Have you ever felt overloaded by all the information coming at you? It’s not just that so much of it is biased or inaccurate, it’s the sheer quantity. We get it on the TV, on social media, from news sites, in search engine results, from friends, and on YouTube.

I’ve certainly felt overloaded from time to time. It’s hard not to care as the culture war rages, as society seems to fall down the pan if you stay online too long, and this leads to profound depression – an empty pit inside me. Yet when I look out of the window the world seems to be getting on fine and all that’s happened is that I’ve wasted my spare time again.

Selective ignorance is a conscious effort to remove distracting sources of information from your life. The goal is to focus on important information and things only, so you can achieve your personal and business goals.

I first came across the idea of selective ignorance while reading Timothy Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Work Week. His style of writing and book organization is not to my tastes, but the idea is a profound one. And it was something my gut had been telling me for some time – if you are going to succeed, it told me over and over, you need to cut down on all this social and politics crap.

  1. What is selective ignorance?

Selective ignorance, as outlined briefly above, is the whittling down of sources of distraction and information overload. Information, whatever form it comes in, distracts the attention of the individual from the important activities he or she has set themselves.

Forms of information include:

  • News and current affairs
  • TV programmes and streaming services
  • YouTube and video sharing sites
  • Social media like Facebook and especially Twitter
  • Chat apps including work chat
  • Email inboxes
  • Pornography

One of the side effects of modern technology is that we have more access to information than we’ve ever had in our existence. While Alvin Toffler’s ‘future shock’ might affect people struggling with the fast changing nature of technology, many more are unknowingly inhibited by the amount of information and stimulation they are being exposed to.

The effects of information overload

There is a myth that some of us can multitask, but in actuality people are just switching between tasks. Switching and maintaining maximum focus and quality is impossible. Studies show someone switching tasks, say a programmer, requires 15 minutes to acclimatise to the task at hand. If that person is switching out to check emails or Facebook or is listening to videos in the background then they are distracting themselves continuously.

Secondly, information overload is being linked to rising stress levels. An unfortunate element of the online world has been the separation of people into thought or identity groups. This is breeding intolerance, but also allowing for the proliferation of lies and misinformation to further these divisions. This causes a secondary distraction from the tasks which your life should be focused on because you are worrying more about climate change or social justice or politics or a minor ideological disagreement or the inability of idealogues to process empirical evidence.

Selective ignorance is a low information diet

Selective ignorance is therefore the development of a low information diet designed to remove these distractions. It will stop you switching tasks and will remove unnecessary information. This will improve your focus and wellbeing in order to live the best life possible. 

It is not, however, a route to total ignorance or not caring about the world around you. As Dr. Jordan B. Peterson outlines in Rule 6 of 12 Rules for Life you need to set your own house in order before trying to change the world or as others put it – clean your room.

What are the pros and cons of selective ignorance?

Let’s quickly summarize some of the pros and cons of selective ignorance before going into more depth regarding how to achieve it. Let’s start with the pros:

  • Improved concentration
  • Focus on what you need to be successful
  • Improved chances of success
  • Less distractions from the real world at your fingertips
  • Reduced stress
  • You’re filling your head with the information you need

The cons include:

  • Reduced awareness of what’s going on in the world
  • Risk of entering a thought bubble (see below)
  • Missing out on a key piece of information for your goals

Now, the cons can be mitigated. You can use small talk with friends to see what’s going on in the world, plus you’re not withdrawing forever to be a hermit in the remote mountains of Nara prefecture. Ask people you meet in social situations about what’s going on – do a Socrates on them and ask questions.

The rest depends on you – how do you gather information and whether you look for multiple sides to something. Your focus should be on information that is useful and relevant. Furthermore you should apply critical thinking and a wide ranging research policy on the narrow areas you need.

  1. How do you develop selective ignorance?

Developing selective ignorance can be broken down into three different elements. These are as follows:

  1. Deciding what is important for you to focus on.
  2. Organizing information you have to access.
  3. Removing unnecessary sources of information.
  1. What information is important to your goals?

Digital minimalism is not a random or catastrophic destruction of stimuli. This is why I feel it is important for you to lay out your personal goals before decluttering your intellectual world. 

