A Healthy News Diet

[Note: This post is a reaction to my drastic increase in Twitter consumption this year. All uses of the second person “you” and “your” in this post are in fact me talking to myself.]

If you aren’t careful, you’ll spend too much of your life scrolling a feed. Might be Twitter, HN, Reddit, NYT, etc. Could be some app that doesn’t exist yet. Doesn’t matter. The result is the same. You don’t get as much done as you want, and your soul slowly drains out into that screen.

The problem is, scrolling through that feed can be useful. It’s not useful very often, but it’s useful enough that you don’t feel you should completely quit. Mostly you’re just wasting time, but you need to know what’s going on in the world somehow. It’s just that the signal to noise ratio by default is so so so so bad.

Maybe there’s a way to increase the signal and decrease the noise. Maybe there’s a way to make news reading an intentional part of your life that takes exactly the amount of time you allow it. Maybe. That’s what I want to work towards in this post, anyhow. Which leads us to my working hypothesis:

There exists a balanced news diet that results in learning useful things while allowing for enough time to be productive, and also keeping your soul.

Finding that diet will require work, and sticking to it will require work. No free lunch, and all that.

I feel like a first principles approach is called for.

Why read news? For me it’s a way to find out what’s happening in areas of the world that I care about. It’s a way of learning about opportunities for investment, whether that be in the form of money, like buying bitcoin, or in the form of time, like deciding to read up on or tinker with a technology that seems like it will be important. Reading news is also a way to see warning signs that tell me I should be preparing for something or changing my behavior, exactly what happened this year with coronavirus.

So what would happen if I didn’t read news? I would miss out on investments and possible career opportunities. And I might be caught wrong-footed in black swan events like a health crisis, a violent conflict, or an economic crisis.

I think there are plenty of people who for whatever reason think that being on the lookout for such disasters is overkill. I’m not one of those people. I want to be prepared.

Which I think logically dictates that I read some news, in some form that reliably sends me enough signal to benefit from what I described above.

I think if you view news as a way to get information, rather than a way to pass time, then you might get most of the way to being able to implement and stick to a healthy news diet. If you just have a set of other activities that you view as ways of passing time, then when you’re bored, instead of pulling out your phone and scrolling, you’ll resort to one of those other activities.

In that framework, reading news would be an activity that was slotted to a particular time and frequency, much like dinner or going to the gym. “I read news twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, for about an hour after dinner,” would be a typical thing to hear if people thought of news consumption as an activity whose purpose was the intake of useful information, rather than a way to pass time and release dopamine.

So I guess that’s what a healthy news diet consists of:

  • Specific things you want to get out of reading news
  • A plan for how to get those things out of reading news
  • A list of non-news activities you want to use to pass time
  • Slots during your week that you will use to read news

Examples of specific things you might want to get out of reading news

  • The health of the economy
  • Things that might be changing or about to change the health of the economy
  • Virus outbreaks
  • New technological developments
  • New scientific developments
  • Changes in government around the world
  • Changes in key legislative positions in the US
  • The price of some commodity or stock or asset or security, etc.
  • Countries with the highest rate of growth

Examples of non-news things that you can do to pass time

  • Read a book
  • Write a blog post/essay
  • Read high quality long form content
  • Play chess
  • Play go
  • Write a journal entry
  • Watch an episode of some show (although try to keep it to one episode)

I think one of the reasons pulling out your phone and scrolling has become the default behavior when a moment of downtime rolls around is that it’s the most convenient action you know how to take. A news feed is often the closest form of entertainment, only two taps away.

This isn’t some inherent property of the feed, it being so convenient. It’s just that to have something else be equally convenient, some setup is required. You can just as easily have an e-book or a chess game available in two taps.

How to get books on your iPhone

I have an iPhone, but I’m sure similar steps work for Android.

  1. Open the Books app
  2. Go the the Book Store tab
  3. Search for books you want to read
  4. Buy/download them

If you can’t find a book you’re looking for, or don’t have the funds, or don’t agree with capitalism, or whatever, you can find almost any book, in epub or pdf format, on Library Genesis.

How to write a blog post/essay on your phone

Another great activity that could be available in two taps of the light rectangle is working on some writing. The Notes app that comes installed on the iPhone is a decent place to get started. Create a folder for Posts and start filling it up with stuff whenever you’re bored.

If you want an app that looks nicer or has more functionality, there are lots of options. I use Notion.

Where to find good long form content

I don’t read long form content, so please take suggestions on this list as options to check out for yourself, not as strong recommendations. I do plan on reading more from these sites as I start to implement my news diet, however, so I may come back and prune/add depending on what I find.

How to play chess on your phone

I recommend the Li Chess app. You can play against friends or strangers in a variety of game formats. There is also an inexhaustible library of chess puzzles.

Getting what you want out of news

If you are giving yourself a set amount of time to read news every week, you’ll need to do it efficiently in order to learn what you want from it.

I think the next step after coming up with a list of things you want to get out of reading news is to go through the list and come up with where the information about each item is going to come from.

For example, if one thing you want to keep tabs on by reading news is the health of the US economy, you might have a list of statistics you use to get a picture of that. So maybe like

  • Weekly unemployment claims
  • Percent change in the price of the SP 500 over the past week, month, and quarter.
  • Consumer spending
  • Corporate debt levels
  • Government debt levels
  • Rate of inflation

If you have a list of stocks you care about knowing the price of, you can make a watchlist in most finance apps.

If you care about being on the lookout for virus outbreaks, the best thing I know of to do is follow epidemiology experts on Twitter. I have a list called Epidemiology. I think this strategy — building lists of experts on Twitter — is actually the best way of keeping up to date on fields with even a moderate level of technical complexity. You can’t really rely on journalists to have good takes on emerging issues.

Now you have a list where each item consists of two parts: a thing you want to know, and where to look for that knowledge. So your news-reading time can be spent by going through that list and looking in the pre-determined places for updates on things you care about.

My hope is that after going through your list in this way, the result is a feeling of satiation. You’re confident that your model of the world is up to date in the ways you care about, and you don’t feel the constant pull of the feed.

That’s the hope anyway! I plan on writing down my own “healthy news diet” list sometime soon. I’ll post it when it’s ready, and will keep the blog updated on my experience of trying to stick to it.

Matt Roll @mroll