces with nothing to go in them.

Sometimes you do have to clear what you don€™t want out of the way to make room for something better. But if all you do is get rid of what€™s unwanted, with little or no clear idea of what should go in its place, you€™ll produce an empty space: a vacuum waiting to be filled.

The vacuum that you produce will be filled—often rapidly—by something you may want even less than whatever it was you had before.

People who give up smoking often gain weight. The gap left by stopping the rituals of getting and lighting a cigarette are filled by getting something to eat instead. Supervisors told to give up their habit of taking charge of everything themselves (managing by issuing orders) find they have unexpected free time, which many fill by micro-managing instead (disguising it as coaching) or holding pointless meetings.

It€™s quite likely that not knowing clearly what you do want, then focusing on eliminating things you don€™t, will leave you worse off than if you had left well alone. Look at the businesses who have focused entirely on eliminating costs by outsourcing operations overseas—then discovered a slew of quality problems. They knew what they didn€™t want—high labor costs—but failed to define what mattered instead, so they got their wish . . . plus an unpleasant surprise.

Getting the sequence right

If you begin by being clear about what you want, you€™ll find things tend to happen roughly in this sequence:

  • Getting what you want often replaces things you would otherwise have had to remove. There€™s no gap. The new (and better) simply takes over from whatever was there before.
  • You€™ll quickly become aware of exactly what needs to be removed and when. Since you know what must go in its place, once again there will be no gap to be filled by the unexpected.
  • Quite a number of things that you thought you would need to give time and energy to removing turn out to be trivial or irrelevant. They wither away on their own or can be ignored, with a great saving of your effort.

People who want a slower, more civilized kind of working life need to concentrate on what will produce that, not what doesn€™t fit their vision. Instead of focusing on cutting time at the office (which will just make you uncomfortably aware of what you are leaving undone), think about the positive ways you are going to spend the time instead.

Spending the commute home in pleasant anticipation beats spending it worrying about what you left behind—only some of which will be still there to deal with tomorrow. A surprising amount will somehow have evaporated overnight, or been reduced to trivia you can safely and happily ignore, if you stop obsessing about it.

Slowing down isn€™t just giving up on rushing. It€™s moving to a different, more pleasant, and more effective lifestyle. Focus on that and even the urge to rush will dissipate.

In the end, the power of the habits that we most want to break lies in the amount of attention we lavish on them while doing so. Give that up—focus instead on what you will put in their place—and you will weaken them so much that they€™ll stop bothering you.

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This post was written by:

Carmine Coyote - who has written 293 posts on Slow Leadership.

Carmine Coyote is the founder and editor of Slow Leadership, with a career that stretches from early employment as an economist, through periods in government service, academia and several multinational companies, to retiring as CEO of a US consulting company and partner in a large business services firm. Carmine now lives in Arizona, but is British for all that.

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11 Comments For This Post

  1. Sherry says:

    I agree with your sentiments on the “Law of Positive Attraction”, but as you say there is something to it. Brains are limited in what they can handle in a conscious state. As a consequence, adults go through life seeing, hearing and experiencing countless things to which limited or no attention is paid. There are significant events, for example an explosion, that impinge regardless of attention. Less significant events register and are stored in short-term memory only with conscious attention. Attention appears to work by biasing the brain toward the stimuli and by reducing inputs from competing regions. Further, studies indicate that attention must be complemented by a mental state predisposed to accepting or rejecting the information. Conscious attention serves to open the brain to inputs allowing new or stronger neuronal networks to form. Bottom line, if we’re looking for good, we’re more likely to spot it. If we’re looking for problems, we’re more likely to find them and reinforce our perspectives. Our ability to use our conscious minds to change our brains is phenomenal. For more on this, I invite you to visit my blog at

  2. Carmine Coyote says:

    Nice comment, Sherry.

    There is a great deal to be learned about how people can use their attention in positive ways. They just need to stay right away from the quasi-magical nonsense of “The law of Attraction.”

    Keep reading, my friend.

