It's a new year, and time to think critically about how we spend the minutes, hours, and days of our life. My theory is ...

If we could spend less time caring about things that aren’t important, we’d have more energy and will-power to create effective and lasting change in the world.

I call this the “power of apathy”, or at least the power of selective apathy. The basic idea is to find activities in life that don’t really matter and move some of the efforts, cares, and thoughts we spend on these superfluous items to actions or thoughts that have a positive impact on our life and the world. It's an idea that I'm far from perfecting in my own life, but even the small steps I've taken so far have illuminated the power of the concept. 

Apathy and the Presidency

The power of apathy is a big part of being President of the United States. In Michael Lewis’ recent profile of the Barack Obama, he says that a President has to eliminate all superfluous decisions and focus on things that are vital to the fate of the country. This includes eliminating decisions on what to eat and wear, because research has shown that even making small decisions erodes our ability to make further decisions. 

Obama doesn't think about which Idol contestant deserved to stay on the show. 
Ok, so we aren’t President of the U.S... yet. But our lives are still vastly complex, packed with noise and clutter. Like the President, we have efforts to be given and decisions to be made. Practicing apathy toward certain aspects of our lives will free up mental capital to care more, love more, and live more. 

Two Examples of Apathy's Power

Stop caring about being late

In ‘The Tipping Point’, Malcolm Gladwell writes about a Princeton study that tested the likelihood of seminarians to help an ailing person. Seminarians were told to prepare a talk on a religious topic (some even the parable of the good Samaritan), and then walk across campus to deliver their lecture. In the middle of the walk, each would be confronted by an ailing man coughing and asking for help. When researchers analyzed the results, it turned out that the only variable that affected whether a seminarian stopped was time. 63% of seminarians who were told they had “a few minutes to spare” as they set off stopped to help the ailing man, while only 10% of those who were told, “hurry, you are running late” offered assistance.

I love you Big Ben, I just don't care what time you tell me that it is. 
Imagine that! Think of all of the opportunities to help, converse, or enjoy life that we miss because we are hurrying to meet some insignificant time deadline. Let's stop trying to be on time all of the time! Sure, it’s important to be on time if possible. But while you might inconvenience someone by being five, ten, or sixty minutes late, you might also change a life with your tardiness (maybe even your own!). I should know, I'm late whenever it's justified. If people start to realize that your lateness comes not from a lack of caring but from a wealth of caring, they will respect you even more. In short, this new year, let’s try to change from a society of calendar keeping watch-checkers to one of rose-smelling care-givers.

Stop caring about buying new things

Dave Bruno is a genius  A few years ago, he decided that he’d had enough. Enough stuff, enough consumerism, enough distractions, and enough time and effort spent on material goods. So sold and donated items until he had no more than 100 possessions. By starting this "100 Things Challenge", Dave learned 
“It’s not about counting things to keep or get rid of. It’s about freeing up space in our lives. Getting rid of the stuff that overwhelms and distracts us. Then making use of that space to do good things in our families, communities, and beyond.”

So do I, and I'm working on it. 
The past year I've been following Dave's advice by cutting the supply of things that I have and thinking critically about the goods that I purchase. In May, I gave away about 35 shirts that had been cluttering up my closet and life. A few weeks later I gutted my possessions, giving away all but two boxes of items I would need if I moved into an apartment. Supply under control. When moving to the UK I checked one bag of clothing, and have only bought a few used pots and pans for the kitchen, an air mattress for guests to sleep on, and a used bike to get around. That's about it. Instead, I've focused on activities and friendships that have offered benefits I value far beyond new "stuff".

Apathy and our lives

Applying the power of apathy to our lives starts with a journey of self-reflection. This journey is part introspection, thinking critically on our own about how we live, and part outrospection, which is having critical discussions with friends, mentors, and strangers about living a better life.  

The power of apathy isn't about living a  spartan-esque life lacking in fun or excitement  It's about clearing space in our cluttered lives and filling that space with meaningful activities. Stop playing Words with Friends and spend the extra time sharing actual words with friends, surf StumbleUpon only twenty minutes a week and use the extra time conversing with homeless people that you may stumble upon,  cut down to one hour of TV shows per week and spend the extra time showing friends and family that you love them. Oh Apathy! The possibilities are full of wonder. 
So this New Years, let's resolve to examine and de-clutter our lives. By caring less about superfluous things we can be less careless in how we live out our relationships with family, friends, and the global community. 


Kurt Berning

Hug the Rhino
For a better life