This February I decided to conduct a little experiment, on myself. I wanted to know what I would experience, and how I would feel, if I stopped paying attention to the news altogether. Specifically, I wanted was a month off of paying attention to anything related to news, politics, and current events. What I experienced over the past 28 days partially matched my theory that ridding myself of some of the anxiety and other negative emotions associated with current events would make me happier. But, I also encountered some surprises along the way. The following list summarizes my experience in going 28 days without reading, listening to, or watching anything related to news.
- I had to break a habit
Just in order to successfully go 28 days without news consumption was a struggle. We are all creatures of habit. And, like many other people in 2017, I have roughly 10 web pages I routinely visit. I have also got in the habit of scrolling through social media feeds from time to time. To avoid news, I had to stay diligent and break these habits. I had to completely avoid visiting any web page related to news. And, on my phone, I had to purposely turn away from all the Top Stories and Trending Topics that just find their way of appearing on the screen.
I would say this was the hardest around one week into the experiment. I had not quite broken the habit of reflexively visiting certain web pages, and was beginning to feel disconnected a bit. I also struggled in some social situations with people who turned the television on to news channels. I had to purposely look away, go to another room, or put on headphones. It helped me to explain to people that I had given up news for the month. This did not stop them from watching the news when I was there, or talking about the news, but at least it stopped them from feeling like I was being purposely anti-social.
- I freed up a lot of “mental energy”
I began to think of this exercise as kind of a cleanse diet for the mind. For those not familiar, a cleanse diet is one where a person eats a radically different diet, often with extreme food restrictions, for a period of time, usually 3 day to 6 weeks. The goal of the cleanse diet is to wash away all of the toxins from one’s body.
It took about a week for my mind to feel “cleansed”. For the first few days of the month, the news that I had read throughout 2016 and the first month of 2017 was still on my mind. 2016 was kind of an exceptional year, and I think I ended up needing a week just to process everything that had happened.
Surely enough, when I stopped thinking about current events, how people are responding, arguing, etc., I started to notice an uptick in my mental energy. Every piece of information we consume and process requires mental energy. When something is both complicated and stress inducing, as politics and current events are, it can be potentially exhausting. When I stopped expending so much mental energy on news and politics, my mind became freed up to address other concerns.
- I rediscovered old passions
When I was younger, and there were no smart phones constantly triggering me to look at news stories, I spent my idle time (time with no specific activity) quite differently. As a lifelong weather enthusiast, who studied meteorology in college, I would look at weather patterns, weather models, and weather occurrences around the country. I also spent a significant amount of time reading books and materials related to humanity, human nature, personality, social interaction and the like.
Both these interests never went away, and both of these interests were in a way renewed with all of the time and mental energy freed up this month by not watching news. I am currently looking forward to a season of storm chasing (I attended an event called Chaser Con the 18th and 19th). And I am looking forward to writing more articles like this one!
- My mind went to a scary place
This is where I begin to wonder if political commentary in particular is just one gigantic distraction. About a week into my news free month, with my mental energy being returned to me, I actually had sort of a breakdown. I had a particularly rough day at work. I felt like multiple people were pulling me in a direction I did not want to go, regarding my career, and in some ways, my life.
Without news, political commentary, or anything similar to occupy my mind, I had no choice but to face my own disappointment with the current state of my career. This was something I had kind of been realizing all along, but prior to my news free month, my thoughts on this subject were on aspects of my job that were far more cosmetic. This breakdown brought me to a really dark realization regarding what I truly fear, that one day I will retire and die having never achieved my true potential. WOW!
- It was not a complete escape
Let’s just face it; in order to truly escape the news, one would have to actually hide under a rock or something. Just because I took on this experiment and decided to stop paying attention to the news does not mean anyone else’s behavior changed one bit (nor should I expect it to).
As previously mentioned, people around me still wanted to turn on the news, read it, and talk about it. I can recall at least two dozen instances throughout the month where someone brought up something regarding Donald Trump or something, and I had to politely say “I am taking the month off of news, sorry”. Most people would respond with some level of interest in the experiment. But, that would often be followed by some sort of return to whatever the person had originally desired to complain about.
