How to Stay Focused in a Garbage-Fire News Cycle
April 9 2017
What a week. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against civilians in an attack killed 80 people, many of them children, and President Trump ordered an airstrike in retaliation. Representative Devin Nunes recused himself from the House investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Presidential advisor Steve Bannon lost his seat on the National Security Council and presidential advisor Jared Kushner forgot to mention a meeting with the Russian ambassador. Senate Republicans nuked the filibuster to get Neil Gorsuch a seat on the Supreme Court. Twitter sued the government to protect the privacy of an anonymous account, and then the government caved. Oh, and Pepsi outraged everyone with a tone-deaf ad starring Kendall Jenner.
That’s a lot to process, especially since this week was just like last week, and the week before that. Every day brings another story, another development, another reason to freak out. But the problem isn’t the nature of the news, or even the volume of it. It’s the intrusiveness. Headlines come at you from every direction, on every device. You can’t escape it, and, worse, may not even want to. Every push alert, every tweet, every Facebook update creates a neurochemical rush that conditions you to respond. This does more than make it hard to focus on work, play with your kids, or simply relax after a long week. It actively damages your health.
No one’s safe. You’d feel this way regardless of who occupies the White House, what happens in the Middle East, or how you view Obamacare. Information overload may be the last truly bipartisan issue. So what can you do? Toss your phone in the freezer? Escape to Hawaii? Hate to tell you, but I tried both of those things. Turns out cellphones still work in the freezer and on the beaches of Kauai. Plus, big, important things are happening in the world right now, and the worst thing to do is stop paying attention even if you have the luxury.
But you can take control of the situation. Rather than let an algorithm or push alert dictate what you see and when you see it, curate your news experience and limit your exposure.
“It used to be that you got a morning newspaper and then you watched the evening news on TV. And that’s how people got their news. They got one dose in the morning, and then they got another dose in the evening and that was it,” says Boston University cognitive neuroscientist David Somers, who studies how attention functions. It’s not such a bad strategy. Here’s what you can learn from it.
The News Is Not a Tiger
This all starts with some basic physiology. Your brain is broadly capable of two types of attention. The first is active and purposeful, like reading this article. And then there’s the kind of attention you have no control over, because it grabs you in response to something—like a car honking at you because you stepped into the street while reading this article. Boom. Attention diverted.
The first type keeps you focused. The second type keeps you alive. “Having an unexpected stimulus grab your attention could alert you to a tiger crouched in the bushes,” Somers says. Push notifications take advantage of this. Your phone buzzes and suddenly you must glance at it. You respond to an alert the same way your distant ancestors responded to a rustle in the bushes. Different stimulus, but it creates the exact same reaction because the world has changed far faster than human physiology has. Instinctually, the brain doesn’t discern a difference between a breaking news alert and a tiger crouching in the bushes.
No wonder you’re stressed.
“Everybody is fighting for your attention, so your only real defense is to make it so that those stimuli don’t come in the door,” says Somers. The idea that your technology should alert you when it thinks you should pay attention is relatively new (push alerts only really became a thing in 2009), and, frankly, it’s a big step backward. To use the earlier metaphor, you’re letting the bushes rustle nonstop, and telling yourself there’s a tiger over there.
“It’s so important that we define where we want to go as opposed to letting technology drive us and we’re just hanging on for dear life,” says author Amy Blankson, who works in the filed of positive psychology, specifically on maximizing happiness.
How to Slay the Tiger
Still, everyone gets a buzz from this high-octane news environment. Literally. Every notification, every tweet, every beep and buzz releases dopamine and other neurochemicals, providing a moment’s elation. As with any drug, your brain gets used to it. Perhaps even craves it. “Even when you’re really on your best behavior and you’re like ‘OK I’m going to close my web browser, I’m going to shut off my phone,’ you still have this internal need for that feedback,” says Somers.
Fight it. Turn all your push notifications off. Start with Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat, then hit your news apps. To truly reclaim your focus, you must regain, and retain, control of when and where you read news. Set a timer before you start reading. When the timer goes off, stop. You’re done. This provides the added benefit of making you use your time more efficiently. While you’re at it, stop letting algorithms and Facebook friends dictate what you read. Reclaim control of what you read by curating reading lists with an RSS, a site like Medium, or good-old-fashioned bookmarks.
No one’s saying this is easy. It’s like going to the gym or quitting smoking. So establish realistic goals, and make them a little harder over time. Maybe you start by shutting off your notifications for the weekend, then work up to deleting Twitter and Facebook on your phone. (You can catch up later. Set a timer first.) Reward yourself when you do well, and gently scold yourself for slipping up. “You also have to try to punish yourself for straying. You kind of have to rig your reward system,” Somers says.
Treat yourself the same way you might treat a toddler: Reward good behavior, and follow through on consequences. If your timer goes off and you keep reading about Syria, well, no witty Pepsi-ad takedowns or John Oliver clips for you. If those don’t do it for you, Blankson suggests giving yourself something positive to do in response to the news.
“In positive psychology we define optimism as the a belief that your behavior matters,” Blankson says. Often, news reading is itself an act of futility–you read about the breakdown of the government in Venezuela, feel stressed and sad, and find yourself with no outlet for those feelings. Blankson suggests seeking out news sources that counter those feelings by providing concrete actions you take in response.
So here goes: now that you’ve finished this article, reward yourself by turning your notifications off, setting up a news timer, and watching this wonderful video of cats ringing bells.