It’s More Important Than Ever to Ignore the News

by John Zeratsky

From the moment I clicked “Publish” two years ago, I’ve been uncomfortable with my post about ignoring the news. Not because it’s wrong, or because it’s bad advice. On the contrary, I think ignoring the news is more important than ever. (I even made it a part of my new book Make Time, as tactic #25, “Ignore the News”.)

If you follow the news because you’re an active, engaged citizen—a force for good in a world of bad news—you can’t afford to squander your time and energy in a reactive loop of breaking news. You need to be in charge.

No… That old post makes me uncomfortable because telling people to ignore the news feels wrong in today’s chaotic world. An incredible amount of bad news is published every day, and ignoring it — even if just for 24 hours, or for a week at a time, as I do — seems irresponsible.

Photo by charlotte on Unsplash

During the 20th Century, reading the news (and later watching it, with the advent of broadcast television and then cable news) became the “right thing to do” for grown-up, informed citizens and savvy, growth-oriented professionals… or that’s how the narrative goes, anyway.

Indeed, the breaking news runs on a very potent myth: You need to know what’s going on around the world, and you need to know now.

But let’s forget about the whole world for a moment. The diligent newsreader could fill every minute of every day with news about the United States. Much of it is really quite bad. But news from the U.S. is all the more compelling (at least to those of us who live here) because it represents an opportunity to do something. To seize on the bad news and create some good news instead. To take action.

Since the national elections in 2016, taking action is exactly what many Americans have done. Research shows that organic civic engagement is on the rise. And this engagement is driven by the news, of course: In order to call your representative, or attend a rally, or encourage your neighbors to vote, you need to know what you’re talking about. What are the issues? What position should you take? What can be done?

That last question — of what can be done, of how to turn outrage into action — is answered by an army of civic and political influencers who use email, Twitter, and Facebook to reach voters. They’re doing a public service, especially for newly engaged citizens who are not quite sure how to get involved. This is one example of thousands:

But there is a problem. In the course of their helpful service to concerned readers, these influencers amplify and accelerate a news paradigm that’s already firehose-intense. They’ve connected the act of following breaking news (which gets us down) to the promise of taking action (which gives us hope). The news is no longer just compelling, interesting, and addictive—now it feels really important, too. The logic goes something like this: If you care about what’s happening to our country and you want to do something about it, you have to keep up on the news. It’s a matter of national responsibility.

But just as reading movie reviews won’t help you make a film, reading the news isn’t the same as taking political action. It is possible to sink so much time into researching something that you squandered the energy and time you have to actually do that something. The news becomes a kind of “fancy tool” — it feels productive and important, but it can distract you from what really matters.

In other words: If you spend all day obsessing over bad news, when will you have time to do anything about it?

I’m exaggerating a bit. It’s unlikely that anyone will spend literally all day reading the news (although you could). But have you ever picked up your phone for a “quick” check of Twitter, Instagram, or the news, and put it down half an hour later? Where does the time go? I’ve done it. And every time it happens, I’m reminded that these infinite streams of content have a remarkable ability to suck up time. When you’re in the Infinity Pools, time seems to pass a whole lot faster. Make no mistake: The news is an Infinity Pool, and it will steal your time.

How do you want to spend that time: reading about all the wrongs in our world, or taking action to make them right?

If you want to take back your time from breaking news, there are good strategies and bad ones. The worst approach is relying on willpower or self-control:

🙏 I will not check the news. I will not check the news. I will not check the news 😌

It’s very unlikely to work.

You’ll have more success if you make the news a little less convenient. The people who publish, package, and present the news are very smart and very motivated, and they have spent years making it all as frictionless, effortless, and convenient as possible. Smartphone apps are the apex of these efforts, because newspeople can interrupt you with notifications whenever there’s a new story they think you should see. It’s like a TV that automatically changes the channel to CNN whenever there’s breaking news! Yikes!

Fortunately, there are some pretty simple techniques you can use to slow down the news by adding friction into the process. And they don’t require any ongoing willpower—once the change is made, you can sit back and bask in the inconvenience. (These tactics are included in the Laser section of my new book Make Time.)

  • Turn off notifications for all news apps. (As far as I’m concerned, it’s crazy not to do this.)
  • Try deleting news apps from your phone. An app can’t interrupt you with a notification if it’s not installed on your phone! (And don’t worry, if you want to read the news, the web is just a tap away.)
  • Log out of news websites. Most of the major ones have adopted paywalls, which means you have to be signed in if you want to read their stories. It also means you can log out! Your aimless clickthrough will be gently rebuffed by a login screen.
  • Ban TV news from your information diet. There’s really no reason to get your news from the television. It’s inefficient, shallow, and repetitive.

It’s important to follow the news—just not all the time. Once you add in some friction and break the cycle of nonstop breaking news, you might consider starting up one of these slow news habits:

  • Schedule time once a week (or every couple of days) to log in and read your favorite news website.
  • Sign up for a daily news summary email. Nearly every major news outlet offers one, and if once-a-day news feels right to you, this is a good way to get it in a finite form.
  • Read the newspaper. Yes, the actual paper. Jason Fried (on Tim Ferriss’s podcast) reminded me how good the real newspaper can be: it’s necessarily slower and more thoughtful than Internet breaking news, and again, it’s finite. When you’re done reading the paper, you’re done—you can’t pull to refresh or click a link to read more.
  • Switch to a weekly. I read The Economist every week, and it’s been my primary news source for almost five years. There are lots of great weekly news magazines, obviously (Time, BusinessWeek, The New Yorker, etc), so you can find one you like. To me, a weekly summary of the news is not too fast, not too slow, but just right.

I’ll wrap up here with some comments about ignoring the news from Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, in an interview on Pod Save America:

“I’m very worried. I tell my friends: Spend 10 minutes a day yelling at your TV and then get back to work.”

“We’re spending so much time [reacting to the news] and the things we need to be doing, that existed before November and are even more under threat now, require us to not spend our days playing defense.”

These words are especially powerful coming from a politician, someone who’s in a constant swim of information, continually briefed and kept up to date on the news. But perhaps because he’s on the inside of a political machine, Garcetti knows what it takes to make a change. Action is the only thing that matters, and action requires time.

To make time for action — or whatever matters most to you — stay out of the Infinity Pool of constant breaking news. Today it’s more important than ever.