A guide to developing a healthier information diet
Here’s how you can master consuming information consciously, in order to feel and do your best.
All throughout history, humans have struggled with scarcity. Information, food, human connection, and healthcare were among some of the scarce resources that plagued early civilization with uncertainty.
The wake of the 21st century saw a cultural shift that was unprecedented in human history; as globalization and international economies grew, our relationships with necessary resources changed.
The kind of problems that we encounter now in the developed world are problems of abundance—we have too much. Nowadays, the modern human can find themselves in the midst of a (mental and physical) health epidemic, spearheaded by our easy access to overindulgence.
Information used to be one of the world’s most scarce and valuable resources. Now, in the middle of the digital revolution, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
We’re surrounded by information everywhere, and every headline is competing to grab your attention. In this seemingly infinite stream of information, it’s important to be intentional about the way we consume news and media—it’s negatively impacting our health.
What does a poor information diet look like?
Just as a diet full of junk food can lead to lethargy, disease, and obesity, a poor information diet can hinder our productivity, our potential, and leave us feeling anxious and pessimistic.
Modern media companies leverage our psychology against us, to deliver us cheap shots of information and quick dopamine hits. In this open marketplace for attention, media outlets consistently sacrifice quality in attempts to get more clicks—information, nowadays, is often delivered in the form of trending tweets, flashy headlines, and clickbait-y titles.
As with consuming highly nutritious foods, we want the information that we consume to leave us with knowledge, peace, and clarity—that result comes with practicing selectivity and discipline about what we consume.
How you can craft a healthier information diet:
1. Protect your brain’s finite energy and your most valuable resource.
Information transmission has increased by a factor of ten billion since pre-modern times. In this seemingly infinite pool of information, not all media is created equal.
Companies know that accurate, politically correct, or neutral headlines won’t generate clicks—in fact, this journalism outlet tried publishing only good news for a day, and lost over two thirds of their readership.
Therefore, headlines are crafted specifically to offer shock value and instant gratification rather than knowledge. But this tactic comes at the expense of you.
This study showed that mindlessly scrolling through negative headlines in the morning led to a 27% increase in participants’ having a subjective bad day.
When you prime your mind for negativity, it’s easy to see it everywhere. Your attention is your most valuable resource, yet most people are willing to give their attention freely to anything that catches it.
The bottom line: protect your energy.
2. Cultivate knowledge instead of consuming information.
Some think that it’s productive to scroll reddit or social media if you’re learning new information—but be wary of infotainment. It’s exactly what it sounds like; entertainment disguised as information.
Most news and content delivered through social media apps can be defined as such, and it’s not to be confused with authentic journalism, which is rooted in truth rather than sensationalization.
Be wary of passively consuming information, and instead, cultivate knowledge in specific areas.
In Steven Covey’s the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he describes this as your Circle of Control vs. your Circle of Concern.
Define your circle of control by distinguishing the topics and subjects that matter to you, and which will benefit you. Reduce any irrelevant information and avoid passively consuming what’s on your feeds. The idea is to restructure your media consumption in a way that will help you achieve your goals, not hinder them.
The bottom line: Know yourself and be proactive, not reactive.
3. Consume slow media over fast media.
The average American spends 11 hours a day consuming information. That’s a lot of noise. Twitter and reddit are some of the most popular places to consume information—users can follow trending topics and get updates in real time.
However, there’s a form of helplessness associated with unfolding stories. Choose to consume pieces of higher quality journalism; one where all the facts are laid out and the full story is presented.
Choose books, magazines, long form content from quality journalism outlets, blogs, or newsletters over tweets and social media.
There are also brain-boosting benefits in cultivating a slow media habit.
Our attention spans are getting shorter and the networks in our brain are literally changing—the more cheap shots of information we consume, the lower our capacity for sustained attention is. Impatience comes at a cost; practice accepting and welcoming slowness back into your life.
The bottom line: practice slowing down.
3. Consider cutting down your consumption of news
It’s 2020, and it seems like a new crisis is happening every day. Cutting down on your news consumption is difficult, but necessary—watching the world go down in flames reduces our locus of control.
The more catastrophic the world outside seems, the less control we seem to have of the world inside. This doesn’t have to be true. Despite everything going wrong in the world, there is certainly lots to celebrate.
Additionally, over consumption of news can lead to anxiety and chronic stress, raising cortisol levels beyond what’s healthy. Extreme cortisol levels for long periods of time can impact our digestion, cell growth, and make us more prone to illness and infection.
The bottom line: Your mind is all you have. You have to protect it and make sure it’s a safe space to be.
4. Set social media rules and curate your feeds.
This may be a more obvious suggestion, but we severely underestimate the impact that social media has on our mental health. Furthermore, we’re often aware of its negative implications, but continue to scroll anyways.
Consider taking a Marie Kondo approach to decluttering your social media feed, and do it regularly; every once in a while, audit the accounts that you follow. Unfollow anyone who doesn’t immediately bring you a sense of joy. Eliminate the noise.
Cal Newport, the author of digital minimalism, suggests setting social media rules in order to gain control back, while still getting the benefits of such services.
For example, you can schedule in an hour block every couple of days to allow yourself to scroll freely—one hour will likely be sufficient in catching up on all you missed out on, engaging with others on social media, or reading up on what’s new in the world.
The only difference is that you don’t sacrifice the energy and time taken when those engagements are done mindlessly.
The bottom line: Eliminate the noise.
5. Be disciplined and intentional.
Intentionality is the key factor that underscores the entire practice of healthy information consumption. Hold yourself accountable by setting systems in place and audit your information consumption.
Reflect regularly. Most importantly, be kind to yourself. In a world where everyone is battling for your attention, learning to be selective can be a tough battle. Enjoy the journey.