So, I did hear about certain things through people around me. Some of it really sparked my interest, like the California Dam collapse. In retrospect, I probably could have kept up with that event and not had the results of this experiment turn out any differently. But, I wanted to be sure that I stuck to my original intention, and not see other new stories.
- I actually became less tolerant of angry political conversation
This one kind of surprised me. Before the experiment, I was already losing my patience with the typical political conversation. By this I mean conversations that people start without appreciating the true complexity of the issues at hand. They often begin with an insult or two, or some sort of expression of outrage at some politician, or political idea. They continue through the conversation expecting everyone to agree, and will sometimes ask a question. But, they are not looking for a well-reasoned consideration of what is at hand. They don’t even want you to say more than a sentence. They want an echo.
My tolerance for this experience pretty much hit zero by the middle of the month. Maybe this would have happened even without the experiment. It is an easy experience to get tired of. Still, I expected the break from reading news, and particularly political commentary, to make it easier for me to tolerate these simplistic and mean spirited exchanges. Unexpectedly, the opposite happened.
- I zeroed in on the true sources of waste
By late in the month, I realized that not all news is a waste of time. There is a benefit to knowing what is going on in the world, as well as in your community. But there are definitely things that I know, going forward, I do not need to expend mental energy on.
I am talking about shows where people just argue with one another. I am talking about articles such as Is Ohio Red for Good Now? (or Is Colorado Blue for Good Now?). I am talking about any show where someone purposely tries to take people’s statements out of context.
I also come out of this feeling like I do not need to keep up with every single development about certain things going on. There is a 24/7 news cycle now, with alerts, updates, and news feeds, designed to get information decimated to the public instantaneously. But, it doesn’t impact my life too much if I am a day or two behind. Unless it is an Amber Alert, a tornado warning, or some other kind of emergency, I can find out in a day or two, or a week, and not be the worst off for it.
- There was still a second round of temptation
It was about 20 days into the experiment, the point in which many says habits are broken or formed. And, I probably had broken these habits. Maybe the day was boring, but I suddenly found myself wondering, again, what was going on. I found myself tempted to go back and visit one of the web pages I had just broken out of the habit of going to. Maybe this was the time when I actually began to feel as if there had been some sort of significant occurrence that I needed to know about.
- I have a new appreciation for being conscious of the mind’s intake
As a culture, we put a lot of thought into our body’s intake. What food are we eating? What diet should we try? When we adhere to a diet, or even just actively consider the contents of our food choices, we are being conscious of our body’s intake.
This experiment made me realize that it is probably just as important that we become conscious of our mind’s intake. When we look at click-bait, scroll through news feeds or our social media outlets, we are letting other people decide what information is going into our minds.
Some of it is okay. After all, most of us chose what to follow on these sites. However, some of it is purely mindless. In particular, I am thinking of the NewsStand app on my iPhone. Sure, they let me chose what to follow. But, the app also displays “Top Stories”, which is decided on by whatever controls that application.
On a more frequent basis, we should be consciously determining what we want to be thinking about. Luckily, there is this great site called Google. It lets you type in anything you want information about- whatever is on your mind, whatever sparks your curiosity, and get information, often great information, on the topic. People used to have to go to the Library for that. Now we can do that right after rolling out of bed. Let’s take advantage of it.
- I am tempted but I am not
To return to viewing the news regularly now that February is over. It feels like the inverse situation to going to the gym. Many of us feel lukewarm about going to the gym. We kind of drag ourselves there, or fight some kind of internal mental battle to muster up the motivation to work out. But, it is we usually feel better after going.
Right now, I am curious to see what I had missed. But, in a way, I know that something I see will upset me. Something will suck me in and result in me wasting time on a mindless slideshow such as 25 Celebrities Who Voted for Trump. And once again I will be needlessly anxious, and distracted from making the life changes I have begun to make as a result of shifting my focus this past month, from news feeds to the components of my life that truly need attention.