The internet has dramatically changed what is possible in terms of both content creation and content consumption. The near zero-marginal costs of digital creation means that there is more content created than you could ever consume in a lifetime. Mobile phones and desktop knowledge jobs enable us non-stop access to this content and many people are increasingly spending a large amount of time “keeping up with the news,” playing amateur conspiracy theory debunkers or accumulating facts and knowledge for the next showdown with a real-life political adversary.
I’m here to make a plea with you: please stop watching the news?
Our addiction to the constant flow of news, whether it be about the latest political crisis, sports soap opera, hunt for a missing airplane or a moral crusade against someone who said something 30 years ago, it is all doing the same thing. It is hijacking our brains and distracting us from being in the world with each other, distracting us from getting started on that creative project we’ve been telling our friends about for five years and holding us back from spending time on things we might otherwise derive some joy from.
I want to share my own approach to the news which is that I almost spend no time consuming it. I am sharing my approach to the news because in conversations with people, no personal practice has raised more questions and more indignation than telling them “I don’t follow the news.” So I want to share with you a bit about why I decided to move away from the news. I’ll also share a bit about why the news is so outrageous, why politics is a special kind of monster, why people will likely never change their minds and how we can block it. I’ll close with a few of my suggestions on better things to read.
Let’s dive in.
The news will kill you (or at least lower your sperm count)
Countless studies show that watching, reading or listening to the news can contributed to increased levels of stress. These headlines not only stress me out but share the same story:
Stress drives a whole bunch of things we don’t want:
This study looked at 250+ patients who had a heart attack and asked them immediately after their incident what caused the heart attack:
Attributing the initial attack to stress responses (e.g., worrying, nervousness) was also predictive of greater morbidity in 8-year survivors
between 20 and 40 percent of sudden cardiac deaths are precipitated by acute emotional stressors.
for the men who hope to be fathers one day, this study found that your sperm count might be harmed by stress:
the number of “healthy” sperm was significantly reduced in both groups of stressed men compared to reference values
Newspapers have always been crazy, but the internet has turned them into click-seeking monsters
The news sells to our emotions. The more emotional we become, the more we consume. The best emotion to tap into is fear. Humans have a negativity bias that long ago would protect us from danger, but now mostly forces us to spend an unreasonable amount of time focused on news that is designed specifically to activate this reflex.
This is and always has been the business model of news media organizations. Except at one time only a small number of newspaper titans like William Randolph Heart got to control the headlines and people didn’t spend that much time reading newspapers. No longer supported by print subscriptions and having to shift to digital means to survive, most media companies are competing in a race to the bottom get-the-most-clicks competition that is the modern internet.
This is why digital news is filled with projection, outrage, spin and terrible images. This is also why you never stumble upon articles that tell you that some things are actually getting better!
Prior to the internet there was a certain amount of friction to getting the news. You either had to buy or subscribe to a paper or set aside time to watch the news. Oliver Burkeman, a journalist, notes the shift here:
It’s easy to assume that the reason you spend so much time thinking about the news is simply that the news is so crazy right now. Yet the news has often been crazy. What it hasn’t been is ubiquitous: from its earliest beginnings, until a few decades ago, almost by definition, the news was a dispatch from elsewhere, a world you visited briefly before returning to your own. For centuries, it was accessible only to a small elite; even in the era of mass media, news rarely occupied more than an hour a day of an educated citizen’s attention.
Politics is a special kind of madness
Politics is the soup du jour of news junkies these days. While people realize that politics is about power, they do not react to the news by saying “oh wow, what an interesting attempt to gain more attention and power by using divisive language.” Most tend to react to it by falling into the trap of moral outrage and disgust.
In 1990, New Gingrich had discovered that elevating the level of outrage was a good political strategy. Here is a fascinating NPR podcast about this shift:
There was one memo I write about in the piece called “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” that literally included a list of recommended words that Republicans should use in describing Democrats. And they included words like “sick,” “pathetic,” “lie,” “anti-flag,” “traitors,” or “radical” and “corrupt.”
The kind of broader strategy when waging these national campaigns was to reframe the kind of policy debates in Washington that may have seemed kind of dull or inaccessible to the average American and turned them into these big struggles between good and evil, or white hats versus black hats, and a battle for the character and soul of America.…
This led to a fake division on issues that had and still have broad agreement such as reforming healthcare, supporting social security and medicare, improving gun control and improving education.
Politics is about priorities. Except people like Gingrich have helped convince many people that a lower priority ranking of an issue is really a moral fight of good versus evil.
While right-leaning parties embraced these tactics earlier and more often (In 2011: “conservative media use significantly more outrage speech than liberal media”), they are now common place across the spectrum and have been adopted across the globe.
“But you don’t understand, most people have crazy ideas about politics and we have to change their minds!”
Great rebuttal, but that’s not the case. When you look at people that watch cable news on a nightly basis its only a few million people watching Fox News, CNN or MSNBC. Here is some Fox News data from 2019:
Meanwhile, Fox News’ flagship primetime program, “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” remained the highest-rated show in cable news with 3,353,000 overall viewers and 557,000 in the 25-54 demographic.
