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Manipulating Reality by Using Goals as Attention Filters

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Manipulating Reality

Let’s talk about how we can use our goals to help us filter our attention… and get us to achieving our goals faster and more productively.

This is something that we go into detail in the Productivity Blueprint, but here’s a more exploratory version.

Simply put, when you have goals, they help you focus as they give you the ability to filter for and filter out different things vying for your attention.

A simple example is that if you are really craving for some ice cream and you walk into a mall, you automatically filter our all the stores that don’t sell ice cream – and focus in on the ones that do.

There are 2 sides to this:

  1. The automatic filtering that your brain does.
  2. The additional filtering in the form of habits and conscious effort that you can do, to make the filtering even more effective.

Quick Summary

  • How this mechanism works.
  • Goal setting.
  • Real-world applications of using goals to filter our attention.

How This Works (RAS)


So why exactly do goals filter our attention?

It’s because we have a mechanism in our brains called our Reticular Activation System (RAS).

And RAS is basically fancy-speak for saying that when you think about something a lot, your brain starts to seek out and highlight evidence that supports it.

A good example is the ice cream example from above, and another common example is say after you buy a new car – you start to see that car model everywhere you go.

When we apply this concept of RAS a bit, it means that if we have a strong and concrete goal that has a good why behind it and is well-defined, then our brains will automatically seek out evidence and things that will help us with that goal.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because a few years back there was a self-help program called “The Secret” that discussed the Law of Attraction – which is this very same effect.

Whatever you want to call it, RAS happens automatically and you actually cannot stop it from happening. So if your brain is going to go out there and seek out things to support the things you are constantly thinking about… you may as well be focusing on things that are advantageous to you.

Goal Setting

Goal Setting

We’ve written extensively about goal setting both on the blog and it’s discussed in detail in the Productivity Blueprint.

There are many different ways to set goals – as goals, as perpetual outcomes or as systems. The basic premise is that you do set them and write them down for reference.

If you want some quick articles to get you started, have a read of:

Once you have goals, let’s look at how to apply this filter mechanism in the real world.

Real-World Application

We’ve already talked about RAS and how that is the AUTOMATIC filtering that your brain and consciousness does when it has a goal to focus on.

In this section we are going to look at the additional and more active filtering that you can do with some active attention, which will eventually roll into automatic habits.

The Workplace


A common place to filter things in/out is the workplace.

Say you’re working on an important project – you’ll naturally find that everything outside of that project starts to drop away and seems less important. In fact, this is a common problem in larger companies where a key executive focuses so much on a particular pet project that he/she forgets the bigger picture.

To some degree, filtering happens naturally in the workplace anyway – if you’re knowledge worker, you’ve probably found that the business’ other functions outside those that you’re responsible for don’t seem all that important.

If you’re a business owner, you should be setting priorities for the next quarter/year and using those priorities to filter out any noise/new ideas can sidetrack you.

The Computer


Computers (and personal technology in general) are great. Simply sitting in-front of a computer is like gaining access to a whole world of apps, ideas, information and more.

But it comes at a cost – there is a lot that can be done in front of a computer, to the point where it can be distracting if you let it.

So what we want to do is to be proactive. Work out what our task (goal) is when we’re in front of the computer, and close everything else – close all windows, browser tabs, applications and other notifications.

For example, if I’m writing, all I usually have open is my browser window, a mind map and our project management system.

Aaron Writing

If I’m working on some spreadsheet modeling, I’ll only have Excel and some reference information open.

Online and Social Media

Online Social Media

Filtering online is interesting because it relies on a combination of habits and conscious effort – and often our conscious efforts become habits over time.

One of the worst things we can do is to let our attention roam freely online. There is literally SO MUCH STUFF out there that it can go on forever and ever.

You DO NOT want to become someone who spends all day scrolling the infinite Facebook/Instagram/Twitter feed. Doing so is really, really bad for your productivity – and it scatters your attention in a similar fashion to multitasking. It also focuses you on lots of incoming external stimuli, and turns you away from the importance of your goals. If you do happen to find yourself doing this – it may happen because your goals aren’t strong or compelling enough yet.

When you do have a strong goal or objective for being online though, the opposite is true. I’m sure you’ve seen the effect where there may be banner ads on a page… but the content you’re reading is so engrossing that they just seem to fade away.

Similarly, if you are focused heavily on your goal, looking through your Facebook feed is perfectly fine – you’ll likely pick out things related to your goal, and just ignore everything else.



