Joel Osteen (Preacher and Author; It’s Your Time)
“People think it must be fun to be a super genius, but they don’t realize how hard it is to put up with all the idiots in the world.”
Bill Watterson (Artist and Author; Calvin and Hobbes comic strip)
“Where your awareness goes, energy flows.”
Dandapani (Priest and Personal Development Coach)
Living a smarter and more productive life requires a lot of ignorance.
I wish Professional Ignorer was a real job title. I want that job. I want to ignore idiots and other distractions professionally for a living. The problem is that I can be really bad at focusing my attention away from things that don’t matter. I’m even worse at forgetting these things once I’ve given them my attention. Well, I used to be bad at it. Sometimes, I would be steamrolling through my day, taking care of business, creating and connecting, being incredibly productive, and then, I’d receive an email or a call that rubs me the wrong way – SLAM, my progress would stop; SWERVE, my attention would change directions.
What kinds of cataclysmic events would cause me to derail? Someone who’s not my boss telling me what to do. Someone sending me an urgent email with a non-urgent message. Someone cutting me off in traffic. Someone being rude to me at the airport. These triggers are so tiny that I feel stupid writing them down. But miniature triggers can cause massive explosions. Understand that one insignificant event can unhinge your entire day if you give it your attention. The key to never getting unhinged is to manage your awareness. Managing your awareness, or keeping it from changing directions, is the only way to become a professional ignorer.
The Science Of Ignorance
Acknowledging stupidity makes you stupid (and ineffective). It can be extremely difficult to overcome the impulse to engage with idiots, complainers, haters, losers, and other negative people when they say or do something that triggers you, especially since many of these people are also expert instigators. However, science is showing that shunning, rather than argument, is a more powerful weapon against these people. A study in the Journal Of Social And Personal Relationships found that ignoring idiots increased the ignorer’s intelligence and productivity. The researchers examined 120 participants who were asked to talk with or ignore people who were instructed to be either friendly or offensive to the participants. The participants did not know which type of person they would meet. After four minutes of interaction, each participant was given a thought exercise that required good concentration. The participants who ignored the offensive people performed better on the thought exercises than the participants who engaged with the offensive people. The researchers concluded that ignoring others during adverse social interactions conserves mental resources. Interestingly, participants performed slightly better on the thought exercises if they talked with (compared to ignoring) the friendly people. Further studies have shown that glossing over insignificant details and other distractions can enhance communication and help people coordinate group activities better.
Manage Your Awareness
Unclench. Unpucker. De-squeeze. Get clear. Most people spend their days juggling a thousand different meaningless things with the one or two things that really matter to them. They are so set on keeping all of these things in their awareness (all at once) that their bodies are constantly clenched and their faces are constantly puckered. Loretta LaRoche, author of Relax – You May Only Have A Few Minutes Left, calls this squeezing. You’re stressed about how much work you have to do so you squeeze. You worry about impressing your boss and making sure other people take you seriously so you squeeze. Someone blows you off, acts superior than you, disagrees with you, doesn’t support you, or talks about you behind your back so you squeeze, and squeeze, and squeeze some more. Every now and then, look around and notice how many people are squeezing, puckering, and clenching. I’m at a Starbucks in Boston right now and the guy next to me is squeezing so hard he might implode. His body is hunched over his computer like he’s about to mount it and his fingers are banging against the keys like he’s attacking the alphabet. His cheeks are sucked in and his brow is low and furrowed. The email he’s writing is life or death. He must be very important (or maybe not; I don’t really know).
