#45: new(s) diet for the new year
a few favorite thoughts on time and how to assemble a new routine
Time Spent is a series of letters exploring how and why we should read the news, do care work and spend our time. Each letter includes tidbits from research, tips and experiments that are all part of a book project I’m working on, tentatively called Taking Back the News. If you’re new, subscribe here!
I hope everyone has had a safe and steady start to 2022. I’m excited to share a new format for Time Spent today, based on updates to my workflow and input from all of you in December’s survey.
What you shared:
♥️ Many of you are reading this newsletter for the same reasons I’m writing it:
to think about consumption more and develop better habits
to understand what influences me
to know myself better
to question productivity standards
to understand the media world better
to not get overwhelmed by the news
💡 Here are some topics you requested I cover:
how to decide what to pay attention to?
how to get out of my echo chamber?
how do different people tackle these media issues?
how do I spend my own time putting all this together?
the role of the media in several different crises
navigating news deserts
journalistic ethics, like objectivity and if it's real
a look into how the writing & publishing worlds work
I'm moved and delighted to continue to explore all of this and more with you in 2022, so I've come up with the following format. Every issue, I’ll share two things.
A Thought: This could be something on my mind, an interview, a book summary, or notes from my own reading constellations and clusters.
A Prompt: Borrowing from the design world, I’ll end each issue with a question in the form "How might we…?” that’s somewhat related to the topic of the day. If I can, I'll share how I’m answering the question myself. If I can’t, I’ll share advice, a tool or a bookmark I’m inspired by.
At some point, I'll also gather these prompts in an organized manner.
Let's get started.
In This Issue:
📌 A few favorite thoughts about Time.
💡 How might we assemble a news diet that respects and protects our time?
🎁 Bonus: PDF included if you want to do the exercise.
Vox Explained on Netflix
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman
The ADHD Effect on Marriage by Melissa Orlov
Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
Morgan Harper Nichols on reducing screen time through a personal feed
I ended the new year (literally, new year's eve) watching the Vox Explained episode on Time (released on Netflix in October 2021 and narrated by Joseph Gordon-Levitt). It was a delightful and informative meditation on how we came to live by the clock and what it has done to us.
I think it's important to think about the structures that govern our lives every so often, because those structures tend to be where we derive our values from.
Here are some of my favorite insights about time:
It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or an expert as long as you’re on the path. If a beginner is on the path, all they need is time. If an expert is off the path, they won’t be an expert for long.
And in the infamous words of Rilke:
I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
I trust this insight wholly and for the most important things in my life, try to live by the Confucian words:
It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.
2- Our experience of time is often the source of conflict within ourselves and with other people.
For example, in Einstein’s Dreams, a fictional collage of stories dreamed by Albert Einstein, Alan Lightman writes:
In this world, there are two times. There is mechanical time and there is body time… The first is unyielding, predetermined. The second makes up its mind as it goes along… Many are convinced that mechanical time does not exist…They do not keep clocks in their houses. Instead, they listen to their heartbeats. They feel the rhythms of their moods and desires…Then there are those who think their bodies don't exist. They live by mechanical time. They rise at seven o'clock in the morning. They eat their lunch at noon and their supper at six. They arrive at their appointments on time, precisely by the clock…
Where the two times meet, desperation. Where the two times go their separate ways, contentment. For, miraculously, a barrister, a nurse, a baker can make a world in either time, but not in both times. Each time is true, but the truths are not the same.
I remember being so struck when I first read this. It seemed to explain so much.
Then, years letter, I read this in The ADHD Effect on Marriage:
The joke is that there are really only two time zones for a person with ADHD: “now” and “not now”! A person with ADHD is very present focused. Often, something that was going on ten minutes earlier is out of mind, as is the thing that is supposed to happen ten minutes in the future.
Besides enlightening my relationship with close loved ones with ADHD, learning to consider that human beings have different relationships with and experiences of time was enormously helpful for me. It became a wonderful starting point for curiosity and empathy toward other’s values.
3- Accepting that we have a finite amount of time on earth is important to remember every so often. Especially in a world where our opportunities for consumption, production and work are endless.
This is a case made in Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks, which encourages people to do what matters, rather than trying to fit it all into our limited time on earth. It’s similar in spirit to The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, in my opinion. I won’t excerpt them here, but they are easy, fun reads.
Along these lines, measuring how we spend time is an empowering tool to help assign (or reduce) value to certain tasks. See, for instance, how the American Time Use survey is used in research here. While I wish their primary function wasn’t merely to measure economic productivity, on an individual level, understanding where your day goes is so empowering.
4- And finally, time is an incredible design tool.
In an NYT piece explaining how time can be used to make space more public, more accessible and more equitable, design researcher Sara Hendren writes:
It happens in cities everywhere: design, or redesign, created by time. A weekend clock turns an open street into something else entirely — a time structure organized outside commuter efficiency or traffic flows. Urban planners sometimes call it “temporal zoning.”
