Provision #287: Play Attention

Laser Provision

No, I didn’t make a mistake in the title of this week’s Provision. To create the conditions for health, I don’t want you just to pay attention. That can be a bit too short-lived and intense. I want you to play attention, experiment, try different things, and learn to love the strategies that work for you.

LifeTrek Provision

As he approached the age of 30, after achieving considerable success as a printer in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin embarked upon an ambitious self-improvement project: he set out to live “without committing any Fault at any time.” In order to achieve such “moral perfection,” Franklin sought always and everywhere to practice thirteen moral virtues: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.

Franklin initially hoped that the mere identification of these virtues would be enough to make them come true. Oh, that life would be so simple! “I soon found I had undertaken a task,” observes Franklin, “of more difficulty than I had imagined.” The problem had to do with natural inclinations, habits, and people that would invariably lead him off course. As a result, Franklin devised an even more rigorous method to accomplish his goal.

Franklin decided to keep a written, daily scorecard of his infractions against the thirteen virtues. Each week, he picked one virtue to exemplify perfectly. His goal was to have no infractions for that one virtue and to keep track of his occasional infractions against the other twelve. After thirteen weeks, he planned to start the process over again, in cyclical fashion, until no impulse, habit, or person was drawing him astray from any of the thirteen virtues.

Once again, however, Franklin discovered that even this more rigorous method was not enough to achieve moral perfection. For one thing, he had technology problems with his log. The paper kept wearing out! For another, he gradually grew tired of the process. Eventually Franklin stopped keeping the scorecard altogether. And then there was the problem, as Franklin put it, of discovering that, “I was so much fuller of faults than I had imagined.” That’s always a sobering and often a depressing recognition.

Nevertheless, Franklin was pleased to have engaged in the experiment because he believed it made him a better person, more true to the thirteen virtues than he would have been otherwise. The virtue of order, “Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time,” apparently gave Franklin the most trouble. He never did learn to manage his time and papers to his satisfaction. But the virtue of chastity, which Franklin never discusses in any detail, is well known as another one of Franklin’s weak spots.

This attempt to achieve moral perfection is instructive not so much as a practice to be emulated but as a process to be considered. The real magic of Franklin’s scorecard was not the marks on the page but the shifts in the awareness of the marker. The scorecard forced Franklin to pay attention to things he had otherwise ignored or taken for granted. Instead of just allowing his natural inclinations, habits, and associations to run their course • which had certainly served him well up until that time • Franklin used the scorecard to expand and focus his awareness in the service of his own ambition.

These shifts in awareness positioned Franklin not only as a participant but also as an observer, not only as a player but also as a coach, in his own life. This ability, to both act and observe our acting, is a uniquely human and hopeful quality. It forms the basis for all real change. But, as Franklin discovered, it can also be a very frustrating quality when we observe ourselves repeatedly making the same mistakes. It can lead to self-criticism as easily as it can to self-development.

That’s what makes attention a lot like responsibility. Too much can generate as many problems as too little. Right now, the Washington Wizards, a professional basketball team that includes Michael Jordan playing in his final comeback season, have lost seven of their last ten games. What’s the problem? Some of the players feel the coach is paying too much attention to what they’re doing wrong. The coach, on the other hand, feels it’s his job to teach the players how to improve. Therefore, after every loss, the coach reviews the game on tape and makes written notes as to what he and everyone else can do to get better. Then they go at it again.

Do you see the problem with paying too much attention and taking too much responsibility? It can generate a vicious, downward spiral. Better to play attention games than to pay attention all the time. Better to think of attention as a dance, that we get closer to and further away from, rather than as a clamp that we apply tightly to hold things in place over time.

Too little attention and responsibility often generate the same unhappy results. The myth of a natural-born wonder is just that, a myth. People who seem to be quick on their feet have worked hard to prepare themselves behind the scenes. Successful people are neither mindless nor obsessive when it comes to handling their attention and responsibility. They strike just the right balance in order to move themselves forward.

Nowhere is this more true and apparent than when it comes to health. There’s no way to be healthy if we do not pay attention to what we consume and how we live in the world. That is what got me into so much trouble and left me 65 pounds overweight with numerous health challenges by the age of 43. Paying no attention, I fell prey to my own set of natural impulses, habits, and acquaintances. Unchecked, it would have done me in.

But I could just as easily have been done in by becoming obsessed with what I consume and how I live in the world. Such obsession may well have gotten me to lose those 65 pounds, but it would not have gotten me to keep most of those pounds off. There would have come a point, like Benjamin Franklin with his scorecard, when I could no longer have sustained my interest in the project. Then, like so many good dieters, the pounds would have come racing back with a vengeance.

No, the only way to get and stay healthy is deliberately to engage our attention in educational and enjoyable games. We too can make the shift to being participant-observers in life. We can vary the routine, not by accident but by design. We can try different strategies, foods, drinks, exercises, and patterns. We don’t have to be hard on ourselves when we fall short, as long as we continue our active involvement in creating the future of our dreams. That’s my wish for you: to play your attention into something wonderful.

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Reader’s Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. These selections do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. They do reflect the diversity of those who read Provisions each week for support and strength on the trek of life. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

I was very impressed with your personal story in your issue on health. We have all gone through those soul-searching times that help redirect us to a better path. Congratulations on your success with your weight, health, and exciting new direction. Keep it up!

Thanks for your witness to good health. I’m excited for you and your book. It will be fun to see it evolve. This sounds good to me • trek to triumph through adversity.

Just wanted to let you know that I have been using music to soothe the soul. I find that if I don’t have music playing my stress level increases. I’ve found some music at Franklin Covey for inspiration and productivity specifically. It’s amazing how well they work for me.

You have a very special gift in dealing with people. Even before we talked on the phone, I could tell by your emails that you are very encouraging, uplifting, motivational, and knowledgeable. I think you have a true sense of what people feel or what they need, and you’re not overbearing or high pressure. I’m glad that your business allows you to use that gift to help others.

This is awesome stuff! Why did you stop where you did? I want to know more! I am basically where you were in ’98 and I’m looking for motivation / inspiration. Please tell me more of your story. (Ed. Note: This book is being written in 35 installments. Keep reading and you’ll get more!)

Sometimes the dance between health and instant gratification clouds the image of health and I truly appreciate your tremendous success and inspiring leadership on this key issue.

Thanks for sharing your experience of transitioning in midlife. I’m 45 now and last year my position as senior pastor of a large, dynamic church “suddenly and unexpectedly” came to an end. I think I’ve been through the toughest of it but I’m still struggling to find my way in many respects. I also had let my health deteriorate dreadfully but I started my own adventure toward health a couple of months before leaving my position. I ended up losing 80 pounds and I’m still striving toward specific physical goals. (Ed. Note: Bravo! Give me a call if you’d like to talk.)

Have you ever tried tips from That’s a newsletter I receive online several times per week, and I’ve learned some neat stuff in the field of nutrition and health. It is a free service and has wonderful tips. (Ed. Note: I was not aware of this fine resource. Thanks!)

You neglect to mention Ben Franklin’s wife, who took care of the daily “stuff” that bogs so many of us down, as well… (Ed. Note: Life does go better with positive social relationships. Franklin expresses appreciation in his autobiography for his wife’s virtues as well as for her involvement in his business and life.)

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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