The power of ignoring mainstream news: Why reading the paper is low quality food for your brain

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paperHow much time do you spend consuming information that you have no intention of taking action on or that you don’t care deeply about?

For example: the nightly news cycle of local crimes, the endless stream of Facebook and Twitter updates, celebrity gossip, reality TV shows, Buzzfeed articles. The list goes on.

In this age of information overload, your life can be filled with irrelevant or unnecessary information in an instant.

And here’s the main problem:

After a while, these information sources start to become normal. Pretty soon, you’re logging onto Facebook because of the fear of missing out on “something.” You turn on the news or check CNN, not because you care about a particular topic, but merely out of habit. You watch tonight’s reality TV show because that’s what you always do on Thursdays at 8pm.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for learning and soaking up new information. After all, education is one of the master keys to the universe. And staying up-to-date on important stories can help shape your worldview and make you a good global citizen.

But it is becoming dangerously easy to consume low quality information and convince yourself that it’s normal and good, when it isn’t helping you live a better life at all.

Circles of Concern vs. Circles of Control

In Steven Covey’s best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he covers the difference between Circles of Concern and Circles of Control.

Circles of Concern are the things that you often waste time and energy worrying about, but that you have little to no control over. Meanwhile, Circles of Control are the things that you can influence in your daily life.

As an example, the vast majority of news stories — war and terrorism, the economy and stock prices, celebrity gossip and political scandal — fall squarely in the Circle of Concern. They can easily soak up your time and energy, but you have virtually no control over those events.

Other examples include getting angry about what someone posted on Facebook, worrying about what other people think about you, or wishing your kids would make better choices (a valid wish, but still outside of your control).

As you can see in the image below, worrying about Circles of Concern is a hallmark of reactive people, while focusing on Circles of Control is a trait of proactive people.

circle-concern-controlGraphic by James Clear. (Note: I modeled this image off of the graphics in this article written by Pete at Mr. Money Mustache.)

Notice that by eliminating or reducing your Circle of Concern, you have more time and energy to put towards your Circle of Control. That means you have more mental space to use for creating art, starting a business, having meaningful conversations, or otherwise contributing to the world around you.

On the flip side, the heavy barrage of information in our society can easily push most of your time and energy into Circles of Concern if you let it. What about the war? What about the economy? What about the choices of XYZ politician? If you’re constantly surrounded by these topics it’s easy to let them capture your time and energy — even if you realize that you can’t do very much about them.

When you’re overdosing on information that you can’t act on it’s easy to see why people say things like “it’s a messed up world out there” or “somebody needs to fix it.” Why make an effort when everything seems out of your control?

Create Space, So That You Can Create

Do external things distract you? Then make time for yourself to learn something worthwhile; stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions.
—Marcus Aurelius, from his book Meditations

Time and energy that is wasted consuming is time and energy that can’t be spent creating.

I’ve written previously about the importance of making things and contributing to the world around you. You learn more, experience more, and contribute more to life by doing.

It’s better to step into the arena and get your ass handed to you — whether that means starting a business and failing, creating art that is terrible, writing something nobody reads, or taking a risk that is important to you — than it is to passively sit and consume information.

It’s great to learn new skills, follow story lines that are important to you, and become an engaged and thoughtful citizen, but sadly most consumption doesn’t fall into those categories. Most of us (myself included) have a handful of information sources that we could eliminate from our lives with no significant impact whatsoever.

What Kind of Food is Your Brain Eating?

News is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don’t really concern our lives and don’t require thinking. That’s why we experience almost no saturation. Unlike reading books and long magazine articles (which require thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the mind.
—Rolf Dobelli

The problem with most news, gossip, and link-bait titled articles online is that they are filled with surface level information. Your life isn’t better off for reading them and you’re rarely better informed because of them.

Of course, there are plenty of wonderful sources of information out there. The New York Times has many fantastic writers on various topics. As a personal example, I love learning about medicine and I often read Atul Gawande’s lengthy articles in The New Yorker. But I don’t browse the internet passively and stumble upon his articles. I seek them out with intention and purpose.

And that is the main point…

The world doesn’t need more people who mindlessly digest whatever information is around. What the world needs are people who learn with purpose, who take action on the things that are important to them, and who seek out high quality information as a way to spark creativity — not as an excuse to consume even more.

What type of food are you feeding your brain? You wouldn’t want to stuff your body with low quality food. Why cram your mind with low quality thoughts?

