I’m giving away my non-millennial age here, but remember when the internet was new and experts crowed about how much less time we’d spend searching out information and how much more time we’d spend, say, relaxing at the beach with our families? Easy access to news and information was supposed to save our time and sanity. Turns out … not so much.
Instead, the internet, a 24-hour news cycle, smartphones, and an unprecedented political climate are all conspiring to make us feel lousy. This week, regardless of your political leanings, we’ll break down four problems with today’s news and three things you can do to save your sanity.
Problem #1: Sheer volume. First, the quantity of news is utterly massive. According to Richard Saul Wurman, founder of the TED conferences and author of Information Anxiety, just one New York Times is packed with more information than the average nineteenth-century individual encountered in a lifetime.
These days, we scroll through the news before we get out of bed, absorb the world through the radio during breakfast, get pinged with updates and alerts all day long, and then tune into the late-night shows to try to muster a laugh about it all. It’s exhausting. The news is even broadcast in airplanes—we can’t escape, even at the equivalent altitude of Mt. Everest.
Finally, the news doesn’t come at us only from mainstream news organizations. These days, for better or worse, anyone can be a reporter. We get news from so many sources: niche websites, blogs, or even140 characters at a time. We’re left to filter the mass for ourselves, which again, is exhausting.
Problem #2: Divided attention. The second problem is how we consume the news. How often do you sit down to watch a news show or read the paper without simultaneously doing something else? If you’re like me, not often. Usually, we’re multitasking: scrolling through online news while getting ready for the day, checking Facebook during lunch, or watching the news shows while talking on the phone.
All this multitasking results in divided attention. And our brains are not designed to do this. Writer Linda Stone coined the term continuous partial attention to describe our constantly fractured mental state.
By contrast, focused attention—the kind of that’s most productive—essentially entails ignoring whatever other stimuli are vying for our attention. But put us in front of a website littered with breaking news alerts and clickbait, and focused attention doesn’t stand a chance.
Problem #3: Anxiety. Depending on your political leanings and demographics, the news these days may be causing a trickle—or a torrent—of anxiety.
Now, news is designed to be bad. Indeed, there’s no story in saying that things are fine and all is well. But when the news leaves you feeling personally attacked or endangered, it causes anxiety, not to mention possible feelings of helplessness and hopelessnes, all of which take a toll.
Problem #4: Anger. Finally, so much of the news these days is angry. Headlines include the verbs “lash out,” “attack,” and “berate.” Veins bulge from commentators’ foreheads. Twitter feuds are daily occurrences. All this anger makes us feel upset, afraid, and intimidated, not to mention angry right back at the news.
So what to do about all this? Now, I won’t try to tell you how to deal with the content of the news, but here are three things you can do to manage the dizzying effects.
Tip #1: Check if you’re still breathing. No, really. Linda Stone of “continuous partial attention” fame has coined another phrase: email apnea, the unconscious suspension of breathing when dealing with your inbox.
This phenomenon also happens with the news. When you scroll through a news site, do you unconsciously hold your breath? Are you breathing fully and steadily, or shallowly, from your throat and chest instead of from your belly? If that’s the case, try the opposite. It’s hard—your body sees the news as a threat, it’s not going to want to relax when it’s in front of you. Which brings us to…
Tip #2: Designate “news time.” News takes up as much time as we allow it, so if we find ourselves taking the clickbait whenever we check email or the TV is always on in the background, we’re going to find ourselves sucked down a vortex hole of news.
But you don’t have to think about news as all-or-nothing. While it may be tempting to kill your television or accidentally-on-purpose dunk your smartphone in the toilet just to get some relief, consider an alternative: “news time.”
This means designating specific times to consume news to help regulate your intake. To do this, designate one or two—or however many, as long as they’re contained—times a day you’ll take in the news. Perhaps over breakfast, or during your commute, or after work. Consider it your “briefing.” Think of it as doing one daily workout rather than running yourself ragged, or eating three meals a day rather than stuffing your face all day long.
If you’re tempted to look when you’re supposed to be doing something else, punt it until news time. The news will still be there, believe me.
To push this even further, make an executive decision not to use devices on certain days, or at certain times of the day. Maybe you won’t check your emails at all on Saturdays, or after 8:00 PM during the week. Maybe you’ll only watch TV three nights a week.
Whatever limits you choose, they will likely feel wrong at first. Especially if you expect to feel instant relief when you turn off your news feed, you may instead feel anxious—indeed, sometimes not knowing is worse than knowing. Be patient with this feeling. Let it pass. I promise it will dissipate, but give it time.
Tip #3: Filter ruthlessly. When the news threatens to drown you, it’s important to bail your metaphorical boat by blocking out inessential incoming information. Cancel subscriptions you don’t read or need. Use email filters to reduce unwanted junk news, and think twice before submitting your email address on a website, as it may be sold to other sites that will infiltrate your inbox with more news. And unsubscribe, unsubscribe, unsubscribe.
In a future episode, we’ll tackle how to deal with the content—what to do when the news gets you down. But to wrap up today, while can’t choose the tenor or the pace of the news, we can choose how to respond. And by doing that, we can take back control.