Time has long been a way to rethink the design of cities and spaces. There are lightweight versions — a baseball diamond that is designated as an off-leash dog park in early morning hours, for example. Some shopping malls open their doors before regular retail hours, allowing people to walk their corridors for exercise — a safe and smooth passage especially appealing to older adults.
Here’s Sara’s substack elaborating on that piece and on time+learning.
I share all of these tidbits as inspiration before we jump into today’s How Might We because living in an extremely digital world can really warp our experience of time.
To Lightman’s body time and mechanical time, I would add internet time, which tends to shut off my body and make my clock disappear.
So, here’s a prompt.
How might we assemble a news diet that protects and respects our time? Put another way, how might we consume and exchange news in a way that allows us to feel healthy and fulfilled?
I’ll walk you through how I try to do this. To be honest, it’s a mostly intuitive process I’ve developed over the years, but I’ll do my best to bullet it out. I’ve also enclosed a PDF below if you want to try this later.
🟢 START: A one-time sit down and reflect session.
🟡 ITERATE: Quarterly or monthly review and tweak sessions.
Questions are in bold and my personal answers are below as examples.
Questions About News
What does news mean to me?
It’s new-to-me, timely information that allows me to take care of my needs and the needs of my community. It may or may not be News (i.e.: comes from a “news organization”). Increasingly, it doesn’t.
Why am I consuming news/News at this stage in my life?
To be honest, I don’t have any interest in actually consuming News. I prefer to know the bare minimum when it comes to breaking news and politics and then spend time learning about questions I’m actually interested in. Often, it’s fodder for social connection and sometimes self-education.
How much time do you want to spend consuming news or News?
Just a few minutes a day on stuff I feel like I "should" know, and 30 minutes or more on things I care about. I would also love to not lose entire days to social media.
How about effort?
Very little. I want to set up my tools, diet, subscriptions, resources once and let it feel easy and magical the rest of the year.
Are you willing to spend money on it?
Yes, within reason.
What is your current toolset?
Apps: A few subscriptions to News organizations
Email newsletters: many News orgs and independent creators
Print: The Economist, WSJ
Aggregators: None really, news feeds stress me out
Social media: Twitter, Instagram, TikTok
TV: None, just streaming services
Evernote: For saving things and reading later
Audio: Podcast App, Audm for Longform
Questions About Learning & Preferences
How do you prefer to consume information: alone or with others?
Alone, but I like to share about it afterwards, usually to my partner or in writing.
How do you prefer to process/digest it?
Through note-taking and sometimes in conversation with trusted people. Sometimes I go to comments sections to see others’ reactions. I prefer not to see what everyone is saying about a big topic on social media unless it’s huge breaking news that affects me directly. I find when I go to social media, my opinion gets formed for me before I’ve had a chance to choose it.
How long does it take you to consume and digest?
Quick to consume (skimming/listening/watching) but I take a long time to recover and digest.
🟡 ITERATE: Quarterly or monthly review and tweak sessions
How did I feel consuming this month?
Mentally: Relatively open-minded and curious
Emotionally: Happy on TikTok, sad or anxious on everything else
What did I consume and what did I do with the information?
Covid news was exchanged with family and friends a lot; avoided most political news but still ended up talking about it and looking things up because other people were; fell into a few wormholes on health and wellness related trends and information; read a lot of nonfiction on research topics I’m currently pursuing.
What do I want more or less of?
>More: understanding, digestion
>Less: negativity, drain
>More: Time to read books and listen to podcasts
>Less: social media, politics, covid news
Are my tools working for me? What could stand to change?
I’m oversubscribed for sure. I wish I had a really simple routine.
Goal Summary, January 2022:
Spend less time consuming overall
Find a way to get motivated to read/listen more
Limit screen time
Make an easy routine with few options
How I implemented it:
Reset screen time limits on phone
Downloaded 3 audiobooks to match e-books so I can read OR listen
Unsubscribed to a TON of emails
Assessed $$ on subscriptions and picked just the best
Set up Home Screen on phone with limited news apps and hid the rest with notifications off
Downloaded Readwise, which surfaces highlights from e-books (or anything else) you’ve read in the past and added a widget to my Home Screen. It’s really motivating to revisit old books and makes me want to read more already.
Subscribed to a few newsletters that are new to me to change things up
Routine: Ideally, I will read the News from 1 source (NYT/NPR/Axios etc) and then delete/unsubscribe to everything else each day.
If you want to try the exercise here is a PDF of the above without my answers. Feel free to skip questions or add your own.
Also, if you made it to the end, here is an inspiring “personal feed” that Morgan Harper Nichols designed to reduce screen time: