Staying Informed without Being a News Junkie

For all the talk about the evils of the news and social media, I don’t see a lot of people talking about better alternatives. I quit social media years ago and blocked all the major news sites on my computer, yet I find that I’m better informed than most people chasing the latest updates. With a little planning, some neat tools and a smidgen of discipline you can do exactly the same thing.

Stop Watching the News

The first step is to unplug the news. Not surprisingly, the world isn’t going to end if you aren’t the first to know everything. A lot of ink has been spilled on this topic, so I won’t belabor the point.

The news is stilted: a million mediocre to great things happen for every bad thing. Life is insanely wonderful. My parents’ generation worried about getting polio and having to fight in Vietnam.

Watching the news and scrolling through social media leaves you feeling on edge, in crisis and that everybody else is doing better than you.

For a more detailed look, check out Ryan Holiday’s denunciation of the news or the growing concerns linking social media to depression in teens. Consider that you probably consume more information than you need and start thinking about what you could cut out.

The Elimination Diet

Time for the painful part: as far as possible get rid of all of your information consumption, especially aimlessly searching for non-specific news. How this actually works out is going to be highly individual. I deleted Facebook and blocked nearly every new site on my computer. For the daring, modifying the /etc/hosts file works; apps like SelfControl also do the trick.

Use this phase to figure out what you actually need rather than what you do out of habit and boredom. You might not be able to find local music gigs without Facebook or need to follow certain news stories for work. Make a note of these cases and figure out a workaround. For those times when you are just bored, have an eBook or something to read on hand.

Fine Tuning Your Block List

Blocking everything isn’t a long-term solution for most people. After a few weeks to a month of experimentation I reintroduced precisely that which I needed. The dopamine-hit sites like Facebook and up-to-the-minute news updates are still gone.

I craved in-depth analysis, finding out about new trends and photo sharing. Once I knew what I actually needed, it was possible to figure how to get that without the stuff I didn’t want.

My ‘Forever’ Solution

Email subscriptions and Pocket are how I stay away from mindless surfing. Most major blogs and news sites have an email list. I created a separate alias for these sites — if you have gmail, add ‘+reading’ between your address and @gmail.com. Set up a filter so anything sent to your reading alias ends up in a separate filter without hitting your inbox so you won’t get any notifications.

Most mornings I take about 15 minutes to go through my reading folder. All of these sites are still blocked on my computer, if I want to read beyond what’s in the email I add the link to my Pocket. When I read something via Pocket, it’s much harder to get distracted in an endless cycle of related story links and comments. I can read the most interesting stories on the subway or when I’m standing in line somewhere.

I get a daily digest from the New York Times and a weekly digest from the Economist. On top of this, I follow around 5 blogs at any given time. I never get any more breaking news nor the sense of alarm that goes with it.

The thing I missed most from Facebook was photo sharing. This was easy enough to solve: Flickr for public photos, Google Photos for albums I want to share with a smaller circle.

The one procrastination tool that I let myself keep was Hacker News. The discussion is intelligent and informative without partisan politics.

For the most part, this setup should work by substituting whatever news outlets you prefer, various subreddits or other forums.

Life without Social Media and Constant News

I don’t do this out of some disdain for plebeian entertainment. The constant drip of information lowered my quality of life. It’s been about a year since I’ve gotten my system to its current state, and I’m satisfied with the results.

I spend a lot more time talking to people over video chat. I’d rather talk to a smaller circle of friends a few times a month instead of seeing random updates on a daily basis. Quality vs. quantity.

Most of the people who tell me that I’m missing important news don’t realize that much of their ‘news’ consumption is just reading about the tweets of a reality TV host. Headline news doesn’t give you the insight that reading, the Economist does.

In the end, I save a ton of time. When I actually want to relax, I have a fun conversation with a friend, a calm dinner or read a good book. That sure beats a slurry of #fakeNews and cat pictures.

Addendum

A writer for the New York Times worked out a similar system focusing on only print news. His results were much the same as mine: less stress, much less time spent on news while being considerably better informed. Cal Newport also professes a digital minimalism. I don’t think there’s a single solution for everybody, but it’s nigh time we all start using our technology more consciously.