In 2019, I’d like to overcome my habit of checking news. On a bad day, I might check news a hundred times, hovering over the New York Times, CNN, Reuters, Google News, and Facebook in search of breaking headlines and updates to trending stories. The temptation to take out my phone and read news arises when I’m standing in the subway, waiting for food at a restaurant, sitting on the toilet, lying in bed trying to wake up, or pacing around the kitchen wondering what to do next with my day. When I’m at my desk, I might have a dozen browser tabs open to different news sites and articles I’ve started reading in between other tasks. Sometimes while I’m checking news online, the news is also playing on the radio.
There are three reasons why I check news, not including any practical need I might have for information about current events. In truth, almost nothing I see in the news aside from local weather has any bearing on what I do during the day. And while the desire to be well-informed is a good excuse for frequently checking news, it could be better satisfied by reading books and maybe looking at the news once a week. My real reasons for checking news are not often obvious to me at the time, but they reveal themselves in hindsight.
The first reason I check news is that I’ve gotten tired working on my current task, whatever it is, and I need a break. The second reason is that I’m bored or lonely and I’m looking for stimulation. The third reason is that I’m anxious and I’m looking for a distraction from troubling thoughts. In all three cases, I’m looking for something quick and easy, and the news provides.
Unfortunately, what the news provides is never what I’m really looking for. When I turn to the news as a break from my current task, I’m seeking refreshment so that I’ll be able to concentrate again, but the news leaves me exhausted and discouraged. When I turn to the news because I’m bored, the news provides excitement, but this excitement is of a hollow kind that leaves me unsatisfied and ultimately more bored. When I turn to the news because I’m anxious, the news distracts me from what I’m worried about, but it does this by causing new worries. While these new worries at first crowd out the old ones, they eventually welcome the old ones back to join.
Every time I check the news, my emotions are basically the same: shock and disbelief, leading to anger, leading to sadness, leading to helplessness, hopelessness, and gloom. I’m left with a sense of guilt (I wasted my time checking), futility (I can’t change any of these horrible things that are happening in the world), disappointment (I didn’t really get what I was looking for), and confusion (I guess I don’t really understand the world). Often these feelings impel me to check the news again, looking for something hopeful, fascinating, or urgent that will distract me from my deepened frustration, and the cycle continues. I tell myself “I need to know what’s going on” and “maybe I missed something important” so I keep scrolling and searching. But the news just hurts more and more.
Checking the news is a way of rehearsing impatience. As soon as I’ve extracted whatever stimulation is to be found in the current news item, I start looking for new ones. I’m carried along from link to link, article to article, always choosing the path of greatest stimulation, juiciest distraction. I feel a reduced sense of volition, as if I’m being pushed and pulled around with little choice in the matter, even though it’s me who’s doing the clicking and the scrolling. It doesn’t matter that sometimes, my browsing leads me to the encounter the work of the world’s greatest, most thoughtful, courageous, and incisive journalists. I’m paying just enough attention to be frightened but not enough to learn or truly appreciate.
What is the way out? Some ideas:
First, focus on breathing. Take a deep breath before you check news. Notice whether the urge to check is stronger or weaker after you’ve inhaled and exhaled slowly. Take some more breaths. Maybe you don’t need to check?
Second, focus on a comforting, joyous image. Before you take out your phone, think about a thing that makes you happy. Take ten seconds to visualize yourself experiencing that thing. Maybe you don’t need to check?
Third, check yourself instead of the news. How are you doing? Is it possible that in fact, you’re doing fine, you’re doing OK, right now, at this particular point in your day? Try affirming that you’re all right, you’re OK, just as things are now. Maybe you don’t need to check?
Fourth, keep your phone’s mobile data and wifi turned off. If you feel an irresistible urge to fidget with your phone, try looking through your photo album.
This is my first post in a new category that I’d like to explore here on my blog, personal development. I figure I’ve been alive long enough that I might know some stuff about life that could be helpful to others; at the same time I’m dealing with some things and I’m probably confused about some things that I could get a better grip on if I wrote about them. Writing this post and keeping it in mind over the past few days has already helped tame my news-checking urge.
My aim in this post (and future ones like it) is to address a problem without lavishing too much attention on the thorny details of the problem as if those details were the most interesting thing in the world. While I could have gone into a cinematic exposition of a specific news-checking experience, I took it as more important to reach the solutions at the end.
In writing the post, I was concerned about painting too harsh a picture of myself — maybe that’s a risk of succinctness. I felt a temptation to assure the reader, particularly anyone who might be a friend or loved one, that my situation is far from dire. I’m doing lots of rewarding things in my life, I feel joy each day, and I’m not sitting around checking news to the exclusion of all else. Rather, checking news is a habit that seems to grow and shrink according to the amount of idle time that’s available for it. However, the specific percentage of my time I might be spending on the news doesn’t really matter as far as the point of the post, and I figured that being milder and chattier in my self-portrayal wouldn’t really make the post better.