I opened my book Digital Minimalism with an excerpt from an Andrew Sullivan essay, published in New York magazine in 2016. “An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts,” Sullivan warned. “It broke me. It might break you, too.”
I noted that Sullivan’s experience as a burnt out professional blogger was extreme, but that a diminished echo of his distress was beginning to spread through a culture increasingly glued to its phones. Over the past five months, this diminished echo has exploded into full out replication. We no longer just feel hints of Sullivan’s distress; we’re living it completely.
The anxious uncertainty of the pandemic, combined with social and political unrest, combined with an information landscape dominated by a tribalized social media, is breaking us. Our days are fragmented by a fast drip of insistently panicked content that wrings anxiety, outrage, and fear from our autonomic nervous systems until we’re left exhausted and emotionally dry.
If you’ll excuse the understatement: this is not good.
It is with these observations in mind that I think a fitting place to start Focus Week is with an urgent plea to unplug — to allow the fragments of your attention to coalesce back into meaningful stretches of presence, and your emotions to re-stabilize. You cannot reclaim a life of focus until you reclaim your brain from the distractions that have ensnared it in recent months.
I have two concrete pieces of advice to offer. The first concerns news consumption. To abstain from all information about the world at this current moment would be a betrayal of your civic duty. On the other hand, to monitor every developing story in real time, like a breaking news producer, is a betrayal of your sanity.
I suggest the following compromise: check in on the news for 45 minutes, once a day, preferably in the morning.
You can listen to one of those popular news round up podcasts while you perform chores or go for a morning walk. You can browse the main headlines of a newspaper. You can have the radio news on in the background while you make breakfast.
If there’s a hurricane heading your way, this is your moment to check on the latest cone of uncertainty from the National Hurricane Center. If there’s an activist cause in which you’re engaged, this is the time to check in on the writers or publications whose work on the topic you admire.
Do not watch cable news. Do not look to Twitter. It’s better, if possible, to find sources that do not so directly attempt to access your amygdala.
It’s important to recognize that many people find value from social media that goes beyond the news, such as inspiration or connection. During this current moment, however, these services must be treated with particular care. Which brings me to my second piece of unplugging advice: remove all social media apps from your phone; isolate the browsing of these services to a set period of time in the evening; avoid angry posts.
Do not allow these tools to become a background source of diversion that you turn to throughout your day. Access them instead only on your computer, only during a set time (perhaps one hour each evening). Be intentional about what you browse: focusing on the positive, and avoiding posts whose primary goal is to get you angry, or deliver the Faustian satisfaction of watching your team dunk on the other.
To summarize, in my proposed scheme, you engage with the world of digital information only twice a day: once in the morning, and (perhaps) once in the evening. Outside these brief moments of anxious consumption, you focus instead on living well.
Give your work the concentration it needs, be present with your family, rediscover the hard-won joys of high quality leisure, even experience those necessary moments of gratitude, once common during the lazy heat of late summer, but more recently lost to the insistent growl of the glowing screen.
You cannot reclaim a life of focus when you’re wallowing in a stream of insistent negativity. Learn what you need. Recognize its gravity. Then get on with living deeply.