In 1999, Dan Simons and Christopher Chabris — two cognitive psychologists from Harvard — conducted one of the most groundbreaking experiments in selective ignorance.
They asked volunteers to watch a short video and count how many times players wearing white shirts passed the basketball.
A few seconds in, a gorilla casually enters the scene. He faces the camera, thumbs his chest, and walks away.
Once the clip was over, participants were asked a simple question:
Did you see the gorilla?
The Invisible Gorilla
Researchers were astonished to discover that half of the people missed the gorilla. Even more surprising, some people looked right at the gorilla and did not see it.
It was as though the gorilla was invisible.
A few years later, Simons conducted another study with the same rules with a new video. Before reading on, test yourself:
For participants unfamiliar with the previous study, findings were consistent: half of them missed the gorilla.
But for those that knew of the gorilla experiment, something extraordinary occurred.
This time everyone spotted the gorilla. But only 17% noticed other or both of the other unexpected events — the curtain changing color and a player on the black team leaving the game.
Both events are easy to spot if someone told you about them. But knowing a priori about the gorilla leads viewers to look for gorillas exclusively, failing to notice anything else out of the ordinary.
Focus your attention on something and you’ll fail to notice other things, even obvious ones.
In a world of chaos and frenzy, our minds focus on too many things. And precisely because of that, we miss the most obvious ones.
To have time to think.
Sitting down and focusing on our work.
To spend time with our loved ones.
The gorilla experiment shows that our minds are ready for single focus and Deep Work.
But you need to give it a little push.
And that push is selective ignorance.
Selective Ignorance: A Focus Superpower
In order to develop superhuman focus, you’ll need to equally develop the skill of selective ignorance.
When it comes to focus, knowing what to ignore is as important — if not more — than what to focus on.
In the words of Steve Jobs:
“I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”
Selective ignorance is not about lack of knowledge of information. Instead, it’s intentionally choosing subjects, facts, people, that you do not wish to know about.
Your mind can only take so much. Don’t fill it with useless stuff.
Wouldn’t you rather create and have more space for the stuff that actually matters?
Selective Ignorance: Knowing Your Gorillas
“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” — Henry David Thoreau
I can’t tell you what’s important or not in your life. Only you know that.
But I can give you a simple heuristic to uncover them:
How does “it” change my actions?
Substitute “it” with a specific action.
You read hundreds of emails per day and are drowning in your inbox. After reading emails, do your to-dos remain unchanged? How does email change your actions?
You like to be informed about the world you follow the news. What do you intend to do about the new tax or the crisis in some far away country? When was the last time you changed your actions because of the news? Or do you watch the news as entertainment?
Or perhaps you want to keep up with your industry and so you read publications and blogs, watch videos and network with other like-minded people. How does that change your actions? Will your marketing plan suddenly change because of a specific article? Do you apply what you read and watch regularly?
Repeat the exercise with as many things as you can.
This will help you discover what you need to remove from your life.
Ignoring Your Way To Success
“There are many things of which a wise man might wish to be ignorant.” — Ralph Emerson
The more selective ignorance you cultivate in your life the more time you’ll have to the things that matter.
Here are a few other tips:
- Subscribe to fewer blogs and RSS feeds. Only consume information that you need right now
- Get your news from only a few respectable sources and only check them at specific times at the end of the day
- Treat checking emails as a to-do. Schedule two specific times to process email: late morning and late evening. And disable email on your phone to stop checking it throughout the day. Long-term sustainable email productivity is about selective ignorance
- Turn your device into a minimalist phone. Turn off notifications and sounds and delete unnecessary apps
Selective ignorance frees you from the burden of being a consumer.
And that makes you suddenly free to become a maker.