Four months ago, I took a break from the news. Partly from exhaustion. Partly because I realized how I wasn't informed, I was entertained. Mostly because a friend challenged me — to limit inputs and consume slower; to be intentional about information consumption. And I challenge you: I'll show you how you can learn more and avoid the outrage rollercoaster by going slower.
(Short on time? Skip to my tactical recommendations.)
Each of us has access to more information than we could reasonably use. We tell ourselves that it's part of our job, that we have to be “on top of things,” and so we give up precious time to news reports, meetings, and other forms of feedback… We must stop this.
“If you wish to improve,” Epictetus once said, “be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters.” Ryan Holiday, Stillness is the Key
I had no TV habit, but consumed news in two major ways: web aggregators and podcasts. The Week, a fairly centrist publication with a Speed Reads section that includes tweet-sized stories of nearly everything that happens in the US, was my go-to. I had it bookmarked on my phone, and absent-mindedly visited over 20 times a day. The bite-sized headline habit was addictive: I subscribed to a drip of outrage, and felt I was informed. I was excellent at Wait Wait… Don't Tell Me!‘s Lightning Fill-in-the-Blank segment.
For all that attention, I was no better. I knew that Some-Politician Said Something and Some-Person Did Something. I felt informed. But, for what? What did it impact? The aggregate surely impacts voting, but that doesn't happen often. Instead, I rode the daily highs and lows of outrage, hype, and commotion. Something's always happening, little that matters.
It encouraged short-term thinking. There was always a crisis, always a threat. Everyone's incentivized to create news in order to control the narrative. It's not their fault, it's ours. We give them permission to our attention.
So, I blocked my news site — easy.
Easy: news. Harder: podcasts
I wanted to push the brakes and slow things down. How much really mattered? Podcasts are fine, but interview-style shows are optimized to be easy to produce, not a great use of time. A friend with a popular interview podcast says that, with the help of researchers to provide context and editors to refine output, they spend roughly 5x of the episode length to make the show. So, within an order of magnitude, the content is produced as easily as it's recorded.
If you often listen to current event or interview podcasts, how often do you benefit from them? At my previous rate of consumption — over 5 episodes of various podcasts a week — how could they? Certainly, some were great. But out of the 300 informational podcasts I listened to a year, how small of a minority actually produced meaningful change in how I view the world or act?
I was entertained. And there's nothing wrong with being entertained, but when you think you're informing yourself, something's amiss.
So, I took a break from podcasts, and transitioned that listening time—6 to 8 hours a week—to audiobooks.
To the (audio)books…
To replace podcasts, a friend suggested audiobooks. The form factor is similar: I can listen while on a walk, and consumption can still be fairly passive. “An audiobook is like a long podcast,” they commented, “where the author spent easily 100x more time writing it than it takes to consume.” It's scripted, every word is intentional. It's been through real editing. It garnered enough interest where a publisher paid for its audio production.
The author walks you through a deep idea they have worked on for years. There often is padding—business books are quite guilty of this—but you will also have more time to absorb the breadth of what they wanted to share. The barrier to entry for an audiobook is massively above podcasts. And this is a good thing.
To avid readers, this is obvious. For us short-term information junkies, this is novel.
Instead of 20 episodes being released a day from all my subscribed podcasts, audiobooks that interest me come at a much slower pace. There's still virtually infinite, but the time criticality is gone.
In fact, the time scale of everything changes. Many news and political podcasts I listened to were largely irrelevant a month or two after recording. However, that would be a failed book — even current event books usually have a much longer period of interest. Many audiobooks are just as relevant years later as they were when they were released. You can even force this: read and listen to older books.
Within days, I realized I didn't really miss anything. Quips from varying partisans went by unnoticed, but I felt fine. In fact, a filtered subset of news always found its way to me. There was another (and another, and another) mass shooting — my wife told me. I gave those killers none of my attention.
I opted out of the news cycle, which is fueled by attention, not events. And my podcast habit—largely dominated by easy-to-produce bulk content—had a replacement. Initially, I found it difficult to sit with an idea or story for 10+ hours without change. But over time, I realized I was synthesizing far more. I'd be able to “try on” concepts in life while still consuming the book. With that, my retention skyrocketed: I was actually learning and appreciating the content more.
Going slower promoted more deep thought. I had time to form my own opinions. Since audiobooks usually are best listened to in longer sessions, without a crutch to fill a few minutes of down time, I embraced stillness more. Not all my time needed to be productive.
And, surprisingly, my time was more productive, when measured by how many deep ideas I learned and synthesized. In the first month, I listened to five books. By month two, ten. I increased my book consumption—of all forms—by an order of magnitude. This pace still consumes a massive amount of information, but forces me to sit with ideas for several days or weeks.
If only half the books I consume have meaningful impact to me1, this leaves me with 25 new concepts and perspectives a year that I build on.
The one-month challenge naturally turned into two, then four, and has no signs of slowing.
If you're interested in slowing down and consuming less, here's some guidelines that have helped me.
- Avoid content that takes the creator less than 10x of their own time to produce. Consume most of content that takes 100x or more to produce.
- Don't consume news passively. If there's something you're curious about, seek it out directly. Important things will find their way to you.
- Be intentional about consumption. For example, a TV on—just to be on—actively takes away from stillness. Uninstall social apps from your phone. If you still get value from the networks, use them on desktop (and hide the feed).
- Replace short-form content with long-form content. The latter is less dense, but requires far more effort to produce. Let the authors self-select what's important.
- Keep a log of media consumption. It's interesting to see what ends up worth it in retrospect.
- You don't need to always be consuming. I've been able to hold more loosely on my need to be productive with all my time.
Launching: My Media Diet
Inspired by Jason Kottke, I'm cataloguing my media diet. If something's worth hours of my time, it's worth sharing and commenting on.
Here's some my favorite books that I listened to in the first couple months:
- Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday. The start of my Media Diet, and cemented a lot of my feelings around media incentives. There is no good news at the end, but I've benefited immensely from this awareness.
- The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. Incredibly enlightening perspective on morals. It's far more practical than philosophical, and is quite accessible.
- Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. An exploration into end of life, aging, and care. It's not a how-to — more of a discussion that doesn't commonly happen in public.
- Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. A delightful perspective on creativity.
More thoughts on these, along with the other media I've consumed lately, is in my Media Diet.
Over the past month, I've slowly let in some podcasts when they're particularly compelling, but don't listen to episodes just because they exist anymore. Instead, I've enjoyed sitting with ideas longer.
This was actually a surprise. Since the barrier to writing and recording a book is so high, and there was no time criticality, I could me more informed with my selections. In fact, nearly every book I've consumed left me with something meaningful. ↩︎