Attention generates force. As soon as you become aware of something, you give it energy. This is why allowing yourself to be pulled into an argument by a coworker or significant other will annihilate your productivity – because you’re moving energy towards something negative. The only way to diffuse a problem is to move your awareness and energy away from it (and towards solutions). I recently attended a presentation by Dandapani, a former monk and current personal development speaker and entrepreneur. For ten years, Dandapani trained as a monk full-time in a secluded Hawaiin monastery; then, 5 years ago, when his vows expired, he moved to New York City to start a business. One of Dandapani’s core messages is: where your awareness goes, energy flows. In other words, you can never turn off your awareness, you can only move it. And moving your awareness, moves your energy. Dandapani suggests visualizing your awareness as a glowing ball so you can practice actively moving it towards the things that really matter. Defining your attention as a concrete object makes it easier to manipulate. Now, instead of trying to push things out of your awareness, you can simply move your awareness, like a spotlight, in the direction of the most important things in your life (thereby ignoring everything else). This process will help you channel your energy and apply it forcefully to projects and people of your choosing.
How To Focus Better
Protect your attention. Picture a large glass bowel full of water. Your attention is the water and your willpower is the glass bowel holding the water in place. When the bowel is still, you can see through the glass and concentrate on one thing. When you let negative people and annoying events distract you – SLAM; SWERVE – the glass bowel gets disturbed, creating rings in the water so you can’t peer through it anymore. Eventually, the water will settle down so you can see through it again, unless you succumb to another distraction. The greater the distraction, the more agitated the water becomes and longer it takes to calm down. Guard your glass bowel. Stop letting negative people Jurassic Park your bowel of water.
Concentrate on concentrating. There are three things that will teach you how to focus better: first, increase the urgency of important tasks. The quickest way to ignore things that don’t matter is to make the things that do matter so big and urgent that they completely fill up your awareness. You can do this by setting very aggressive deadlines and doing whatever it takes to hold yourself accountable to them. Understand that urgency eliminates obstacles. When you have two weeks to write a 5-page paper, everything is distracting. When you have 2 hours to write the paper, nothing is distracting. The key is to NOT force your sense of urgency onto other people; otherwise, you’re the idiot.
Second, enter a flow state. Have you ever been so completely wrapped up in what you were doing that nothing else seemed to exist – not even yourself? Maybe you were writing, reading a good book, or in the middle of a tough workout and, either way, the volume of the rest of the world seemed to be turned down. This is called being in a flow state. The easiest way to enter a flow state is by doing something simple that provides immediate feedback, like counting or reading, and therefore requires your constant attention. In the book, Flow: The Psychology of the Optimal Experience, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi explains how the human nervous system is incapable of processing more than 110 bits of information per second. As an example, listening to someone speak requires your nervous system to process about 60 bits of information per second, which is why it’s impossible to listen to (and understand) two people talking at the exact same time. Overloading your information system with something that consistently provides you with immediate feedback will help harness your focus.
Third, meditate weekly. The best way to improve your focusing power is to sit comfortably for 20-30 minutes, a few times a week, in a completely quiet room, and concentrate on nothing but your breathing. Meditation is not the process of blocking out your thoughts and overall awareness; it’s the process of focusing your awareness on a single thing – your breathing. If Professional Ignorer were in fact a job title; meditation would be the most crucial job qualification. Studies have shown that those who meditate weekly maintain significantly higher levels of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid), which stabilizes the central nervous system and prevents anxiety and other unfocused behaviors.
Reposition Your Body And Awareness
Ignore idiots and other distractions by relaxing your body and directing your awareness. Unclench, unpucker, and de-squeeze. Disengaging from negative people starts with your physiology. You can physically initiate disengagement by opening your eyes, un-furrowing your brow, breathing deeply, smiling, standing up straight, and stepping back (or leaving altogether). Once your body is relaxed, focus your attention away from what’s annoying you. Even if you’re forced to listen to a negative person face-to-face, you can still actively ignore their message in real time by moving your awareness to a project that’s really important to you or a person who you really care about. Start thinking of something that excites you or something you’re grateful for. Or, enter a flow state by counting the number of times the person is saying a common word like and, uh, or the. Stay motivated to ignore idiots and annoying events by focusing on the scientific benefits of this behavior. Selective ignorance, when practiced consistently, will help you make better decisions and will give your actions greater force.