Develop an Indifferent Attitude


“People are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things…” Epictetus.

I’ve always associated true productivity with calm focus. If you’re feeling frantic and rushed, especially when doing complex mental labor, you’re simply not going to be as effective as you could be. Here’s how to work toward achieving more with less stress.

Jory MacKay, writing for Fast Company, says that one thing 2020 taught us is how little control we really have. In a matter of weeks, the pandemic changed everything for almost everybody on Earth. No advance notice, no way to avoid it, and no road map for how to survive it,much less thrive during it.

MacKay writes “Feeling confident and calm–in work and in life–requires living with issues that are outside of your control.” Easier said than done for most of us. Writer Darius Foroux Told MacKay in a 2020 interview that the key to mental resilience in a crisis is to “focus on the things you can control. And the most powerful things you can control are your effort and skills.” In order to improve his own resiliency, Foroux turned to Stoic philosophy

Stoics believed that you could not accomplish great things if you were focused on hundreds of small things. The solution: choose your most important goals and values and become indifferent to everything else.

Most of us invest a lot of energy in things we can’t control. We worry about what other people think of us, we worry about what other people are planning or doing, we worry about whether traffic will make us late for our meeting. Becoming indifferent to these ideas doesn’t mean you’re apathetic; it means you don’t need to waste strong feelings on them. You can define indifference this way: I don’t choose to spend time on this right now or this way: I’ll be fine no matter what happens.

Every day, we encounter hundreds of stimuli, big and small, that affect us. My sick child kept me up last night. The shirt I wanted to wear today is in the wash. I’m having a pretty good hair day. The barista got my coffee order wrong. Traffic was light and I got to work early. We spend our day labeling these stimuli: good, bad, or indifferent. Good for me and bad for me are easy to understand; it’s indifference that will nudge you to feel calmer and experience less stress.  Labeling things that you can’t control and don’t matter that much as indifferent helps you tell yourself another story.

Author Oliver Burkeman sums it up this way: “The only things we can truly control, the Stoics argue, are our judgments – what we believe – about our circumstances. For the Stoics, then, our judgments about the world are all that we can control, but also all that we need to control in order to be happy; tranquility results from replacing our irrational judgments with rational ones.”

Once you become indifferent to stressors that you can’t control, you can use the energy you gain back on things you can control. You can control your effort – how hard you work and how carefully you work to get things right. You can control how you treat other people. You can control how much time you invest in self-care, healthy practices, and professional and personal growth.

In other words, focus not on what happens to you, but on what you can make happen.

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