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 “law 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 “Law 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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