The late Neil Postman once argued that people living today are the first generation in history to actually suffer from a glut of information. People often feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of news, blogs, and tweets that stream across their devices each day. With so much of it being bad, or at best misleading, many find that their levels of anxiety and aggression are on the rise. Not only does this sap energy and creativity, some people can actually develop an addiction to news.
There are those who argue that purging news entirely from your life is the best solution. News misleads and is largely irrelevant, they say. It lacks explanatory power, and can lead to faulty thinking and cognitive errors. Get rid of news feeds and blogs entirely and you will be better off, or so the reasoning goes. Some of that is true, there is a lot of bad stuff out there, and with so much talk lately about “fake news” the prospect of unplugging entirely can be quite attractive.
Allow me, however, to suggest a middle way. That is, something in between complete disconnection and full-blown addiction. While it is true that much of what is out there is garbage, there are nonetheless some worthwhile reads to be had, and those are what we ought to look for. Over the years, I have developed a few simple rules for myself and implemented some tools that have helped me get control of the glut, and increase the quality of what I end up reading.
In this post, I will outline four rules that have made a positive difference in how I approach the daily onslaught of images and verbiage that vie for my attention.
Rule #1: Accept Reality
The first step to winning a battle is recognizing that you are in one. You can think of all the news feeds, blogs, websites, and print media together as a kind of army that mounts a daily assault on your mind. We are constantly bombarded with “stuff,” much of which is poorly written and peppered with errors. Most of it is irrelevant and not actionable. There is no way you are ever going to “be informed” if that means trying to follow 200 blogs and fifty newspapers all the while checking your phone every five minutes. There are more articles out there than you could ever possibly read, so stop trying. And that leads me to…
Rule #2: Check Your FOMO
FOMO or, Fear-of-Missing-Out, is a real problem for some people, and it keeps them trapped in a vicious cycle of trying to stay on top of everything. They worry about that one obscure article that might hold keys to the meaning of life and, if they miss it, their lives will be ruined. Nothing could be further from the truth, and if all it takes to ruin a life is a missed blog post, then perhaps it is time for a dose of perspective. If, on the other hand, you accept Rule #1, then you can cheerfully let go of trying to cover everything. You are liberated, because now you know you are going to miss things, and that’s okay. You can rest assured that if a story is important enough, it will likely bubble to the surface in the news feeds you are reading (presuming you are casting your net wide enough – more on that below). Failing that, someone in your orbit with likely tell you about it. And if something does slip by, be assured that the Earth will keep on spinning.
Rule #3: Read Outside Your Comfort Zone
The advent of blogs, news feeds, and websites over and above the deluge of print media has presented today’s readers with a special kind of problem. In the old days, readers may have had fewer options, but at least they were reading things that were managed by an editorial staff who, at least in theory, tried to take a balanced approach to the stories they ran. One was more likely to come across ideas and viewpoints with which one disagreed. These days, however, news outlets are much more polarized politically, and so one tends to read only those sources that fit one’s worldview. That is a problem, because in order to be truly informed one must read about something from multiple angles. For this reason, it is probably a good idea to select some sources that are outside your comfort zone. Do you lean to the left? Try including a more right-wing source in your lineup. You may hate it, but at least you will know how the other side sees a story. Do you lean to the right? You should do the same. It is healthy to listen to those with whom we disagree, lest we find ourselves in our own little bubble. To read only from sources that are in sync with your worldview to the exclusion of all else is to risk being the unwitting accomplice in your own disinformation.
Rule #4: Scan Once a Day; Read Once a Week
To the news hound, this might seem like blasphemy but it really is worth considering. Some people may legitimately need to read certain types of news each day because it affects the work they do on a daily basis. If you fall into that category, then of course you need to do what you need to do. For many of us, however, there are very few articles that absolutely, positively have to be read right now. If they are worth reading at all (and 99.9% of them probably are not) they can most likely wait until the end of the week. Think about it; that alumni relations article that got posted on Monday will still be there on Friday. Congress is in gridlock on Tuesday? Don’t worry, it will still be that way on Friday (and the Friday after that, and the Friday after that…). There is nothing you can do about it now, so read about it when you have set aside some dedicated time for this kind of activity. If you do, you will probably get more out of it than if you tried to read it quickly on the fly.
The idea is to scan news feeds with a very critical eye, selecting only those items that can keep you informed about things that truly matter, are actionable, or that are helpful in some way. Toss them into one of those read-it-later apps and ignore the rest. There are some distinct advantages to doing this. For one thing, you do not end up with news taking over your life each day. By setting aside some time once a week to read only the gems, you create a certain space in your life. You read news at a dedicated time of your choosing, not when your phone beeps and, as noted above, you are likely to concentrate better and read more deeply.
Next week, I will share some of the tools I use to help me implement these rules.
Question: What strategies do you have for managing information overload? Please leave a reply below.