People freak out about Fox News, but fewer than 1% of the country is actually watching it on any given night and less than 15,000 people between 25-54 per each state on average are locked in. An enormous amount of elderly people seem to be sitting around watching these programs and let’s admit it, we’re not going to change grandpa’s mind.
In 2018, the “Hidden Tribes” report helped to add some nuance to the polarization meme that seemed to be accepted as gospel. They found that four divisive issues “divided” America but that 67% of the public could be described as an “exhausted majority”
A consistent finding of the study is the contrast between the more tribal beliefs and behavior of the 33 percent of Americans in the wing segments (Progressive Activists, Traditional Conservatives and Devoted Conservatives) and that of the 67 percent in the Exhausted Majority (the Traditional Liberals, Passive Liberals, Politically Disengaged and Moderates).
The report also found those that hold the most extreme views (14% of people) are the least likely to ever change their minds:
Those in the wing segments tend to hold views that conform to their tribe and do not deviate from the party line.
Being a good person does not equal “staying up with the news”
You might be saying “okay okay I get it, but what about staying up with the what’s happening in the world?” This is a good question, but I think the sentiment is disconnected from what is really happening.
The most common response people offer when I say I’ve cut the news is “well how do you find out about things?” The implication being that one needs to know. Here is Oliver Burkeman again:
But the creeping colonisation of our personal sense of reality by “current events” has also seen the emergence of a strange new moral imperative – a social norm which holds that ignoring the news, or declining to grant it preeminence in our lives, is an irresponsible indulgence, available only to the fortunate.
The problem with this mindset is that the act of immersing yourself in the news literally makes you more stressed, takes you away from other things which might have an actual positive impact on the world and keeps you in a state of energetic addiction waiting for the next bombshell to drop.
Learning why we react the way we React
It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that people carefully work through their beliefs via reason and rationality, but that’s not how it plays out in the real world. Studies on twins have found that genetic factors influence greater than 50% of many of our beliefs about the world.
One of the best books I’ve read on this is by Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind. The book has an apt subtitle: “why good people are divided on politics and religion.” In the book, he gives us a sense of what’s at stake and is at the core of what I’m trying to convince you:
If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you.
Another book worth reading if you are intrigued by how our brains operate in the world is Thinking Fast and Slow by Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman. He breaks down our brains processes into “System I” and “System II.” System I is our automatic reactions to the world and System II is our more well thought out rational brain. Many people think System II dominates, but when we start to realize that System I is calling the shots most of the time, we can become more aware of what the news is attempting to trigger
If you’re not the book reading type, this video is worth watching:
Okay, you’re convinced…First step: block the madness
In order to find better stuff to read, you first need to spend time building some walls to protect you from the social media barrage of fear and outrage driven content. Here are some steps I recommend:
Step 1: Delete all the news apps on your phone. I hear you saying “but I like staying informed!” Lets take a look a a sample of what is keeping you informed:
These are the headlines that get blasted to your phone as notifcations 24 hours a day. Are you “informed”? Sure — but have you learned anything new or shifted your perspective on anything? Doubtful.
I’ve found that if something is worth knowing, you typically find out about it via word of mouth within 24 hours. Try it out and let me know if this holds true.
Step 2: Delete the twitter and facebook apps from your phone. In addition to saving valuable battery life, you will have to go out of your way to check them in a web browser. You’ll use it less, trust me.
Step 3: Go through this long piece of 45 tricks to make your “phone work for you and not against you” and pick and choose some of the hacks that work for you. My favorites were:
- Removing e-mail from my phone
- Turning off almost all notifications
- Using app limits to limit twitter, facebook and instagram to less than 10 minutes a day (works for browser-only access too)
- Turn off “raise to wake”
Step 4: Install the chrome extension “News Feed Eradicator for Facebook.” a and LinkedIn Feed blocker. This replaces your news feed with a motivational quote. After you go to facebook a few times and find nothing, you will eventually stop checking it out during the work day.
Step 5: Another chrome hack. Install the Momentum extension. Instead of opening the new tab page (where your most visited pages are likely facebook, etc…) you’ll see a lovely greeting, an amazing picture and another inspirational quote:
Step 6 (for Twitter): Change your trends to Japan or another country where you can’t read the language. Also make sure to mute key words that are caught up in outrage. You find find the mute options in setting & privacy => privacy and safety =>safety => muted. Also don’t be afraid to mute or block people that spend all day on twitter peddling outrage.
Now that you blocked the worst, you still need to search for the good content
There is a common belief that “everything is getting worse” especially in terms of content. Steven Johnson challenged this belief in his book Everything Bad Is Good For You by showing that the quality and complexity of television, writing, movies and other popular material have steadily increased over time. The mistake comes from when people take today’s worst content and compare it to the best content of the past.
I do think Johnson missed something, however. He didn’t factor in that it was incredibly easy to find the best content in the past. Today, a lot of the best writing, movies and music are harder to find, part of niche groups and communities.
