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How to Deal with News Overload

How can you deal with the constant influx of news?

With the constant barrage of news we’re downloading daily, breaking news threatens to break us all. The sheer volume alone is unprecedented. How can you deal with the non-stop influx?

I may be giving away my age here, but I remember when the internet was new and shiny and experts bragged about how we’d spend more time at the beach and less time researching, as we’d be able to find out information at the push of a button. Easy access to information was meant to save us time (and our sanity). Joke’s on us!

Instead, the internet, a 24-hour news cycle, smartphones, and an unparalleled political climate are all conspiring to make us feel down, overwhelmed, and anxious. Regardless of your political viewpoints, we can break down four problems in today’s news atmosphere and identify three things you can do to save your state of mind.

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Problem #1: Sheer quantity. The volume of news that is thrown at us every day is utterly massive. According to Richard Saul Wurman, founder of the TED conferences and author of Information Anxiety, just one issue of The New York Times is packed with more information than the average nineteenth-century individual encountered in a lifetime.

Nowadays, we’re inundated with news before we even get out of bed in the morning. We scroll through news and social media streams getting ready, absorb the world through the radio during breakfast, get pinged with alerts all day long, tune into the late-night shows to try to muster a laugh about it all, and scroll through our phones once more before it’s lights out. It’s exhausting. The news is even broadcast in airplanes—we can’t escape, even at the equivalent altitude of Mt. Everest.

It has come to the point where mainstream news outlets aren’t the only ones throwing information at us. These days, for better or worse, anyone can be a reporter. We get news from so many sources: niche websites, blogs, or 140 characters at a time. We’re left to filter the never-ending piles for ourselves, which again, is draining.

Problem #2: Divided attention. The second problem is how we absorb the news. When was the last time you sat down to watch a news program or read the paper cover to cover without doing something else? If you’re like me, it’s probably been a while. Usually, we’re multitasking: scrolling through online news while getting ready for the day, checking Facebook during lunch, or watching the news shows while talking on the phone.

All this multitasking results in divided attention. And our brains are not designed to do this. Writer Linda Stone coined the term “continuous partial attention” to describe our constantly fractured mental state.

By contrast, focused attention—the kind of that’s most productive—essentially entails ignoring whatever other stimuli are vying for our attention. But put us in front of a website littered with breaking news alerts and clickbait, and focused attention doesn’t stand a chance.

Problem #3: Anxiety. Depending on your political leanings and demographics, the news these days may be causing a trickle, or a torrent, of anxiety.

News is designed to be bad. Indeed, there’s no story in saying that things are fine and all is well. But when the news leaves you feeling personally attacked or helpless, it causes anxiety, not to mention possible feelings of hopelessness, all of which take a physical, mental and emotional toll.

Problem #4: Anger. The news nowadays is filled with anger. Headlines including the verbs “lash out,” “attack,” and “berate” are common. Veins bulge from commentators’ foreheads. Twitter arguments happen daily (Hashtag #adultdaycare anyone?) So much hatred and exasperation makes us feel upset, afraid, and intimidated, not to mention angry right back at the news.

So what can you do about all this? Now, I won’t try to tell you how to deal with the content of the news, but here are three things you can do to manage the dizzying and upsetting effects.

Tip #1: Check if you’re still breathing. I’m serious. Linda Stone of “continuous partial attention” fame has coined another phrase: “email apnea;” the unconscious suspension of breathing when dealing with your inbox.

This phenomenon also happens with the news. Do you find yourself unknowingly holding your breath when scrolling through a site? Are you breathing shallowly through your throat? If this resonates with you, try the opposite—if your body sees the news as a threat, it’s not going to want to relax when it’s in front of you. Which brings us to:

Tip #2: Designate “news time.” The news only takes up as much time as well allow it. If we find ourselves taking the clickbait whenever we check email, or if the TV is always on in the background, we’re going to find ourselves sucked down a vortex hole of news.

But you don’t have to think about news as all-or-nothing. While it may be tempting to kill your television or accidentally-on-purpose dunk your smartphone in the toilet just to get some relief, consider an alternative: “news time.”

Designating specific times to engage with the news can help regulate your intake and save your sanity. To do this, pick a few times a day (as long as they’re contained) to take in the news. Perhaps over breakfast, or during your commute, or after work. Consider it your “briefing.” Think of it as doing one daily workout rather than running yourself ragged, or eating three meals a day rather than stuffing your face all day long.

If you find yourself itching to look when it’s not a designated time, push it to the back of your mind until news time. The news will still be there, believe me.

To push this even further, make an executive decision not to use devices on certain days, or at certain times of the day. Maybe you won’t check your email at all on Saturdays, or after 8:00 p.m. during the week. Maybe you’ll only watch TV three nights a week.

Whatever limits you choose, they will likely feel wrong at first. Especially if you expect to feel instant relief when you turn off your news feed, you may instead feel anxious—indeed, sometimes not knowing is worse than knowing. Be patient with this feeling; it will dissipate but it will take time.

Tip #3: Filter ruthlessly. When the news threatens to drown you, it’s important to bail your metaphorical boat by blocking out unnecessary incoming information. Go through your inbox and cancel subscriptions you don’t read. Reduce unwanted junk and think it through before you submit your email address to a website—it may be sold to other sites that will infiltrate your inbox with more news. And unsubscribe, unsubscribe, unsubscribe.

While we can’t choose the topics or the pace of the news, we can choose how to respond. And by doing that, we can take back control.

Quick and Dirty Tips
Source: Quick and Dirty Tips

A version of this piece originally appeared on Quick and Dirty Tips titled How To Deal with News Overload.

More from Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D.
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