The Low Information Diet
Last night, a military friend of mine mentioned the impending doom to me, which is the first I had heard of the situation. Unfortunately that triggered a late night of sweaty reading on my part, catching up on the history of this predicament, cursing the bullshit and the rhetoric of the responsible members of congress, and generally being pissed off about things. But after an uneasy sleep and a slightly groggy morning, I opened my shutters and found a clear blue sky with bright yellow sun, singing birds, and my lovely family running up to me to request hugs and breakfast. And thus, my plans for today do not include reading any more of the news.
If you’re surprised to hear that I knew nothing of the looming shutdown, and that I don’t read (or watch) the news at all, then you will get a lot from this article. Because I’m going to suggest that unless you work directly in the news media industry yourself, you too should be paying absolutely no attention to the news.
This is an unusual stance in this country, where the 24-hour news cycle has become common and 100 million office workers flop down in front of the television nightly to catch up on the day’s events. Political dramas, stock markets fluctuations, sports, local tragedies, weather, and of course an update on what is new in bikinis and celebrity gossip.
one news watcher might say, while another quips,
“I gotta keep with up with my Packers, they got a real chance this year!”
“The markets are on a rollercoaster this year”,
Joe Trader might add,
“I need to be on the watch so I know when to sell!”
“It is all Bullshit”, is what Mr. Money Mustache says, “You need to get the News out of your life, right away, and for life.”
The reasons for this are plentiful, from the inherently sucky nature of news programming itself, to the spectacular life benefits of adopting a Low Information Diet in general. But let’s start with the news.
News programs are, with the exception of a few non-profit or publicly funded ones, commercial enterprises designed to turn and maximize profit. Many of them are owned by larger shareholder-owned corporations, most notably Rupert Murdoch’s News corp. The profit comes from advertising, and advertising revenue is maximized by pulling the largest audience, holding their attention for the longest possible time, and putting them into the mental state most conducive to purchasing the products of the advertisers (which turns out to be helplessness and vulnerability).
This is why the news always starts out with a sensationalist take on a topic of at least plausible national interest, takes a detour into truly horrific and depressing irrelevant tragedies (“Chinese boy’s eyes gouged out with spoon and left in field by unknown woman” is one that unfortunately crossed my screen when doing research for this article), then ends on an uplifting note with something like a defiant entrepreneur or a caring soup kitchen. An emotional roller-coaster ride every day of the week.
Now comes the interesting part. The “largest possible audience” is by definition biased towards the people who watch television the most. These are the struggling masses, the people with debt problems, the folks likely to bring a 3-year-old SUV down to the GMC dealer and trade it in for an even newer loan document. They are not comprised of 65% engineers, technology and finance workers, doctors, lawyers, and teachers like the readers of this blog. While news programming is an awful diet for their brains, it’s even worse for yours.
The news also completely fucks up the layperson’s perception of risk. The very fact that bad events are rare these days, makes them newsworthy. A bicyclist hit by a car. A school shooting or an abduction. A terrorist attack. These things are so uncommon, it is best to ignore the possibility of them when planning your own life. But with a sample size of over 300 million people in the US and 7 billion worldwide, unusual tragedies happen daily, and they end up on the news nightly.
Because of this phenomenon, I got almost 50 concerned emails about the recent Colorado floods.
“Is your family OK out there in Longmont? We are terrified for you!”
I was touched by the thought, but also tempted to write back,
“Are YOU OK? You seem to have been watching the news, which is much more dangerous than living in Colorado during this 500-year flood!”
The news focused on the damage: ripped out roads and flooded suburbs. The numbers tell a different story: less than 1% of homes damaged or destroyed, and a death toll of 8. About the same number of people die in the state’s car crashes every week, and staggering property damage is caused in the state’s almost-2000 car crashes per week. If the news were delivered on a basis of logic rather than sensationalism, it would proclaim “250 more car crashes today! Families mourn injuries and death, and yet pointless commuting and Car-Clown driving remains unchecked!”
While we can do nothing to prevent the freak rainstorms that cause floods*, we can certainly reduce the unnecessary driving that kills and impoverishes us all. And thus, wouldn’t reducing driving be a much more practical focus, if the news were really a program designed to help society?
All of which brings us nicely to the real point of this article: it’s not just the news that is the enemy. It’s all forms of irrelevant information**.