Where to Go From Here: Try a month without news

Not all news is bad. For example, learning about the latest war can make me grateful to live in a stable society and keep my life in perspective. But if we’re being honest, there is a lot of information that fills our daily lives, clogs our minds, and prevents us from creating, building, sharing, and experiencing more important things.

Most of the information you come across in your daily life — the news stories, the social media updates, the television shows — isn’t going to change the choices you make. Instead of sitting around and consuming whatever is readily available, challenge yourself to make more conscious choices about what you consume and how you consume it.

Do you really need social media apps on your phone? Or will you be just fine checking Facebook and Twitter when you get home?

Is it necessary to turn on the same news program every night? Are you living a better life because of watching it?

If something isn’t benefitting you, then eliminate it.

And if you do care about something like the latest political scandal, then be intentional about getting quality information on that topic. And more importantly, take some action on it. It’s great to be smart, but it’s better to be helpful.

Another idea from Joel is to try a month without news. It might just make you much happier, in the same way it did for Thomas Jefferson:

“I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it.”

 

About the Author: James Clear is an entrepreneur, weightlifter, and travel photographer in 18 countries. He writes at JamesClear.com, where he uses proven research and real-world experiences to share practical ideas for living a healthy life. You can get new strategies for sticking to healthy habits, losing weight, gaining muscle, and more by joining his free newsletter.

This post originally appeared on JamesClear.com

If you liked this post, you might also like “What happens to our brains when we exercise and how it makes us happier” and “Happiness Is Not Enough: Why A Life Without Meaning Will Make You Sick

Photocredit: Giants Fanatic

  • http://www.smudgedphoto.co.uk/ Harrogate Wedding Photographer

    That’s one of the reasons I’m inching ever closer to deleting my account on Facebook. It is absolute mindless drivel on there most of the time, but I can’t help myself reading through it!

  • phil_hendrix

    James – good points. One of the other challenges is finding relevant content, esp. when it’s needed. Tool that I’ve found useful is Pugmarks – shows you “related stories” in a ribbon just above a story or post you’re reading. Useful for “drilling down” on a topic. [Full disclosure - I'm an advisor, but only after adopting and finding Pugmarks indispensable.]

  • Mark Upshaw

    I think it is a great suggestion to eliminate something like the news to see how it actually fits your life. I did this with the stock market after I pulled out when it collapsed. After about a year of watching it daily, I switched my mindset, eliminated all market news (very tough at first) and was able to see other opportunities.

    What I have found is that when I simply decide on a single goal, everything that doesn’t help me complete that goal is simply not interesting enough to capture my attention. A simplified life is so much easier.

  • Rashaan Mateen

    Beautifully said

  • http://www.cosmeticsocialmedia.com/ moniqueramsey

    I’m happy to report that this is my 15th year of not watching or reading the news. It’s just too negative and creates unnecessary worry, fear, and hysteria. I figure if anything is *that* important, I’ll find out. ;) I love the quote James included from Thomas Jefferson, “I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it” and although I never heard it prior to today, I am glad I came to the same conclusion as this Founding Father did so many years ago.

  • Jesue

    I thoroughly enjoyed this and it is the best read for me at this time…I take healthy breaks from many of the above mentioned…awesome assignments!

  • http://www.TravelShepherd.com/ Michael

    Yes, I have long said that regularly watching TV news is a daily dose of poison. I also have noticed that friends and acquaintances who do are not desirable people to be around.
    Cheers,

  • Guest

    I came to the same conclusion earlier this year after the Boston Marathon bombings.

    http://joshpigford.com/desensitization-unbalance-taking-news-sabbatical

    The main problem I had with mainstream news? Desensitization. All the awful stuff I was reading/hearing about on the news had no emotional effect on me, and that scared me. So, I stopped consuming any news. And it’d been amazing.

    Highly recommended.

  • http://joshpigford.com/ Josh Pigford

    I came to the same conclusion earlier this year after the Boston Marathon bombings.

    http://joshpigford.com/desensitization-unbalance-taking-news-sabbatical

    The main problem I had with mainstream news? Desensitization. All the awful stuff I was reading/hearing about on the news had no emotional effect on me, and that scared me. So, I stopped consuming any news. And it’d been amazing.

    Highly recommended.

  • http://missionallendale.wordpress.com/ Joey Espinosa

    I don’t watch the news, and rarely go to msn or any other news source.

    But, I have about 50 sites that I get RSS feeds from. That’s just as bad, I guess.