Luckily, if you embrace some of the tools available and find individual people worth following who share high-quality content, you can start diving deep into the good side of the web.
My reading tools
- Kindle Paperwhite: No brainer if you like to read on the go
- Instapaper: When I find good things to read, I save them here. Install their handy “bookmarklet” in your browser to save articles for later. I prefer longform, so I often don’t have time to read I have a weekly digest of articles delivered to my kindle automatically.
- Book Recommendations: I keep a notepad on my iphone of book suggestions. I ignore most books until they have been recommended at least two times. Then I read it
- Goodreads: A must have for keeping track of books you want to read and getting ratings from other bibliophiles
📚 I’m currently in the process of updating my favorite books, which can be found here.
My Media Diet & Reading Recommendations
I typically check these at least once a week and add any interesting articles to instapaper to real later:
- Longform: The best Longform on the web — has a great app as well to find out what is popular and also has a useful “staff picks”
- Longreads: Similar to longform with suggestions of the best “Longreads” of the web
- The Browser: I check this almost daily — they have a curated selection of 4–5 articles worth checking out
- Reddit’s Investigative Journalism and Longform pages
- The Sunday Long Read Newsletter by Don Van Natta Jr.
Blogs I Check Semi-Regularly (Bookmark These)
- Marginal Revolution: Tyler Cowen is a beast — he seems to read like 1000 books a year. Always has interesting article suggestions, deep economic analysis of current events or random musics about food and music.
- Stratechery: Ben Thompson has a knack for synthesizing complex topics in a way that make them approachable. His free weekly blog always adds a unique perspective too all things happening in tech, media and the internet.
- Seth Godin: I love that Seth sticks to a daily writing practice. Blogs can be hit or miss, but worth checking out every week or so.
- Ribbonfarm: Great longform essays on all ranges of topics, but written in a unique style. Essays often leave me thinking in new ways. (Updated: not updated as frequently these days)
E-mail newsletters have increasingly become my largest source of incoming content consumption. This enables me to pick and choose people I trust and their own curation or screening of writing that may be worth reading.
One of the biggest “hacks” I’ve found is to send out a weekly list of “five good reads” every Sunday, which I’ve been doing since 2016. If you want to join, feel free to subscribe here:
Some of my favorite newsletters (I keep this updated
- Brain Pickings — Maria Popova’s site excels at summarizing the wisdom and insights of all sorts of ancient and modern writers, philosophers and leaders. For example, check out this post on “Why We Fall in Love: The Paradoxical Psychology of Romance and Why Frustration Is Necessary for Satisfaction”
- Farnham Street Brain Food Newsletter: Their own mini articles in addition to some of the best reads from across the web both current and past (Shane Parrish)
- John Mauldin’s Thoughts From the Frontline: A weekly macroeconomic / financial newsletter reflecting on all things happening across the world from a financial perspective. These can be hit or miss depending on your curiosities (John’s run deep) – but I love the non-sentimental analysis and simple style of communication. It keeps me sharp on world and economic issues
- Breaking Smart: Venkatesh Rao, as he says on his website RibbonFarm has “unusual takes on familiar themes.” I’m not sure if he popularized the “tweetstorm” but he sends a newsletter where he does such a thing about interesting topics. Sometimes the language is a bit complex, but worth checking out nonetheless
- The Journal — Kevin Rose just started a monthly tech oriented newlsetter. A curious person who also embraces the goal of forwarding “shit worth reading”
- Tim Ferriss’ 5-Bullet Friday — A simple, short newsletter from Tim that usually has at least one or two interesting articles or interesting things from the internet a month
- Barking Up The Wrong Tree: Short buzzfeed type articles from Eric Barker— “top 3 things about X” but fascinating topics backed by research.
- Ritholz’s Reads: A daily curation of news from around the web from Barry Ritholz. Longtime successful financial blogger — he has a good sense for cutting through the BS and giving you things worthwhile to read.
- CB Insights: Technology & business insights plus a huge dose of humor and awesome visualizations.
- Andrew Taggart “Total Work”: Fascinating newsletter (check out the back issues) about work taking over our modern world of work
- Curious Humans: Great newsletter by Jonny Miller on what he finds curious in the world
- Ryan Holiday has a great Reading Recommendations list I enjoy
- Khe Hy, Rad Reads on money, productivity & what matters
- Azeem Azhar, Exponential View tech
- Jocelyn Glein, Hurry Slowly
- Austin Kleon, Weekly Newsletter
- David Perrel, Monday Musings a collection of fascinating things
- Future Crunch, A Positive News Newsletter
- Total Annarchy, Ann Hadley
- Scott Galloway, No Mercy, No Malice
- Nat Eliason’s Medley a collection of interesting things & book notes
No longer subscribe:
Some of these people seem to be shifting away from what I’m interested in or are shifting into outrage which I just am not intrigued by
NextDraft : Dave Pell is the king of internet curation. His daily newsletter will keep you informed (he sometimes has a little too much news) but always balances it out with shit worth reading. He also has a standalone app you can use to read on the subway and replace your CNN app.(shifted to politics)