A few weeks ago, my social media feeds blew up with discussions about Meryl Streep’s acceptance speech at the Emmys. Apparently, she used her time to take President Trump to task about his demeanor and policies. Naturally, the people who love President Trump were angry about the speech and those who loathe him thought the speech was heroic. I had no opinion. I had not seen the speech, heard the speech, and chose to ignore the speech. It didn’t affect me in the least, so I benefitted from not having to think about it.
One of the most beneficial practices in my life in recent months has been working on the discipline of selective ignorance. Now, notice this is selective ignorance and not complete ignorance. I keep up with the news through a couple of papers, magazines, and podcasts. Anything that appears to be relevant to my work or interests, I will look into further. I ignore everything else if at all possible.
Two books helped me see how choosing to ignore things everyone was talking about could improve my life, work habits, and sanity. Tim Ferris’s The 4-Hour Work Week introduced me to this concept. (Ferris’s work obviously made a deep impression on me. I thought I came up with the phrase “selective ignorance” on my own. I just flipped back through The 4-Hour Work Week and turns out that it was the title of a chapter in his book.) He says, “It is imperative that you learn to ignore or redirect all information and interruptions that are irrelevant, unimportant, or unactionable. Most are all three.” Before, I thought that I needed to know about as many cultural discussions as possible and have an opinion on them. This usually meant that I had a strong opinion about many issues on which I had incomplete information and which never touched anything that had to do with my normal, everyday life as a follower of Jesus, husband, dad, neighbor, friend, and pastor.
Providentially, I picked up Cal Newport’s book Deep Work the day of President Trump’s inauguration. In it, he extolled the virtues of giving focused concentration to our most important tasks by cutting down on unnecessary distractions. The next day, I read his exhortation to cut down on social media intake, check email less often, and eliminate needless noise and distraction. This happened to be the same day my social media feeds were blowing up with strong opinions about the Women’s March on Washington. Reading this book on that day led me to sit down and do a serious evaluation of the things in my life that were distracting me from the things that matter most.
As I have taken inventory of my life and eliminated or greatly reduced my intake of information that needlessly distracted or frustrated me, I noticed three particular benefits that came from ignoring unimportant things.
Selective Ignorance Saves You From Needless Anger
Every time you pull up Facebook or Twitter, turn on opinion based news or listen to talk radio, you will find yourself getting angry about things that you didn’t even know about two minutes before. Media companies make loads of money from our attention. Your attention brings in advertising dollars and nothing grabs your attention like events or opinions that make you angry.
Remembering that selective ignorance doesn’t mean ignoring the real news events of the day, but you must remember that there are less real news events going on in the world than you think. An actresses opinion about the President, a Facebook “friend’s” opinion about politics, or a ridiculous Facebook comment on a news story from someone that you don’t know aren’t news, don’t matter to you at all, and will only serve to make you angry. Ignore it. Your life will be better for it.
Selective Ignorance Saves You From Needless Anxiety
Not only do websites, radio talk shows, and cable news know how to get your attention by making you angry, they also know how to do it by making you anxious. For example, Americans typically overestimate the amount of violent crime that takes place in our nation. Our constant intake of news and the consistent reporting on violence in our cities has to play a role in our perceptions.
Another example comes from an Ipsos poll conducted in December. When asked to guess the number of Muslims in America, respondents guessed that there were almost seventeen times more than there really are. Because we hear day in and day out about terrorism and refugees, we overestimate the number of Muslims in our nation by 1700%. In an odd turn of events, our obsession with news distorts our understanding of reality and makes us less informed. The result is that we get scared and anxious based on an inaccurate perception of what is happening in our culture.
Selective Ignorance Saves You From Needless Distraction
As I write this post, I am in the downstairs of my home. My phone is upstairs. The reason for this is simple. When I can’t figure out how to word the next sentence, my instinct is to check my email or look at something on my phone to help ease the frustration of not knowing what to say next. Here’s the problem with that, though, if I “check Twitter real quick,” I may see and interesting link and read it. Then I scroll down and see another interesting link to read. All of a sudden, I have spent ten or fifteen minutes staring at my phone and getting focused on what I am doing again takes time. If the phone is not close by, it can’t distract me.
In the time that it takes to check Facebook, you could read several chapters of the Bible. Think about that for a second. Instead of being sucked into a platform where 95% of what you will see is unimportant, you could spend time in the eternal truth of God’s word. Or, if you are at work, instead of being distracted by things that don’t matter, you can give your full time and attention to doing excellent and creative work. If you are at home with your family, you can spend time with them and do something fun instead of ignoring them while you scroll.
How to Grow in Selective Ignorance
If the discipline of selective ignorance will help you eliminate distractions, get less angry, and experience less anxiety, how do you grow in it? The answer is to put systems in place and restrictions on yourself. While the word “restriction” may not sound fun, remember that you are eliminating things in your life that bring worry, anger, and distraction so that you can experience more of the good things life offers. Here are five quick suggestions for cultivating selective ignorance.
Check Two or Three Trusted News Sources a Couple of Times a Day
Instead of getting a constant barrage of news, check the news a few times a day and only get it from sources you trust. Watch the evening news, listen to the NPR hourly update, read a good newspaper, check your RSS feeds, or scroll through the front page of a news site and read stories that interest you. Then, turn it off and don’t check the news for several hours. If something really important happens, I promise you will find out quickly.
Only Check Social Media Two or Three times a Day
The idea of Facebook and Twitter are great. You get to stay in touch with people you wouldn’t have been able to stay in touch before the advent of these platforms. The reality of these services is different. They serve as a constant barrage of opinions and distractions. Check them a few times throughout the day, but avoid the temptation to check them every time you have a free minute or get bored.
Avoid Talk Radio, Discernment Blogs, TV Debate Shows, etc.
Some forms of media make themselves sound like sources of useful information when they really aren’t. Talk radio rarely informs more than it inflames. TV debate shows do little more than reinforcing the positions of the people who already agree or disagree with the panelists. Sports radio is a pleasant distraction but is best consumed in small doses. Discernment blogs typically disturb us and make us angry about people who aren’t in our sphere of influence. (If you don’t know what a discernment blog is, count yourself blessed and move along.)
Watch Less TV
My greatest concern in writing this post is that people will read it and think I am advocating for actual ignorance. Nothing could be further from the truth. My main point is that by avoiding things that masquerade as important information we have the time to focus on the things that really are important.
By watching less TV, we have time to do more things that matter. We can focus on our work, exercise, do something with our families, or read a good book. Have a couple of good shows that you keep up with or watch your favorite team, then turn it off. Enjoying the outdoors, having fun with the people closest to you, inviting a neighbor over for dinner, serving someone who needs help, or immersing yourself in a good book will be so much more enjoyable.
Focus on What Matters Most
In Ephesians 5:15-16, Paul encourages us to, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” We have limited time here on earth, have limited attention and focus to give, and limited energy to expend. Shouldn’t we give our time, attention, and energy to things that really matter while learning to ignore the rest?
“7 Questions to Ask Before Posting about Politics on Social Media“
For Further Reading:
Do More Better: A Practical Guide to Productivity by Tim Challies
Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book about a (Really) Big Problem by Kevin DeYoung