Time Spent is a series of letters exploring how and why we should read the news, do care work and spend our time. The occasional tips and insights are all part of a book I’m writing about consuming the news.
This week I have a news consumption tip that I’ve been experimenting with on myself for a few weeks and so far I love it because it requires zero effort on my part (except the set-up) and has already significantly changed my behavior.
Tip: Arrange your phone’s home screen efficiently
Given that globally, people are now spending an average of 4.2 hours a day on apps on their smartphones, think about how many times a day you pick up your phone and unlock it. Unless you’re going straight to an app from a notification, you see your home screen a lot.
I pick up my phone an average of 143 times a day. That’s crazy. (If you have an iPhone and actually want to see how many times you pick up your phone a day, check out Screen Time in settings.)
Granted, lots of it is messaging. But even so, of those 143 times, think of how many times a day I’m making a micro-decision about what to click on and therefore what to consume!
So I decided to set myself up for success. Here’s what my home screen looks like as of April:
Before I explain, keep in mind that I define “news” as information that helps me live my life and fulfill my needs, not just what’s in the headlines. (If you’re new here, see last week’s issue #24 on a needs-based approach to news consumption.)
Why I chose this set-up
By now you know I like to start everything with an intention. Well, this month, I wanted to prioritize a more balanced news diet aligned with my goals. Let’s use the kitchen/pantry metaphor here:
If you want to eat more healthfully, it probably makes sense to put the ingredients you want to cook with and snack on front and center, and move everything else to a lower shelf.
Same thing with information.
So I removed everything from my home screen that doesn’t need to be there and set up my “shelf” to prioritize what I want to stumble upon in the millions of little moments throughout my day that I consume news, such as: when I wake up, on the couch, while waiting in line, out for walks, in transit, while doing the dishes, etc.
Here’s my ideal news diet on a weekly basis.
solid snapshot of the “big picture” from reliable, traditional news sources
check in with my filter bubble: those silos or networks I’m invested in
2-3 high-quality longform thoughts
Here’s what I was actually doing:
Hanging out in my filter bubble all day to the point of misery (yes, I do believe you can consume too much or too much junk/short-form that never makes it somewhere useful in your brain). Basically lots of Twitter and/or Instagram.
(Note: filter bubble is a term that refers mostly to the effects of personalized search, but I also see it as the silos I’ve opted into through newsletters, social networks etc.)
How it works
To fulfill the above, I wanted the easiest, “I don’t have to think about it” way of improving my news habits. Thus, I organized my apps into 4 buckets just to force a little awareness every time I pick up my phone and ideally, hit each one 1x per day.
I also really don’t like routine, so I intentionally gave myself lots of options per bucket.
What I noticed is that I started implicitly asking myself the following questions every day, simply because of the buckets I created:
I’ve been doing this for 12 days now and I completely love it.
A sampling of things I consumed so far:
On days I have time to move slowly, I choose only one newspaper and I read to my heart’s content. So far that’s happened like three times. More often, I have 5 or 10 minutes and I just read the NYT morning briefing or Atlantic app’s today page and maybe one or two articles. Then I’m done. On days I don’t read, I listen to NPR One for a quick briefing of the headlines while walking. I like reading a different source every day, because I don’t particularly feel fulfilled by any single one.
🔄 Filter Bubble
These are all the social networks I’ve opted into. I follow a lot of niche spaces through Slack and newsletters, so that’s why my email and Slack apps are in here. Twitter and Instagram are my discovery engines of choice, because I mostly follow experts or hashtags I’m curious about. Clubhouse is sort of a random on-the-couch afterthought once a week so far.
My bubble tends to be media, identity, gender, and design. For example, newsletters from Creative Mornings, First Draft News, Nieman Storyboard, CJR, Zigzag, or all the Substacks and Slacks and influencers, writers and podcasters I enjoy on Instagram. I’ve noticed that it’s super easy to only read this stuff and miss the bigger headlines or chances to read stuff that doesn’t just add chatter to my existing interests and beliefs, if I don’t hit the other buckets at least once. So I don’t come back to this bucket until I’ve been to the other three first.
🔥 Here’s the behavior change: I’m finding I don’t actually want to come back very often! I think I average less than 15 minutes a day on social apps now and maybe 1 day a week catching up on email newsletters. There’s something about email that makes you feel like you’re working through a to do list instead of learning and it doesn’t feel good. What’s next, does.
This is my favorite space. I love longform reporting and essays and I love podcasts but I somehow feel like I never have the time to listen to them. So once I’ve hit 📰 and 🔄 1x, I’m motivated to move on and spend more time with higher quality audio. Podcasts are for when I’m in the mood for a conversation, Audm is the single-best subscription I’m paying for right now for longform journalism (it’s like Audible for articles with tons of good magazines included), and Pocket is where I save stuff that I want to read later (remember that tip?). I especially like that it tells you how many minutes something will take to read, and has a listening feature.
For example, last week I listened to this fascinating, well-reported story about babies getting switched at a hospital in Canada by Lindsay Jones in The Atavist while doing Sunday chores. And also this piece on the pitfalls of therapy apps in The Cut by Molly Fischer, while walking to and from home over a few days.
Consuming slow journalism (stuff that takes a long time to report, write or explain) is also very healing and heart-opening in my opinion. You have to take a few deep breaths and sit with it patiently. Any craft-focused art creates this experience and we’d probably trust the media a lot more if we consumed more painstakingly written longform.
I know that I feel most satisfied, inspired, sane, and curious when I am reading books. And yet I am an addict of the scroll and discover feedback loop. So I put my Kindle on my phone (instead of just on my iPad), choose 10-ish books per quarter and then I scroll and click based on my mood, while reserving tougher nonfiction for Audible, also several options at a time. Win-win.
Overall, I feel way more fulfilled by what I’m choosing in the “in between” moments on my phone. While this exact system may not work for you, I encourage you to try to create buckets around goals or interests you might have this month and see what happens!