Tyler Green recently tweeted, "Turn your critical lens toward things you think matter, that you want to discuss, share. Let practice win out over rubbernecking."
And "rubbernecking" strikes me as the perfect way to describe how we let things that don't matter distract us from things that do.
Rubbernecking happens when we notice other people paying attention to something (real or virtual) and automatically assume that it's worthy of our attention as well.
Rubbernecking happens when we suspect something's probably meaningless, but a faint, persistent anxiety keeps us fixated on it.
Rubbernecking happens when we know something's completely meaningless, but a fascination with the spectacle prevents us from turning away.
Why does this matter? Because of the importance of our focused attention. As I've written before, focused attention is our most precious resource because 1) it's extremely taxing on our intellectual and emotional capabilities, 2) it can have a amazingly powerful effect on its object, and 3) it can't be subdivided. (We can pay continuous partial attention to multiple objects, but we can truly focus on only one object at any given moment.)
And every instance of rubbernecking represents wasted attention--a valuable, finite resource dedicated to something meaningless and unrewarding. Note that I'm not suggesting that we never take breaks, daydream or even just goof off. (I'm a big fan of goofing off, in any number of ways.)
But breaks, daydreams and goofing off are all essential forms of play that allow us to recharge and refresh ourselves. Rubbernecking is just a waste, a state of useless vigilance that holds us in its grip until we're finally convinced that there's nothing to see here. And given that our focused attention is so taxing, powerful and limited, we waste it at our peril.
So what can we do? In addition to the three suggestions I made earlier this year, I'd add the following:
1) Resist the pull of social proof. Social psychologists call the phenomenon of being influenced by what others are paying attention to "social proof," and it's a compelling force. But social proof is a poor predictor of what's truly worthy of our attention; as Stanford professor Huggy Rao and his colleagues have written, "Reliance on heuristics such as social proof can often lead to overvaluation of the choice and regret about the decision." When we find ourselves drawn in on the basis of others' attention, we're probably rubbernecking.
2) Consider the Return On Attention. We talk endlessly about ROI, but what's the ROA in any given experience? What are we getting in exchange for this precious resource? Even when we're goofing off, we should be able to clearly identify the terms of the exchange--but if our answer to the question is, "Not much," or, worse, "I don't know," that's a sign that we're rubbernecking and should move along.
3) Improved emotional management. As is so often the case, emotions are central to our reasoning and decision-making processes, and our ability to focus our attention on what matters is directly related to our ability to be aware of and regulate our emotions. Note that management does not mean suppression; the better we can sense and understand our emotions, the more effectively we can articulate and express them. But when we're not in touch with our emotions, when our anxieties and frustrations are operating just beyond our conscious awareness, we're more likely to soothe ourselves by rubbernecking.
Photo by Ted Kerwin. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.