As an unusually intelligent person on a quest to create the best life for yourself and your fellow humans, you have a big task ahead of you, and you’ll need all your brainpower to do it. And yet your intelligence, your time, and your attention span are all finite. So why would you ever squander it on anything that doesn’t help you advance your goals? You need to be ruthless in your quest for a cleaner and more powerful mind, and the better you do at this, the more you will prosper. Let’s look at a few examples from everyday life:
Meetings at Work: back in my corporate days, I used to sit in meeting rooms with up to 15 other people, with a conference telephone on the table squawking out the chatter of an additional 15 people who had dialed in from the San Jose office. Pointy-haired managers would quiz people on the minutiae of their individual status reports while the rest of us tried to hide the fact that we were falling asleep. Every mind in the meeting was becoming less focused, less productive, and less happy, due to the flood of completely irrelevant information. Meetings should be as short, focused, and small as possible. It is far better for a knowledge worker to miss some “key” information, than to end up flooded with too much.
Micromanagement: One of the less competent managers at work used to try to read every single software and hardware design specification produced by the entire 50-person department. “As a manager, I need to stay on top of the design details”, he told me. But he had it all backwards: because of this habit, he slowed down every meeting by second-guessing every design decision of every software engineer – most of whom were much more skilled than he. Let the smart people work at their own higher level while you focus on giving them what they need to do their jobs.
Email: As I write this, there are no email programs in sight. My phone’s mail application (and indeed every app on the phone) is permanently set to “no notifications”. Every email is a potential wormhole of distraction and mental fatigue. This is fun if you have nothing to do, but disastrous for people like you who are working on improving your life. So keep your email sessions defined, short, and focused, then completely close that Gmail tab (and erase the bookmark) so that logging in is a deliberate affair.
Facebook: Oh man.. don’t even get me started on Facebook. It’s like the news, but at a local level focused on the latest parenting problems, bowel movements, consumer indulgences, and forwarding of pointless memes and Youtube videos. From this point forward you may sign in to Facebook at most once per week. Make a grand appearance, read the updates from your best friends, drop a few compliments and jokes, then get the hell back out. Delete the app from your smartphone, change your password to a 12-digit alphanumeric string you have to look up on paper, and then log out from the web browser. Ahhhh.
I often tell people that the biggest benefit to early retirement has been “getting my own mind back”. Without the demands of 8 hours of software design every day, I’ve been amazed at the fun things I have had the energy to learn in these past 8 years. But a job really only takes about 50% of your mind. The other half is generally burned by email, television, Facebook, Reddit, video games, researching potential products and other unnecessary things. If you can eliminate these, you’re halfway to retirement already.
With this 50% downpayment on the most powerful asset of a free mind, you can then start getting other things done. You’ll be able to better organize your time, get a better job, learn skills, learn about happiness itself, get in shape, be less exhausted, and much more.
And so begins your real life – which will proceed nicely whether the government is currently shut down or not. Congratulations!
Addendum: Wow, this post is much more controversial than I expected and I’m taking some heat in the comments. I think most of the complaints come from the mistaken impression that I am promoting ignorance rather than efficiency. Following the daily news with the death tolls and pointless squabbles is very different from seeking to understand human society and world politics in general. And when you skip the sugar and carbs of the daily stuff, you free your mind up to accomplish much more than you otherwise would. As just one example, this blog has reached over four million people and 40 million page views, promoting the idea of lower consumption for the rich world. And I still cast my votes in every election and send the odd letter to a senator. Is this a higher or lower impact than me spending that time being “well-informed” watching or reading the daily news? Regardless of your goals, you will notice exactly the same effect: If you don’t think you can be a better citizen without daily or even weekly news, just do yourself a favor and try it for one week.
Also, the title for this post was shamelessly copied from a chapter in Tim Ferriss’ useful book The Four Hour Workweek.
* Although if you really think about it, reducing driving actually could reduce the incidence of floods, due to the effect of driving on climate change, and the effect of a warmer planet on the amount of atmospheric moisture and thus the intensity of storms.
** I should mention that while the news is a useless way to learn about the world, learning about the world itself is very useful. But this is best done by reading books – and maybe the odd scientific blog or journal or other periodical. I do still read most of the Economist every week or two, for example. The facts about the world don’t change on a daily basis, so by focusing on these slower and more well-researched sources of information, you filter out the noise and end up with the stuff that’s really worth learning.
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