A few weeks ago, I realized that consuming the news was messing up my brain. I’d get done teaching my classes all morning, and then I’d sit down for lunch, and I’d pull up The Week or some other news site, and 60 minutes later I’d still be reading the latest stories and commentaries.
It’s easy to justify, right? I live in a country whose government depends on an informed electorate. I can’t think critically apart from knowledge, so I need to know things about foreign policy or health care or trade deals or education if I’m going to think well about them. Plus, I’m an English teacher who only recently began teaching world history classes exclusively, so there’s a lot about current events that I don’t understand. I’ve got catching up to do. And, c’mon — we all need time to just relax, right?
(Oh, the self-justification factory that is the human heart.)
But this is exactly the Any-Benefit Approach to decision-making. Just because reading the news each day (and listening to it in the car on the way to and from work) might provide me with the benefits above, the thing I started asking myself is, “What are the costs of this?”
The costs, I realized, were many:
- I was spending lunch time (and part of my prep) consuming things that were mostly irrelevant, things that weren’t likely to make me better. Sure, there was the chance one of my favorite commentators would frame an issue in such a way that brought me new insight or that gave me a model for how to think or write better. But these kinds of benefits were haphazardly gained. Thirty minutes to an hour is a large percentage of my day to invest in expectation of haphazard returns.
- I was training my brain to wander. Bouncing from one five-minute read to another two-minute video clip to a different eight-minute commentary was teaching my brain, on a daily basis, at a critical point in my day, to rapidly keep switching its focus and to refrain from settling in to any kind of work.
- I was doing this at a critical point in my day. After I teach my four classes in the morning, I’ve got two hours before study hall. (This year, I’m taking one unpaid hour per day to work on writing; I am a .8 teacher.) It is critical that, during at least one of these hours, I move forward in whatever I’m working on as a writer — be it a book or a workshop or a keynote or a blog post. Because of the unfocused “work” I was doing in consuming the news during this time in my day, I would go into these fairly high-pressure writing sessions and just spin my wheels. It wasn’t uncommon for me to start (but not finish) five blog posts in an hour. That’s a hot mess.
- And finally, there is just the reality that the news these days is pretty toxic. It’s one thing to stay informed, it’s another to daily wallow in every nook and cranny of the torrent that is modern news.
Clearly, I needed a simple rule: I don’t consume news during the week (except during my 5 minute commute to and from work) or on Sundays. (And, since Saturdays involve parenting four children, let’s just say there’s not a ton of news intake going on there, either.)
Not hard to remember. Not hard to carry out. I can still gain many of the benefits I was seeking in my daily news habit — being informed, learning about the world, gaining knowledge over time — while not incurring the costs on my time, my brain, my productivity, and my heart.
A rule can’t change a person, but it can create the conditions through which change is possible. What simple rules might give you more time and sanity to do work that matters?