I’m only one person. I want to be of help to this world. I’m trying to be of help to this world. But I can’t do that if I’m paralyzed by taking in ever-more information.
After all, I’ve already got the plot: a runaway population of clothed apes have infested a rock spinning through space. These apes’ technical prowess has enabled them to conquer their environment. However they haven’t evolved skills of mass coordination and resource management, thus they are over-extracting their environment and causing the collapse of their ecosystem. Only some of these apes are aware that their ecosystem will not support their survival for much longer; the others are too preoccupied with pursuing their primal drives of acquisition, status, and reproduction.
Do I need a constant feed of further information to make a contribution to the world? Or do I rather need to spend time—lots of time—in contemplation and toil to figure out how I can help these apes mitigate disaster?
I think about how often our ancestors would have access to news. In the time of newspapers and telegraphs, they might have received news one or two times per day. In the days of Genghis Khan, a European may have heard no news of the great empire sweeping the land until many years into the conquest. And in hunter gatherer times, you’d likely only get information when crossing another tribe.
Not that those historic times were superior—we all cherish the benefits of the information age. But I wonder if information is a bit like food: having an adequate supply is important, but have too much and the body becomes preoccupied filtering it and removing its excess.
I can emotionally and intellectually process probably one fact about the state of climate change in a week. To sit scrolling through a barrage of takes, stats, and memes is more than I can digest. And such scrolling turns me into a willing participant in our modern dystopia where we sit glued to our screens, numbly refreshing for minute-by-minute updates on the world’s worst events.
So I’ve decided to do more to keep my mental space mine. Less newsletters, less social media, less—gasp!—internet. I’m also striving to improve my information diet quality: less knee-jerk Twitter takes, more long-form content from those who have taken the time to think through and emotionally process the data. And instead of blindly accepting a feed of information, I’m doing more to think what information I actually need and then search it out.
In short, I strive to take thoughtful, slow sips of the world—not blindly guzzle from its fire hose.
Cal Newport’s advice on how to stay informed but active:
First, check one national and one local new source each morning. Then — and this is the important part — don’t check any other news for the rest of the day. Presumably, time sensitive updates that affect you directly will arrive by email, or phone, or text.
This will be really hard, especially given the way we’ve been trained by social media companies over the past decade to view our phone as a psychological pacifier.
Which brings me to the second part of the solution: distract yourself with value-driven action; lots of action. Serve your community, serve your kids, serve yourself (both body and mind), produce good work. Try to fit in a few moments of forced gratitude, just to keep those particular circuits active.
Brenna Quinlan on doing something, not everything:
Thanks to Joe Green for the header photo.