In your life, you know some people irritate you, some kinds of circumstances 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. This question is for the things you aren’t willing to do anything about (or can’t do anything about).
There’s no sense in even thinking about something if you can’t do anything about it or aren’t willing to do anything about it. That’s easy enough to say, but 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, and generate thoughts that arrest your attention too, 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 asking yourself the question: “What needs to be done next?” Or, “That’s not worth the attention; what am I doing next?”
Attention is your main resource. It’s really all you have 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 want to, or unless it serves you?
Say there are ten billion potential objects of attention 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 objects 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 attention. Say to yourself: “That’s not worth the attention; what am I doing next?” Use the question to plug the leaks in your bucket.
Your mind is attracted to certain things, compelled by certain feelings, some of which are negative and harmful. And your mind doesn’t 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. 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.
Start with little things, and when the big things come along, you’ll have the resources to deal with them. 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.
Use this question and use it often and you will have power and self-control far beyond your peers. But here let me issue the following clarification: This statement-plus-question (that’s not worth the attention; what am I doing next?) shouldn’t be applied to certain things.
If you have a drinking problem, for example, and it’s destroying your health and your relationships and your financial future, you can do something about it, so this statement-plus-question is not applicable.
If you are experiencing grief because a loved one just died, your grief is worth your attention. It is healthy to grieve and unhealthy to suppress it. And there is something you can do about it. You can’t bring your loved-one 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.
Dale Larson, PhD, and his research team at Santa Clara University surveyed close to 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.
The researchers then looked at the volunteers’ 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 painful or shameful experiences to themselves suffered more headaches, fatigue, and indigestion than those who had a tendency to confide things with a trusted friend.
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 things in is a kind of psychological “work” and it’s a strain on your system to do it.
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, someone you know won’t share it with anyone else and who will not criticize you or make fun of you, but will listen. Or, as Pennebaker has found, it even works to write it in a journal.
This statement-plus-question (that’s not worth the attention; what am I doing next?) is to use for 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.
I want you to remember something: Life is only so long, and then it’s over. Don’t waste precious moments. Don’t throw away your attention.
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 its vivid sadness.
When she talks to me, she gives me things that compete 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 are in competition 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 goals, but not mine.
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. But it’s an example of how some things that compel your attention very strongly don’t necessarily help you. Giving them your attention may serve someone else, but it only poured your precious moments down the drain.
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 statement-plus-question (that’s not worth the attention; what am I doing next?) put my mind on a new track. When I get that image now of being a penniless street person lying in a gutter, this statement-plus-question is fast on its heels, and it happens so quickly now, the image has begun to motivate me and increase my determination.
Because of the question: “What am I doing next?” Because of the haunting image, what I want to do next is work on becoming successful in the book business! I want to make sure I don’t goof off. It motivates me to burn the midnight oil. As soon as my thoughts turn to what I need to do, I am off and running and forget about the worries. I’m too busy making it happen to worry about whether it’s going to happen or not.
This is totally different from what used to happen. The image used to bring me down. The image was compelling because it was me in the image, and I was afraid of it. It was like a leach, sucking my lifeblood (my attention) and contributing nothing to me. It was 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 an intestinal worm, you wouldn’t hesitate to cut its life short. Mercy or compassion for a parasite would be stupid. 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 not to think 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. 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 for the eight minutes.
Then the researchers hooked everyone up to a device that measures emotional reactions. It measured how much sweat they produced on the surface of their fingers, and the subjects were told to think about their former sweethearts 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 what happens when you suppress a thought: It makes the thought more intense and obsessional. 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 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 come up with, 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. And it works.
Do this often enough, and even a thought that used to haunt you often could begin to remind you to think the new thought. After awhile, your mind will start to streamline the process and skip right over the old thought, and at that point you’ve effectively choked off its lifeblood (the attention it was draining from your life). 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.
The question, “What needs to be done next?” is also good on its own. It gets your mind thinking productively, no matter what’s happening. It can help you pull yourself out of a bad mood. It can help you get back on track. Try it today.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.
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