#17: three tips for reading the news this week
and also what's worth worrying about
Time Spent is a series of letters exploring how and why we should we read the news, among other ways to spend time. I’m also working on a book about this. You can subscribe here if you’re new. And get in touch with me here or by replying :)
How do your social feeds look today? Here are some tweets I came across on mine this morning:
This, plus countless newsletters in my inbox offering self-care and sanity strategies for election week, got me thinking about my nervous system. Funnily enough, I don't feel too stressed this week. This is not to say that I'm not experiencing some level of fear, uncertainty or worry about the election and myriad other issues; I react emotionally to what I read and watch because I'm human. But it seems to pass more quickly and doesn't bear much impact on my worldview or level of hope. You may remember from past issues that this was not the case a few months ago. These days, I feel pretty able to live my life and stay focused on the people and actions I care about most.
I think it's because 2020 has forced me to implement some news consumption habits that have served me well. So today I offer you a few of the questions I've been asking myself before reading the news these past 10 months, in case any one might be a little bit helpful.
(1) How do I feel right now? How do I want to feel?
I have no background in psychology so take this with a large grain of salt, but after reading a few books (in particular, The Body Keeps Score) that explain what activates our sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous systems, I started categorizing news sources into two nervous system "food" categories for myself. Bear with the analogy.
I view daily news, which is usually "cooked" by chefs in a hurry, as food for my sympathetic nervous system. It's made fast, it's reactive, it's competitive and at times it's cheap. I've learned that my nervous system can only take about 7 minutes of this type of news before I feel sick or like the world is ending. So I do my once-a-day scroll or briefing and then I'm off to live my life.
I view slower journalism (and intelligent blogging) as food for my parasympathetic nervous system. It helps me learn, wonder, ask questions, answer questions and start to see the bigger picture. Here's where I spend time a few days a week by asking myself the following two questions.
(2) How much time do I have and what would I like to invest in?
There's a lot of advice floating around the internet about how you should shut your devices off, or cut yourself off from the news to protect your mental health. I view this approach as the equivalent of dieting, which may be effective in the short-term but I’m not a fan of it.
I'm a fan of incremental lifestyle changes aimed at a larger, self-motivated goal. So if I have time and an appetite for learning, I spend that time on “rest and digest” information. And if I don't, it's because I'm spending my time doing something else that matters. Also, offering yourself something new or different to eat, is always better than denying yourself something, in my opinion.
(3) What is 1 thing I want to learn more about today, this week or this month?
I view news as adult education, so whenever I feel that hunger to be-in-the-know, lose myself in an information hole, talk to someone about what's happening in the world or write about it, I first try to set a goal. It's almost like the difference between window shopping (in the mall, back in the day) or going to a store knowing what it is you want to buy. I find window shopping inspiring for about 5 minutes and then incredibly exhausting. I've always felt that way about shopping without a purpose. You come home feeling intensely aware of what you don't have and who you aren't, after having accomplished nothing productive; unless of course you bought something, and are you sure that's even what you wanted in the first place? Now we just endlessly window-shop on the internet, but it’s like we’re looking at the stores, the factories, the second-hand stores, the knock-off markets and every form of advertising imaginable, all in one place.
Some sample goals for me this week might be:
I want to understand why the electoral college is broken.
I want to understand how many elections in the past have been undecided and what happened next.
I want to understand who is voting differently this year than 2016 and why.
I want to know who is voting, where, and what the most interesting demographic shifts are.
I want to know what other countries are saying about America right now.
I want to know what the White House's general to do list is between November and January and what different administrations have done in that time.
I wonder how the features in an of an overtly right-wing magazine like the National Review and an overtly left-wing magazine like The Nation compare this week.
And then I just search for that information.
✨ I also think it’s worth deciding what you don’t want to know, and what you want to know now vs. later. This will be key to choosing how to spend your day tomorrow :)
In the book I’m writing on this subject, I liken this process to the journalist’s pitch meeting. Somebody in some room is pitching stories they think you need to read right now. And they don’t know you. Why not just do it for yourself? Or at least share the responsibility.
The Only Things Worth Worrying About
All that said, after my 10 minutes checking the news apps on my home screen and 7 minutes on Twitter this morning, I went to a place I know always makes me feel better, learn a bit and frame humanity's decision-making processes in a new way: Brain Pickings. I came away with two things that helped me take a deep breath and reset my focus.
This advice from F. Scott Fitzgerald on what’s worth worrying about:
In his famous and wonderfully heartening letter of fatherly advice, F. Scott Fitzgerald gave his young daughter Scottie a list of things to worry and not worry about in life. Among the unworriables, he named popular opinion, the past, the future, triumph, and failure “unless it comes through your own fault.” Among the worry-worthy, courage, cleanliness, and efficiency.
And this warning from philosopher/historian Noga Arikha to not to over-index on the present and forget to pay attention to history:
There is a way out: by integrating the teaching of history within the curricula of all subjects—using whatever digital or other means we have to redirect attention to slow reading and old sources. Otherwise we will be condemned to living without perspective, robbed of the wisdom and experience with which to build for the future, confined by the arrogance of our presentism to repeating history without noticing it.
P.S. A small tool I use
I’ve been testing out Newsguard, which, if you install it on your browser, will put a little check-mark next to sources that are trustworthy as you use the web. I have found that this impacts my googling process quite well, especially when it comes to partisan blogs and reading science and health info. Not seeing the checkmark before I click has been making me take a quick little pause to be extra curious about what kind of source I’m about to read.
Don’t forget to keep living your life this week! And take back your power. First, by voting and second, by reading the news in a way that respects your body.
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