  • Marie

    Your images are ridiculous. If all you have time for is your business, your skill building, what you write about, then you are going to have some serious ego & perception problems. You may think you are above celebrity gossip or world news, but your company is probably not bc your audience is just like everyone else. Besides from that, you do not find fresh ideas by yourself; you are inspired by your environment: the photos you see in the magazines, the videos you watch, the quotes you see, the news you see; not by focusing on yourself.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=18847600&trk=tab_pro BillMcNeely

    Wow! An extremely American, me centric viewpoint and judging by the follow on comments, one that is prevalent.

    I now understand why folks are so ignorant of the world we live in and why I get that glassy eye look when I attempt to speak about what is going on in the world.

    The first 3 word of the constitution are We the People. That imparts individual responsibility to educate ourselves so we can influence those in power, whether in business, government, the arts etc. Not to turn off and drop out because it’s hard.

    • Gerhard Mack

      And watching the news fixes this how? The average news channel is far to entertainment oriented so they focus on whatever will get the most viewers
      worked up and as a result, tend not to cover anything in depth or show the results over time. You can watch the news twice a day and still be ignorant of the wold we live in.

      I do care about world events and what goes on in other countries, what I don’t care about, is the sex lives of people I don’t know and can’t possibly care about or endless debates on the timing and gender of the next royal baby.

      On top of that, I hate that the news has become so polarizing with the newscasters jumping on the slightest turn of phrase to invent a controversy if the target is someone they don’t like and a complete non existence of fact checking.

  • Perina

    Hello James

    That’s a very good article and yes true enough that we are consuming junk food for our brain. Many a times after watching shows and news on the television, you end up arguing with your partner or family member.

    I too am an advocate of reading and doing things that enrich your mind and keeps your fresh and active every time.

    I have subscribed to your emails and hope to get more valuable information.

    Regards

    Perina

  • http://www.caelanhuntress.com/ Caelan Huntress

    I gave up news at roughly the same time I started getting a handle on what I wanted to do with my life. I do not think these events are unrelated.

    Great article, James! As always.

  • nothyme

    I agree watching and reading about how our soldiers are risking their lives and dying fighting our war is such a downer. Poor poor people that feel the need to get away from it as it is just too depressing. And why even try to understand the economy or figure out the stock market. Much too hard and time consuming. Going to stick my head in the sand now.

  • http://www.SelfEmployedKing.com/ Mike Kawula

    James this was sweet!

    For me my New Years Resolution (2013) was cut off mainstream media. TV and Paper…I only go off my Feedly daily on positive or business sites I like.

    I was interviewed by CNN in September and the Reporter was talking to me at my house while they were setting up and she agreed 100% and said it impacts her hearing the “negative” all day.

    Highly recommend and great tip!

  • Victor Fitzgerald

    You quote the New Yoork Times as possessing great stuff but it even have real waste, as the writer called LUIZ “Lula” da SILVA (former President of Brazil) father of all Brazilian corruption and whose acolytes (nine in number) just been convicted and imprisoned for corruption. Only by this means of communication allow this garbage open your dirty mind already shows us that this vehicle has no selectivity. A good suggestion is leotura to inform the BBC website.

  • Ives Shi

    Exactly right, I want to translate this article into Chinese so that more people can read it.

    • Ollie

      Who the hell can read Chinese?

      • Prabu Rajasekaran

        Chinese people, right?

  • Read_Up

    Honestly, I think you’re advocating a very dangerous step towards an even more uninformed society. By choosing to read articles from one journalist, from one source, you risk losing a well-rounding view of what is really going on. When you pick out the articles you find interesting, by seeking them out “with attention and purpose,” you may be putting blinders on yourself–only seeing what you want to see or what agrees with your existing worldview.

    Furthermore, an important aspect of journalism is to function as a watchdog for the government, corporations, and even individuals. By exposing fraud, corruption, and other serious allegations, investigative journalism can prevent or reduce the likelihood that these things will happen in the future. If there is nobody to point out the terrible things that people are/might be doing, we as a society and as individuals may be taken advantage of completely without our knowledge. Our democracy depends on an objective, free, unrestrained press in which knowledge has the potential to hold people accountable. And that brings me to another point.

