20/300: Practicing Selective Ignorance

The world is full of noise. Social Media, Big Media, advertising, books, rumors, gossip, trends, advice, tips, must-haves, must-nevers – it’s enough to make a sane person crazy. When I was a young reporter, I used start my day with three newspapers: the one I was working for, the Wall Street Journal (or New York Times) and the one I was competing against. I was a sponge. When I was a magazine editor, I read fifteen different magazines cover-to-cover every month, sometimes more.

When I moved to the agency world, social media boomed and it became increasingly easy to lose whole hours, multiple hours, just scrolling through feeds, reading blogs, watching videos, catching up on news stories that were always out ahead of me. It became a never-ending slog of input and processing, a perpetual loop of discovery, engagement, discarding. I tried to keep up with every series people were talking about, every news event shaping our world, every “OMG did you see this?” post from family, friends and friends of people I’ve never met.

And, like they say about rocking chairs, it gave me something to do, but it didn’t get me anywhere.

It didn’t make me happy. I never felt fulfilled from trying to keep up. In fact, constantly consuming information had the opposite effect- it made felt frustrated, depressed, anxious. I’d stay up until two in the morning watching something so I could say I saw it. I’d refresh my feeds to be sure I didn’t miss anything. I could never sit still. The glut of information could never fulfill my hunger.

A little while back, I remembered something I’d read in Tim Ferriss’s “Four-Hour Work Week,” about the practice of selective ignorance. Essentially, it’s the purposeful culling, or limiting, of information intake in order to minimize distraction and allow your mind to focus on the things that matter. Here, the things that matter are the things that matter to you, to your immediate world, to the top 5% of your interests. It’s not about shutting out the world, it’s about turning down the spigot and filtering what gets through.

As a reporter, I was often frustrated by my position. I had as much, if not more, information than the people responsible for taking action, but no ability to contribute or make a change in a meaningful way. It made me feel impotent and out of control. I recognized that same feeling at the peak of my information binge. I knew a lot, but couldn’t do anything about it.

I’m an information junkie. I’m a content strategist by profession. I’m a life-long learner by nature. My instinct is to go deep on a subject, any subject that fancies me, until I feel like I’ve learned all I reasonably can. Trying to keep up with the deluge of feeds and information played against my better demons. It forced me to go wide and shallow in what I took in, the opposite of what I wanted.

So lately, I’ve been turning things off. I’ve been seeking opportunities to practice selective ignorance. I’ve made some decisions about the things that really interest me – design, behavior, publishing, audience building, creativity, general knowledge (trivia) – and started to cull the things I don’t need to know – network television (for the most part), football, geo-politics, the Presidential campaign. It might seem like I’m being selfish and there’s good reason for that – I am. I am probably making decisions that will make me seem less like a global citizen, but they will, I think, make me happier.

Think about the most successful people you can name. Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, the person you look up to at work or in life. What do they have in common? There’s probably a few things, but certainly one of them is an uncanny ability to focus. One of my favorite television series is the BBC’s “Sherlock.” Benedict Cumberbatch plays the famous detective Sherlock Holmes as a ‘highly functioning sociopath,’ who is often made fun by Martin Freeman’s “Dr. Watson” for not knowing how many planets are in the solar system or whether or not England had a sitting king. Holmes’ response? ‘I don’t need to know those things, they aren’t important to what I do.’ Or something close to that.

Trying to keep up with all the information in our super-charged world is a fool’s errand. It detracts from what you need to do. Set up a Flipboard and curate the topics you’re interested in. Check it once a day or once in the morning and once at night. Schedule a couple 15 minutes slots a day to check your social media. Turn off the TV and read a book. Or keep the TV on and watch an entire series on Netflix. Resist the urge to participate in every conversation just because you can think of something to say.

Get off the treadmill and go on a journey.

Practice selective ignorance and allow yourself to go ‘deep’ into the things you really care about rather than feeling like you need to try and keep up. I promise… it will make a world of difference.


photo source: http://metalgear.wikia.com/wiki/File:Hear-No-Evil-See-No-Evil-Speak-No-Evil.jpg

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