IN YOUR LIFE, there are people who bug you, there are circumstances that annoy you, and there are things that make you angry. When something bothers you, you have a choice: You can do something about it or leave it behind you. The principle in this article is for the things you aren't willing or can't do anything about.
There's no sense in even thinking about something if you can't do anything about or aren't willing to do anything about it. The problem is, of course, that our minds tend to stick on things like that, don't they? If something seems unjust or wrong, it's hard to get it out of your mind. Negative feelings compel your attention. The feelings arrest your attention, even when you've already decided not to do anything about it.
It takes a firm act of will to unstick your mind and go on about your life, but it's an extremely useful ability to have. Get in the habit of not ever dwelling on something you can't do anything about. Train yourself to redirect your mind to something productive. How? By saying to yourself: "That's not worth the attention; what am I doing next?"
MOST PRECIOUS ASSET
Attention is your main resource. It's really all you've got that's worth anything. So when your attention is consumed by useless thoughts or feelings or actions, you're throwing pieces of your life down the drain, and there are so many good things you could be doing with your attention.
There are more things, subjects, people of a positive nature than you could ever put your attention on. Why waste it on something negative unless you have to?
Say there are ten billion positive units available in the world at any one time. But you are limited. You have only so much time. You can pay attention to only so many things at once. For the sake of argument, let's say you have only a hundred available units of attention at any given moment. There are ten billion units available, but you can only partake of a hundred. Why take fifty or even ten of your hundred units and waste them on something unproductively negative?
What would you think about someone who had a hundred dollars and spent ten dollars buying something she didn't want, even though there were at least a million dollars worth of things she really did want? You would think she was foolishly wasting her money, right?
You can put a stop to the waste of your most valuable resource — your attention. Say to yourself: "That's not worth the attention; what am I doing next?" to cut the waste short. Use it to plug the leaks in your bucket.
THE MIND IS LIKE A MULE
Your mind is attracted to certain things, compelled by certain feelings, some of them negative and harmful. And it does not change direction easily. The machinery of your mind, if we can call it that, is stubborn. But you don't have to put up with it. You're going to have to be firm. Start saying to yourself today, "That's not worth the attention; what am I doing next?" and don't stop until a new habit is formed. It will make a huge difference in your life.
Start with little things, and when the big things come along, you'll have the resources to deal with it. As William James wrote:
So with the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and when his softer fellow mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast.
You will have power and self-control far beyond your peers. But here let me issue the following clarification: This slogan (that's not worth the attention; what am I doing next?) shouldn't be applied to drinking problems or grief caused by the death of someone you love. It isn't healthy to avoid thinking about these things.
If you have a drinking problem and it's destroying your health and your relationships and your financial future, you can do something about it, so this slogan is not applicable.
In the case of grief from a loved one who just died, there is something you can do about that too. You can't bring them back, but you can talk to someone about it. You can write about your pain in a journal. People who do these things after a big loss are healthier in the long run than people who don't. There is something you can do, and there are plenty of resources out there to take advantage of.
Dale Larson, PhD, and his research team at Santa Clara University, surveyed about 300 people about events in their lives they considered shameful or painful, and also about how much of these things they kept to themselves or shared with other people. And the researchers gathered information about these people regarding their records of mental and physical health problems.
Of course, those who experienced severely stressful things like losing a parent as a child or rape, experienced more health problems, but the problems were significantly reduced in those who had talked about it than those who kept it a secret.
And in general, those who tended to keep to themselves painful or shameful experiences suffered more headaches, fatigue, and indigestion than those who had a tendency to confide things with others.
James Pennebaker, PhD, who has done a tremendous amount of research on this subject, says, "not discussing or confiding [a traumatic] event with another may be more damaging than having experienced the event per se."
Apparently, holding in things like that is a kind of psychological "work" and is a strain to do.
I should point out that it doesn't work to share your pain with just anybody and everybody. If you're going to talk, talk to a trusted friend, a minister, or someone you know won't share it with anyone else, and who will not criticize you, make fun of you, but will listen. Or, as Pennebaker has found, it even works to write it in a journal.
This slogan (that's not worth the attention; what am I doing next?) is to use on the annoyances and frustrations of daily life, including the people in your life who like to mess with your head or who seem to deliberately try to make you unhappy. Did you think you were the only one? Think again, my friend. We all have people in our lives who seem to act like friends, but bring us down in one way or another.
The author of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott was once given this friendly advice: Find work as a seamstress or servant.
You've probably heard of Vince Lombardi. He's one of the most famous football coaches in the history of the sport. An expert once said of him, "He possesses minimal football knowledge. Lacks motivation."
In 1933 Fred Astaire had his first screen test. The testing director summarized Astaire like this: "Can't act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little."
The better you are, the more you accomplish, the more people will try to bring you down. That's just the way it is and there's nothing you can do to change that reality. You can, however, respond to it any way you choose.
ARE YOU BEING SELFISH?
There are things and ideas competing for your attention constantly, and sometimes giving your attention to them benefits another person but doesn't benefit you. You don't have the attention to waste on those things. I want you to remember this. Life is only so long, and then it's over. We can't afford to waste our attention on something that doesn't do us any good.
I'm not talking about being selfish. Being selfish actually harms the person who is selfish, because there are people in everyone's life who are partners or allies. Friends. People who are on your side. People to whom you are committed and who are committed to you. To those people, selfishness is a way of cutting off your own nose. To those people, the gift of your attention will come back to you. With those people, you are joined, and it is a mutually-beneficial relationship. Selfishness ruins that kind of alliance.