How our goals filter our attention in the outside world is interesting.

On the one hand, it is a good idea to pay more attention to our surroundings – mostly because we’ve become so conditioned to experience things through our computer and smartphone screens, that a lot of us have forgotten how to actually perceive the real world “out there”.

On the other hand, there are a lot of things that can happen in our day-to-day lives that aren’t that useful to our goals and probably don’t warrant much of our attention.

An example from my own life is when I head out to the gym a few times a week. There are a bunch of street-side vendors on my walk to the skytrain that sell fruit, food, skewers, coconut water, vegetables etc. The composition of the vendors often changes depending on the day. To be perfectly honest, I’m usually focused on getting to the gym and working out… so on any given day, unless I’m looking to buy something specific, I couldn’t tell you who was there selling what.

This effect is similarly true with outdoor advertising. We may see billboards as we drive by or walk past, but unless it is related to something we want, we’re likely to forget about it moments later… or ignore it completely.

There are some people out there who like to walk by and browse everything that they pass by – even if they’ve seen the same thing day, after day, after day. If you’re on vacation or sightseeing, this is reasonable. If you’re walking the same route to work/lunch/home every day though… it is nothing more than idle procrastination and not at all useful to achieving your goals. Instead, go out, do what you have to do, and then get back to doing the important things – like working on your goals.



Like our environments, people are interesting.

In a less-crowded city like Los Angeles or Sydney, there are fewer people in your visual field and it tends to be easier to pay attention to the people around you.

Somewhere more crowded like Bangkok or Tokyo though, and there are usually too many people – usually you just notice where people are, and trying to avoid bumping into them while getting to your destination.

It is highly unlikely that any one person you run into will contribute to your particular goals – in most cases, you can safely filter people out.



Most of us read both articles and books (in case you’re wondering, we have recommended list of books here).

With articles, you’ll find that most mainstream news is a complete waste of time. It’s politicized, usually a bit negative and quite sensationalist. The only exception is if it is relevant directly to your goals or business. For example, I recently read William Heinecke’s book and he mentions that he reads at least 3 Asian newspapers daily – but that is because he is in the Asian hospitality industry.

I think people are often surprised at how few articles I actually read. Occasionally someone on the AE team sends me a great piece – and I save it to Pocket and read it. I also occasionally browse the RSS feed of bloggers I really respect – like James Clear, Marc and Angel, 37 Signals or Andy Morgan of

Everything else is ruthlessly filtered out as it isn’t relevant to my goals – and this includes the ridiculous but marketing-savvy articles from sites like Elite Daily, Business Insider or BuzzFeed.

Books are a different matter. This is one area that I would make an exception for when it comes to using goals to filter your attention.

When it comes to books, you want to read widely AND deeply – this gives you different perspectives on problem solving.

I also highly recommend reading both fiction and non-fiction, as this will help you connect ideas together better.

A common thing I see is that people have a hard time reading books that don’t interest them directly or are connected to their goals in some way. But trust me, it’s worth it. If you’re in say in the business of business, reading books on cargo shipping logistics or molecular biology or complexity theory will immensely expand your perspective and ability to problem-solve whatever challenges you’re facing.



Thinking is the ultimate level of using goals as attention filters for focus. This is where you start to manipulate and craft your own thoughts to help you, rather than hamper you.

What you want to do is to relate as much of your thinking as you can towards goals. With RAS, your brain does a lot of this automatically – but you can do more of it consciously too.

Over time, this creates obsessions with your goals – which makes you extremely focused.

For example, if one of my goals was to get into great shape… I would start thinking about everything in terms of that goal. When I look at food, I would think about the optimal combination for my health goal. When I think about time spent working, I would contrast that against time spent in the gym. When I spend time commuting, I would think about what I could do that would contribute to that health goal. And this applies with everything that you do – if you have a singular, important goal… then changing your active thinking to focus on it, will get you there much, much faster.

Next Actions

If you haven’t done so already, get your goals sorted out with any of the guides mentioned in this article.

The next step is to start to pay attention to your RAS – and notice what it already does to help you focus in on what you find important.

After that, take the ideas presented in this article – and see where you can actively filter out the unimportant, and focus in on your goals, across different parts of your daily life.

p.s. If becoming more productive is one of your goals, be sure to sign up for the Asian Efficiency Newsletter.

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1 Comment

Posted by Claire  | August 5, 2014 at 7:41AM | Reply

Great post here, I really enjoyed reading it!

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