Last week, for a full seven days, I tried an experiment. It’s basically something I’ve described before on the site – a media diet where I intentionally avoided almost all sources of “news” and instead stuck to books and offline games and physical activity for entertainment.
For seven days, I didn’t watch the news at all. I didn’t visit any news websites – in fact, I blocked all of them. I avoided social media except within the strict limits of what I needed to do professionally and to contact a few people for face-to-face meetings. I did not watch cable news. I did not read a newspaper, save two feature articles suggested to me by trusted friends. I kept my phone turned off unless I intended to communicate with someone and I often kept it in another room.
What did I do instead? I read a book on economics. I went for several long walks with no distractions, just looking around at my environment. I read a novel about two friends in Italy. I played several board games with my kids. I got several nights of really good sleep. I practiced my taekwondo moves and form. I watched a documentary.
Here are some of the things that I noticed during that break.
One, after the first couple of nights, I slept really well. I slept tremendously well, in fact, over the last couple of nights. I woke up feeling really well rested and ready to tackle my day. A large part of this was the fact that when I was tired, I went to bed without any cell phone time or reading time at all. I just went straight to bed in a dark room. Thus, I fell asleep pretty quickly and slept very restfully.
Two, I felt less compelled to want things, particularly those related to my interests and hobbies. I didn’t hear about the latest and greatest board game or some upcoming book that I couldn’t miss. All of that completely fell off my radar. I can always tap into that sentiment if I ever felt a need in my life to have a new book or a board game, but if I don’t have that feeling, why bother?
That feeling extended even to stuff I don’t normally buy. I honestly wasn’t struck with the urge to buy much of anything aside from covering basic food needs.
Finally, I didn’t feel like I missed anything important. There was no news that went on in the world that required any action of any kind from me. I didn’t feel like I became less informed on the real issues of the day; in fact, because of my book reading, I actually felt a little more informed about how the federal reserve works. I suppose that I did miss out on a few things that would have been the source of some “water cooler” small talk, but in truth if I find myself in a situation like that, I mostly just ask questions of others anyway, so that didn’t really change.
Yes, I didn’t happen to know the latest twists and turns in the lives of whoever the media happened to be talking about today, but in truth, those events almost no impact on my life. I can’t do anything about it, and just having those bits of information doesn’t really change my understanding of the world in any way, though good journalism and writing on these subjects may someday rise to that level. “Hot takes” don’t have much value at all.
Yes, I missed out on some potential fodder for water cooler conversations, but in the few situations where I found myself in that situation, I just said, “I haven’t heard about that!” and asked a few questions, or else I just listened.
In the end, I realized that a nonstop flood of information in my life steered my thinking in countless subtle ways, ways I didn’t even recognize until I took a break. It shaped my opinions and made them forceful, far more forceful than they ever should be when they’re standing atop a fragile pile of selected facts and hot takes from recent days. It nudged me toward buying all kinds of things that I wouldn’t have purchased, and also nudged me toward specific versions of things that I might not have otherwise selected.
Honestly, I don’t need those things in my life, neither for my wallet’s sake nor for my sanity. I want to step back for a while and get away from influences that shape my thoughts in ways that I don’t want. I want to stop spending time on those things and use that time elsewhere in my life, on things of my choosing that have meaning and impact for me.
In fact, I’ve decided to make this a permanent change in my life. Here are some of the changes I’m making to my media diet going forward in order to reduce the impact that “news” has in my life.
I’m untethering myself from my phone. As much as possible, I’m simply not carrying my phone with me anywhere. I am carrying a book with me, however, so that when I’m stuck somewhere with some downtime, I can just read a book.
Furthermore, I deleted many of the media apps from my phone. I basically wiped out any and all apps that don’t involve directly communicating with people that I know, leaving behind only a few information apps – the Overdrive app for reading library books, for one, and a Wikipedia reader app.
I blocked a bunch of websites and I intend to leave those blocks in place for a long time. I often reflexively visit a handful of news sites and that’s a habit I’m specifically trying to kill by making it difficult to visit them. The specific program I’m using is SelfControl.
I now keep an audiobook in the car to listen to while driving. It’s a direct replacement for listening to the radio which seems to be a nonstop mix of sponsors and advertisements. Right now, I’m listening to Mindware by Richard Nesbitt.
I don’t watch much television anyway, so that hasn’t changed. I’m still not watching much television. There are too many other things to do.
I created a “work” profile on my primary work computer that’s devoid of most media distractions. It’s trimmed down to the minimum I need to get work done in a timely manner. I do need a web browser, which is why I’m running the aforementioned SelfControl.
Since these changes are actually saving me a surprising amount of time, I’ve added a block of time for deep reading to my daily schedule. The time I used to spend bouncing around news sites and social media sites is now being channeled into an extra half an hour of deep reading each day. I sit down with a book, read it slowly and carefully, and jot down a few notes as I go. The goal here is to actually add a brick to the foundation of understanding in my life, as opposed to hopping from site to site and not building any deep knowledge of anything.
Most of all, I’m trying to remain conscious of these changes. Things like SelfControl and the revamped app selection on my phone are constant reminders, of course, but one personal practice I use is to remind myself several times throughout the day of the things I’m trying to change. This pushes me to remain conscious of those changes almost all the time and thus it becomes much easier to stick to those changes.
The purpose behind these changes is really threefold. First of all, I want to keep my wallet from being led astray. Much of the news media seems to be specifically cultivated to bring about wants, causing us to desire things that we previously saw no purpose for in our lives – usually, we weren’t even aware of the thing. I have no need for that in my life. Second, I was shocked to see how much time I spent just hopping from news site to news site, and I want to recover that time. As I note above, I want to use it on something more meaningful and foundational in my life. Finally, I want to improve my ability to focus. I’ve found that the constant availability of news and information of all kinds has really damaged my ability to focus on a task and, perhaps even more worrisome, has made me far more prone to making snap judgments about things. I want to step back from that – it’s not a good thing for me.
Even if you don’t agree with the steps I’ve taken here, I hope that this article encourages you to step back for a moment and think about the impact of news (online, television, and print) and social media in your life. Is it helping you to become a better, more well rounded person with a deeper knowledge of the world, or is it putting you emotionally on edge with an incomplete assortment of facts? Is it encouraging you to desire to spend your money on things that you hadn’t even heard of before, that don’t fit any actual preexisting want in your life before you read that article or saw that video? Are you getting more value out of it than the time you put into it?
If any of those questions make you uncomfortable, it might be time to consider a short media diet, and the steps above will help you to do just that.
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