Typical goals revolve around personal and professional development. These can overlap or can be separate. They may be of necessity or of pure interest.

Personal goals: In the Way of the Runari, I centre these goals on the internal and the external. This means developing your mind, your body, and your soul, but also includes hobbies, interests, and personal relationships. We do not need to know too many people or have too many interests or workout routines, but with solid goals in place we can focus on what’s most important.

Professional goals: I would divide professional goals into survival (grinding out a living) and thriving – taking risks to follow your top skills to make an impact in the world. The latter does not have to revolve around leading your own business because it can include climbing the professional career ladder too or coming to the apex of your chosen niche from within an institution or company. The core here is to minimize workload while maximizing output.

How should you organize the information you access?

Focusing on your goals will lead to the reduction in some information. However, the majority of your reduction is covered in this and the subsequent section. This one is about how to reduce time wasted on what you do need and the latter is on removing that which you do not.

Tim Ferriss reads one journal and one magazine a month. He also spends one hour a night reading a book before bed. The former allows him to learn about his industries of interest and the latter relaxes his brain before sleep.

Set aside time each day, week, weekend, or month for the things you need to do or access. For example, I’m trying to set aside half an hour a day to keep up on social media. I’m also trying to only check my emails once a day at the same time.

Once this habit is built, I’ll be reducing the amount of time and brain energy I’m wasting on these activities. I’m also containing my 3 productivity aims into specific time slots – an hour for novel writing, two hours for writing articles like this one, and 6-8 hours for my freelance and client work. 

Next I’ve organized my work in terms of creative energy required and then prioritized them based on when I’m at my most creative. I’m a morning person, so I do the novel writing first and then the article writing. My work tires me out to the extent I can’t be creative after finishing it, so I do it last. This work is broken up with breaks for qigong, breakfast/lunch, an hour walk and so on. This helps reset my brain and rest my eyes from too much screen time.

How can you remove unnecessary sources of information?

Many of the things you do might feel pleasurable or necessary, but truly they are not adding to your life, but are subtracting from them. How much is following politics helping me reach my goals? How much are the funny videos about crazy things people are doing? 

With my goals in place – to write novels and build an information website focusing on philosophy, history, and fantasy fiction, I do not need politics; especially petty current affairs. I’m removing my browsing and consuming of such information. 

It might be hard to cut some of these things out, but as I said above – you can ask people about it as part of your small talk.

Don’t beat yourself up if you mess up. I do it all the time. Brush yourself down and try again. Good habits are hard to form and easy to lose, so the best thing is to just keep trying.

The danger of thought bubbles

One note of caution before you begin. Be wary of thought bubbles. That is insulating yourself from different opinions and new theories or ideas in the areas where your goals are pointed.

It may seem protective to curate where you get information, but do note that you may be on the road to disaster or at least incorrect ideas if you isolate your learning too much. Be open to new ideas and counter ideas. 

Don’t lose the joy of curiosity

When something piques the interest of my neighbour’s cat, his eyes go wide and black. You can see devilment in him. He’s ready to do something. Ready to go crazy.

One thing cats remind me of constantly is the joy of curiosity. They are curious little things who want to explore new areas, boxes, under beds, and cupboards. We should not lose our curiosity either and selective ignorance should not stop it either. Just manage it better.

Selective ignorance is also selective expertise

Let’s finish up by saying this – the world is chaos, so it’s down to you to establish some order. The development of selective ignorance is an attempt to organize your world and turn information flows into positive contributors to your life.

Sit down and review the sources of information you expose yourself to. Make a separate list looking at what is important to your goals (do you have a goals list? If not, make one). Now you are deciding on your selective expertise – the areas that will give you the best chance of being successful.

This is not easy. If you explore this website you’ll see that I’m not doing a great job of narrowing down my interests. I’m writing on self-improvement mixed with philosophy, but I’m also interested in history and archaeology; especially the Dark Ages, and I am exploring fantasy fiction in more depth. I’m trying to tie them together so I can write about these passions.

It’s ok to have more than one string for your bow, but not too many. Pick a primary and some secondaries as back up plans or interests. If you’d like to comment, let me know what you’re selectively focusing on – I’d love to know more.