  3. Michelle Kunz says:

    There is a wonderful book by Kurt Wright, “Breaking the Rules,” which introduces an entirely new paradigm beginning with asking the question: What’s Right? Shifting perspective in this way refocuses attention from everything we don’t want to the things which are serving us well.

    Once we’ve identified what is right, and Mr. Wright suggests getting to the heart of that question instead of accepting the most superficial first level answers, we can then ask WHY that is right, or what makes it right. Using that information, we can begin to turn our attention to what is not right with a different agenda, that is, how to make it more right by using the strengths present in what is already right.

    Of course, some of what is not right is beyond our control, and that is about letting go. You’ve already addressed that well in previous editions.

    Thanks for more great fodder,
    Michelle Kunz
    PEL Coaching

  4. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks for a great comment and book recommendation, Michelle.

    I am attracted to the Buddhist teaching that says life provides both pleasure and pain naturally, but we create our own suffering by trying to cling to the pleasure and avoid the pain.

    Since most people fear pain more than they want pleasure, they give nearly all their attention to trying to avoid it — thus making it loom much larger in their lives that it would if they simply accepted the temporary pain and moved on. Trying to cling to passing pleasures (instead of looking out for new ones) also causes people grief, because they focus on the loss of the pleasure, not the pleasure itself.

    That’s my point in this article: too much focus all the time on loss and what isn’t working, instead of what is, and how — as you rightly suggest — it can be made to work better.

    Keep reading, my friend.

  5. Joshua Myrvaagnes says:

    I found this looking for blogs about Kurt Wright, it’s interesting what he argues that is different from the Law of Attraction as it’s usually presented, by pointing out that you have already attracted good things in your life. The usual presentation of this has a very losing feel to it, since it implies to some degree on some level, “Your life sucks and it’s all your fault, but watch our video and take our workshop and we’ll fix it for you.” The fact is, my life doesn’t suck, but there’s overwhelming cultural pressure to find things wrong.

    I think it’s this “you suck we don’t” piece that produces most of the turn-off feeling, rather than the mysticism element. Does that resonate for you?

    Thanks for commenting on this point, an interesting discussion.



  6. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks for your comment, Joshua.

    I agree that our culture is heavily biased towards finding something wrong. After all, if there’s nothing ‘wrong’, you can’t sell the other person something to put it right. But the mysticism puts me off totally. If people want to believe in magic, that’s fine, but I neither believe in it nor feel that belief of that kind is a useful element in improving the human condition. I think people who buy into this are being sold snake oil by some very smart operators.

    Keep reading, my friend.

  7. Your Vision Statement says:

    I think this is a very important thing. This blog post is very interesting and very well done. Thank you very much, I appreciate it!


  8. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Your Vision Statement: Thanks Jim. I’m glad you like it. Keep reading, my friend.

  9. Joshua Myrvaagnes says:

    Found this in another search, and wanted to respond to Coyote. Yes, people are being sold snake oil (which interestingly, I actually just looked it up, it’s a real medicine used in China for treating arthritis, not a panacea, it is high in EPA’s) and the it seems unfortunate that too many of the things people are encouraged to attract by these people are big mansions and otherwise gross phenomena. But we do attract people, certainly there are obvious mechanisms in place—body language communicates 4 x what words do, so we get attracted to someone across the room and what have you.

    So, to explore this, what would you say you’ve attracted into your life/business? What are the kinds of people who stick and what are the kind that don’t stick? For me, the artists and the hippies and earthy save-the-world people stick, and then just about everybody else it’s rather hopeless. If my goal is to help the people who stick, it helps me to be very clear about as many of their properties as possible.

    By the way, I love the title “slow leadership” and I think that has a kind of clarity about purpose that is useful. And I guess my sense is that the idea of attracting (vs. self-promotion) is a very compatible one with the idea of slowness in leadership. It’s like putting time into listening as well as into talking.

  10. Joshua Myrvaagnes says:

    Thanks for the response, and I will go check out what your site is about now.


  11. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Joshua Myrvaagnes: Thanks, Joshua. Glad you liked the article. Keep reading now you’ve found us, my friend.

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