And even for people who are not your friends, the same is again true. Even with acquaintances or people you've just met, you don't know how they can help you or hurt you, and selfish behavior can work against you. But that doesn't mean you have to give them something or go out of your way for them. There's something between selfish and selfless. There's a healthy range in the middle.
I know a woman who brings up bad news every time you talk to her. She reads the newspaper, and whenever there's something particularly tragic or terrible, it obviously sticks in her mind, as it would most normal people. I don't read newspapers for that very reason: I don't want things like that stuck in my mind. There's nothing I can do about a car accident that happened yesterday.
This woman brings up bad news, and doesn't just mention it, but goes into graphic detail, and she's skilled enough to give you a sharp, full-color image of the tragedy in all it's vivid sadness.
"Oh, did you read about that poor girl whose parents got killed in the car wreck?" She says it with deep furrows and the most concerned look.
"No I didn't."
"So sad. Another car came off the overpass and sheared off the top of the car. She watched both her parents get decapitated. And now she has no one. She will be scarred for the rest of her life."
And so would anyone who had to listen to this kind of conversation for very long.
When she talks to me, she gives me something that competes with other thoughts, images, ideas. There's a limit to how many thoughts I can hold. The same goes for you. Our capacity for attention is limited. Even if we're much better than average, we can only hold so many thoughts at once. So in this sense, thoughts compete for our attention.
Graphic, compelling, tragic thoughts compete very effectively because strong emotions demand attention. I used to listen to this woman, but then I realized something important: When she shared her news, it served her, but not me.
Now as soon as the headline comes out of her mouth, I change the subject. I don't let her fill me in on the graphic details. Luckily, I don't have to talk to her much. It's just an occasional thing. But it's an example of how some things that compel your attention very strongly don't necessarily help you. Giving it your attention may serve someone else, but wasting your attention on it only took away from you.
THE MIND TORMENTS ITSELF
The same holds true when the thought has not been put there by someone else. The human mind is incredibly full. Your mind can wander far and wide, and sometimes it stumbles upon a worry or fear, and even though it may be an emotionally gripping thought, that doesn't mean it has to be thought through, figured out, or solved.
When something is emotionally commanding, it often feels as if the thought is clamoring very loudly for your attention, like a baby crying or loud moans of pain from someone nearby, but the feeling may have nothing to do with the worthiness of the thought itself.
After I decided to write books for a living, I was often haunted by the worry: "What if I never make it? What if nobody wants to buy my books? What if I try and try and I go broke and wind up a penniless street person and die of cold in some gutter as an old man?"
Somewhere along the way, probably in a fit of despair, I created that vivid mental image and it was compelling for emotional reasons. But it was a stupid thing to think. Yes, the book business is not as "secure" as some other fields, but I had made up my mind to do it, so this kind of worrying was not doing me any good.
This slogan can turn the mind in a new direction. When I get that image now of being penniless street person lying in a gutter, this slogan is fast on its heels, and it happens so quickly now, the thought has begun to motivate me and increase my determination. How?
Because of the question: What am I doing next? Because of the haunting image, what I wanted to do next was work on becoming successful in the book business. I wanted to make sure I didn't goof off. It motivated me to burn the midnight oil. As soon as my thoughts turned to what I needed to do, I was off and running and forgot about the worries. I was too busy making it happen to worry whether it was going to happen or not.
The original image was compelling because it was me in the image, and I was afraid of it. But when a thought is commanding my attention and not doing me any good, I'll be better off if I waste as little attention as I can on it. It's like a leach, sucking my lifeblood (my attention) and contributing nothing to me. It's a parasitic thought.
And what is the best thing to do with a parasite? Kill it. If you had a tick or a leach or intestinal worms, you wouldn't hesitate to cut its life short. There's no mercy or compassion for a parasite. It's leaching off of you. It is taking your life, your energy, your attention, and only taking. Giving you nothing.
When you have a thought in that category, show no mercy, show no coddling, and do not play around: Cut it off without delay.
And the way to cut off a thought, the way to kill it, is to replace it with a better one. The mind won't remain empty for long. You can't just stop thinking something. You have to have something better to think instead. It is counterproductive to try to not think something. Think the slogan instead of trying to stop thinking about something.
Two researchers from the University of Virginia — Daniel Wegner and Daniel Gold — told 110 female and male subjects to think about a past lover who they still desired. Then they were given eight minutes, and in that eight minutes half of them were told to continue to think about the lover. The other half were told to suppress thoughts of their previous lover — to not think of them at all.
Then the researcher hooked everyone up to a device that measures emotional reactions. It actually measures how much sweat they produce on the surface of a finger, and they were told to think about their former sweetheart again. Those who had spent eight minutes trying to get their old flames out of their minds had a much stronger emotional reaction.
One of the researchers, Daniel M. Wegner, PhD, is somewhat famous in psychology circles for his many experiments showing that when you suppress a thought, it actually makes it more intense. Some of his earlier experiments went like this: He put people in a room with a tape recorder and told them to speak aloud whatever was on their minds, except for one thing — under no circumstances were they to think about a white bear.
The tape recorder recorded their ongoing thoughts, which included something about a white bear, on average, about once a minute. There are billions of things to think about, but their minds kept coming back to the one thought they were trying not to think. They tried as many mental tricks as they could think of, but the thought of a white bear kept coming back to them.
When you say to yourself, "That's not worth the attention; what am I doing next?" you are putting your mind on something else instead of trying not to think something. It works.
Do this often enough, and even a thought that used to haunt you often will begin to remind you to think the new thought. After awhile, you'll skip right over the old thought, and at that point you've effectively choked off the lifeblood it was taking from you. It only lives by your attention, and when it no longer gets any attention, it is dead.
And when it is dead, you have just gained more life.
Say to yourself, "That's not worth the attention; what am I doing next?"