The Power of Selective Apathy

October 19, 2015 — by Matt


This article originally appeared on We Live Limitless at

Is it ignorance or apathy?
… Hey, I don’t know and I don’t care.
– Jimmy Buffett

The world is a fascinating, interconnected place. Technology allows us to tap into a level of information and communication that would have been impossible 20 years ago. We can now chat with anyone anytime the world over. Videos, articles, and Wikipedia can serve us more information than we can consume on any topic we find interesting. We can travel anywhere in the world with relative ease, and pursue opporunities not available to generations before us. We’re more aware than ever of the thoughts, feelings, and life events of our family, friends, and even complete strangers. And we can interact with anyone, start conversations, and work collaboratively toward a higher purpose with relative ease.

Oh, what a time to be alive!
The downside to having so much available to us is that… we have SO MUCH available to us. Without constraints, the abundance of information and the burden of choosing what to consume become overwhelming. When you’re inundated with event invites, listicles, friends’ social media timeline rants, personal projects, internet memes, socio-political causes, pleasure reading, and the latest Netflix original shows, it’s difficult to figure out what’s important to pay attention to, and what isn’t. Everything settles into the same tier becomes white noise. And our limited attention is so thinly spread over everything that nothing gets enough attention to make a difference.

If everything is important, than nothing is.
– Patrick Lencioni

If life is like a buffet, it’s our job to decide what goes on our plate. Choosing a little of everything will leave us with too little of each dish to enjoy it, and adding more food to an already-full plate will just result in a mess.

So we need to be picky with what we consume and what we’re exposed to. Of course, this is easier said than done – it’s not like we can just choose what we want to see and nothing else with bother us – most information is thrown at us from all directions. So to effectively bat away that which doesn’t serve us, let’s try a strategy of “selective apathy”.

“I don’t care”

Apathy is generally viewed as a bad thing. The phrase “I don’t care” is a rude phrase, something to be avoided in polite company. True enough, with all things considered. But selective apathy is a powerful strategy to decide what you just don’t care about in order to give more attention to what you do. By dismissing an input as “unimportant”, you clear away a big chunk of the noise around you to more clearly see your goals, ready to be attacked.

The concept of selective apathy is readily apparent in many existing success strategies. The Pareto principle (or the 80/20 rule) works by identifying the 20% of your activities that produce 80% of your results. By saying that you “don’t care” about the other 80% of activities, you’re narrowing your focus and improving your output. Environment design forces you to construct your surroundings in a way that is condusive to your task. Anything that isn’t is ignored. The importance of “saying no”? Just another way of identifying something you don’t have the bandwidth to care about right now. And minimalists will recognize selective apathy as just another method to clear your life of what isn’t necessary.

One man’s trash is another’s treasure

It’s important to understand that choosing to ignore something does not mean that it isn’t important in a universal sense. It’s simply putting concentrated focus on a few important things in order to make a real impact or actual progress. The researcher who dedicates her life to finding a cure for ALS is not doing so becuase she believes curing other diseases is unimportant; rather, she’s doing so because a concerted effort in her chosen area of focus will yield a more powerful result.

In addition, saying “I don’t care” should really mean “I don’t care about this right now”. It’s often beneficial to ignore an input while you’re focused on something else and then return to it when you have more bandwidth to give it its due consideration. Just don’t let it take your eye off the ball in the short term and pull your focus from your goals.

Don’t just say “I don’t care” to others

After extolling the virtues of selective apathy and using “I don’t care” to keep your attention focused on the important, I’m going to give you one final piece of advice – don’t actually say it.


In most cases we’re telling ourselves not to care as a shield to to our attention. But when it comes to other peoples’ ideas or proposals, outright saying the phrase “I don’t care” comes off as rude, and for good reason – it’ll sound like you think their interest is unimportant and unworthy. But this isn’t the case – just because you choose not to focus on something yourself does not make it unimportant to someone else or in general.

So if you’re forced to decline others’ proposals or projects in order to focus on your own, do so with gratitude – they thought of you as a valuable contributer to the conversation. Let them know you think the cause or idea has real merit (as long as you really think so!) and share with them enthusiastically what you are focused on that requires your full attention. Passion recognizes passion, and not only will you leave the conversation with mutual respect for each others’ projects, but you’ll open the door for potential collaboration in the future.

There is more information and opportunity out available to us than there ever has been before. Taking a stance of selective apathy regarding everything that isn’t important to you right now will allow you to make a real impact on those things that are.

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