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?"
your main tool for positivity
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
attention. Say to yourself: "That's not worth the attention;
what am I doing next?" Use it to plug the leaks in your
habits and the mind
Your mind is attracted to certain things,
compelled by certain feelings, some of them 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.
You will have power and self-control far
beyond your peers. But here let me issue the following clarification:
This statement + question (that's not worth the attention;
what am I doing next?) shouldn't be applied to certain things.
If you tend to drink too much, for example,
and it's destroying your health and your relationships and your
financial future, you can do something about it, so this
statement + question (that's not worth the attention; what
am I doing next?) is not applicable.
If you are experiencing grief because a
loved one 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.
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. And 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 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, 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 + question (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.
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
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 their car. She watched both
her parents get decapitated. How horrible that must have been.
And now she has no one. She will be scarred for the rest of her
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
only poured your precious moments down the drain.
replace negative thoughts
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 + question (that's not
worth the attention; what am I doing next?) can put your
mind on a new track. When I get that image now of being penniless
street person lying in a gutter, this statement + question is
fast on its heels, and it happens so quickly now, the image started
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.
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 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 statement + question
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 researchers 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 the
subjects 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, author of White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression,
Obesession, and the Psychology of Mental Control, is somewhat
famous in psychology circles for his many experiments showing
that when you suppress a thought, it actually 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 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
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 will 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 (that 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?"