In the previous post I described what I thought a healthy news diet might look like. I wanted to lay out a framework that would allow me to stay informed in ways I care about, but would also keep me from using news as a way to pass time and indulge in an addiction to the feed. I came up with the following criteria for a healthy news diet:
- 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
In this post I’m going to fill in each of those items for myself. Once I’ve filled out that plan, I’ll start to follow it. And I will keep track of how closely I follow it. In my paper journal I’ve added two sections to track
- how many times I use the predetermined slots to read the news
- how many times outside of the predetermined slots I read news
The combination of those statistics should be a good measurement of how closely I’m sticking to my new “healthy news diet.”
That’s just the quantitative side. After a month I’ll do a write up of how I feel it’s going.
Specific things you want to get out of reading news
I have a hunch keeping this list short is important. Maybe a rule of thumb would be to keep it under five. I care to keep up-to-date on
- The health of the US economy
- Virus outbreaks
- New tech around cloud-based app development
As far as this section is concerned, I think that’s really all you need. A list of bullets. They can be super high level, because you will have time to think more carefully and drill down on each of them in the next section.
A plan for how to get those things out of reading news
This section is for coming up with what information you are going to look for and what sources you are going to look at for each of the items in the previous section.
The health of the US economy
There are lots of statistics that people use to measure the health of the economy. I looked at a bunch of them and decided I care about knowing the current state and trends over time of the following:
- 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
- Treasury Yield Curve
Now, the US economy is a massive beast ($20tn!) and the statistics listed above are not likely to change much week to week. So I’m thinking of only checking these once every month or even every quarter.
I found a site called Trading Economics which seems to provide reputable time series charts for every stat in my list, except the Treasury Yield Curve, which I can get from treasury.gov.
Before 2020, I would not have placed news about viruses high on my list of things to keep track of. In fact it would not have made my list. But obviously things are different now.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve been able to stay a step ahead of mainstream news and online publications (CNN, WSJ, NYT, Vox, Slate, etc.) by following smart people and scientists on Twitter. February 27th was the first day I started taking coronavirus seriously (I really should have seen it sooner, but I was on vacation in India), and it was because of what I saw these people saying on Twitter. At the time, worrying about the virus was seen mostly as overreacting and handwringing. Hip publications were writing articles mocking the tech industry for swearing off handshakes. If you wanted to find content that was being the correct level of worried about what was coming down the pike, you had three options, as far as I can tell:
- A few prominent SV venture capitalists (Paul Graham, Balaji Srinivasan)
- Bay Area Rationalists (Jacob Falkovich, William Eden)
- Epidemiologists (Nicholas Christakis, Emma Hodcroft)
While I appreciate the level of independent thinking that was required for the first two groups in that list to be able to spot the threat and talk about it so quickly, they all mostly tweet about things other than viruses. I’d like to keep that independent thinking around, which is why I follow these people in my general feed. But to watch viruses specifically, I think the best thing to do is make a Twitter List full of epidemiologists, which I have done and made public.
That’s where I’ll go every week to get a feel for what’s going on in the world of viruses. For the time being it will serve mostly as a way to stay current on all things COVID, but after we pass through this crisis, I expect it will be among the best places on the internet to keep a finger on the pulse of potential epidemics around the world.
New tech around cloud-based app development
I fancy myself a product developer. My day job is fullstack engineer for a company that sells a software service for pulling insights out of text. My current ambition is to build my own software-as-a-service company that will one day provide my full income. And I have this belief that every day, new tools and products and technologies are being built that make it easier and easier to build and run an online software business. I want to stay informed about what’s happening in this space.
An example, to hopefully illustrate what I mean, is Stripe’s Customer Portal. I learned about this new product from a tweet from Patrick Collison. That afternoon I used that newly released Stripe feature to build subscription billing into my library, Staq.js. Actionable news.
To keep an eye out for more opportunities like that, I’ve created a Web Dev list on Twitter. Curation for this one is not as easy as the list for epidemiologists, but I’m confident I can gradually refine it to be a great place for keeping current on what technologies people are using to build great products for the web.
A list of non-news activities you want to use to pass time
This section is for coming up with and writing down a list of things you will do instead of reading news when the temptation inevitably arises throughout the course of your day. This is really important. If you don’t have alternatives to reach for, you’ll end up pulling out your phone and scrolling.
- Reading a book on the phone
- Doing chess puzzles on Li Chess
- Read long form content
- Read a newsletter
It’s worth getting into details about these, since it will reduce the activation energy needed to get started with any of them if you can visualize what it takes to start doing it.
Reading a book on the phone
I have the Books app in the dock of my iPhone, and I’m always in the middle of reading something there. Last month it was The Internet of Money; right now it’s Mastering Bitcoin. I even like to have a variety available, so if I’m not in the mood for non-fiction, I can still read to pass the time. Right now I have Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None queued up if I’m not up for ingesting more about how blockchains work.
Doing chess puzzles on Li Chess
I have the Li Chess app on my phone, and getting to an endless list of puzzles is only two clicks away: one to open the app and another to click into the puzzle of the day.
Reading long form content
I haven’t ever intentionally read long form journalism before. I’ve stumbled across a few articles and read all the way through them for whatever reason. But I’ve never sat down and been like “Ok, let’s read a 5,000 word piece on ‘The End of The Wolf, The Start of The Questions’.” But I love reading and there’s a lot of this stuff to read, and maybe some of it is even good. So I figure I’ll give it a try as a way to keep me off the feed.
I’d like to come up with a system for deciding what articles to read. I don’t want my time reading long form to turn into “my time scrolling through lists of long form articles as if it were Netflix.”
I’ll come up with a list of three articles that look good and put links to them in a note. When I decide I want to read some long form, I’ll just read the top one. When I’ve read two and there’s only one left on the list, I’ll find two more and put them under that one. This way I never have to search for articles when I want to be reading one to pass time.
Here are the first three:
Read a newsletter
At the moment I only read one newsletter consistently, and that is the marvelous Money Stuff by Matt Levine. I subscribe to The Weekly Dish as well, but I don’t think I’ve ever read all the way through an entire edition. But since newsletters like these are essentially walls of potentially entertaining and informative text delivered to my inbox, I might turn to them more as a way to hide from the feed.
Slots during your week that you will use to read news
I’ll start off with two one hour slots per week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I don’t know that I can schedule them at specific times, because my evenings are a little fluid. But I should be able to make them happen sometime in the evening each one of those days.