    While I do agree that the sensationalism in the news (plane crashes, murders, etc) is probably not lending itself to a positive outlook on the world, I don’t think the answer is to completely swear off news sources altogether. One of the main reason newspapers and local stations have been increasing coverage of sensational events (things like violent acts and disasters) and vacuous entertainment news (things like celebrity weddings and scandals) is economic in nature: those are the kinds of things that sell. A newspaper subscriber is worth ten times as much as an online reader (based on average ad sale revenues)*. Dropping newspaper subscriptions and reduced incentive to advertise in print media have led to massive cutbacks for newspapers in particular. For example, Tribune Co, which is the parent company of The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and others, has slashed 2,200 jobs in the past 3 yearsˆ. From 2007 to 2011, the number of newsroom staffers at the LA Times was reduced by over 35%˚. Who is being ‘let go’? It is often the most experienced journalists, because they are the highest paid. And with greatly reduced newsrooms, papers are further inclined to skip the investigative, accountability news in favor of cheap fluff. So as people like you lose hope in the media and drop subscriptions, we are only perpetuating a downward spiral of increased sensationalism and infotainment being printed in the last death moan of an industry trying to survive.

    What I’m trying to say is, dropping the news is only going to make things worse. By encouraging others to do the same, you’re essentially encouraging decreased accountability of institutions and individuals, and advocating more bias. Big cities used to have up to a dozen daily newspapers*; as technology has changed, papers have been swallowed up in a frenzy of consolidation. As more and more papers die off from lack of subscribers, competition from the Internet, etc, do you think the media that emerges will be more or less biased than before, when there were hundreds of thousands of reporters each working to make sure the real truth was being told? Sure, you could say that people just get information from the Internet today. But where do the stories on the Internet come from? Google news, Yahoo, etc are merely aggregators–they are considered “free riders” because they get their information from actual newspapers while draining eyeballs from the news sites that originally published them.

    TL;DR: No people can be both ignorant and free.

    *”Losing the News” by Alex Jones. I really suggest you read this.

    ˆhttp://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/cotown/la-et-ct-tribune-newspapers-including-la-times-prepare-for-costcutting-20130926,0,731720.story#axzz2m7j7YBGg.

    ˚http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/27/los-angeles-times-layoffs-announce_n_911583.html

  • Guest

    Your Circle of Concern is a fallacy, a faulty logic and ironic, your irrationality is a flamboyant articulate epidemic with an underlying rhetoric. Your Circle of Concern made reference to news we waste times and energy worrying about, then you made a references such as war, terrorism, economy, stock-prices, celebrity-gossip and political scandals.

    Here’s the irony; a stock broker, economist, gossip-bloggers/writers, political activist, libertarians etc— legitimately capitalizes on these form of information in a very practical, infact many of their lives are contingent on these information. That’s the irony and the discrepancy in your logic.

    Here’s the fallacy, reading about the economy, stock market and political shenanigan is not time wasting or energy draining, that subjective ideological rhetoric is faulty.

    Your inability to dissect

  • http://www.mrpregnant.com/ Atelston Fitzgerald Holder 1st

    Your Circle of Concern is a fallacy, a faulty logic and ironic, your irrationality is a flamboyant articulate epidemic with an underlying rhetoric. Your Circle of Concern made reference to news we waste times and energy worrying about, then you made references such as war, terrorism, economy, stock-prices, celebrity-gossip and political scandals.

    Here’s the irony; a stock broker, economist, gossip-bloggers/writers, political activist, libertarians etc— legitimately capitalizes on these form of information in a very practical way, infact many of their lives are contingent on these information. That’s the irony and the discrepancy in your logic.

    Here’s the fallacy, reading about the economy, stock market and political shenanigan is not time wasting or energy draining, that subjective ideological rhetoric is faulty. Your inability to differentiate the difference between qualitative and quantitative news creates a rogue path with a very skewed solution, and regurgitating a book makes my ad hominem indirect.

    (pertaining to the moron who wrote the book)

    The news is gorgeous, magnificently entailed with enriched information, and it’s the readers mandatory objective to omit the debris and allow the substance to permeate; this problem has never been the news fault, it’s the sensationalistic translations by mediocre minds that predicated the tainted news-stigma.

    Written By: Atelston Fitzgerald Holder 1st

  • http://travelmemo.com/ Walter

    If you have the option to read in German: Swiss author Rolf Dobelli explains why consuming news is not only a waste of time, it also conveys a wrong image of the world and it is physically dangerous due to a wrong adrenalin mix…
    http://www.dobelli.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Dobelli_Vergessen_Sie_die_News.pdf

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