David Heinemeier Hansson

April 29, 2022

Breaking from the news

I’m not sure exactly when I became addicted to the news. But I clearly remember the time before I was checking the latest developments in the world three times per day (or four or five!). I remember momentous events like 9/11 or the swine flu pandemic from an era before being hooked into an IV feed of BREAKING NEWS. World events that registered, but didn’t wash over my mind with all the minute details and their angles.

And then I remember the killing of Bin Laden, Fukushima, and Charlie Sheen’s WINNING stories from 2011 with a very different fidelity of commentary, reporting, and engagement. So that pretty much pins this change in news consumption to about 2010. Meaning it’s now been over a decade. Which is a good time to reflect over whether what you’ve been doing is worth continuing.

To be fair, this moment of contemplation didn’t actually come as a result of any anniversary. First, a seed had been planted at the beginning of this year when the pandemic stopped setting the daily agenda in Denmark. On the one hand, it was a relief, but on the other also an abrupt end to an exceptionally decadent news binge that had lasted the past two years.

It meant waking up from that binge with an intellectual headache, pondering what was it all for? What difference did it make to know all the daily infection numbers? Reading every damn long-form piece on what the pandemic was doing, and what we were all doing because of it? What was the residual knowledge, insight, or wisdom gathered by all that reading?

Following the news often leaves you with this sense that you’re doing something worthwhile. You’re informed! But are you really? Is following the cherry-picked events of the day with the intensity and urgency as though these events were yours helping anyone? Yourself? Others?

These were the questions I was struggling to come up with compelling answers to. And as the transition from breathless covid coverage bled seamlessly into breathless war coverage, I took the opportunity to insert my own break. A break from breaking news. A break from obsessively following the news. Any news. For the first time in over a decade.

What a relief.

It's not that I've holed myself up in a cave somewhere, cut off from the world around me, since then. I've just gone back to the way I was living prior to 2010. When the big, important news would eventually make its way to my attention.

But the difference between following the news and being exposed to the news is huge. I stopped visiting the Danish newspaper sites I'd be reading on a daily basis. Moved the WSJ and NYT apps off my home screen. Generally just reduced the amount of time spent daily consuming the news by 90%+. And somehow it feels like I've barely missed a thing.

Part of that is because while it seems like the world is spinning faster and faster all the time, the big shifts aren't any more frequent. You really do have to retreat to a cave in the mountains to fully avoid The Slap, Musk buying Twitter, or The War.

The most surprising consequence of breaking with the news has been how much less appealing the phone becomes. Now that I've essentially given up on social media too, the news was the last big trap of unlimited scrolling that black mirror contained. Meaning I'm "done" with my phone that much quicker.

It's funny, though. The muscle memory is still there. I still pull the phone out far more often than it has any value. My brain still craves the slot machine. But I've found an endearing form of cognitive methadone: The Photos app. If you long-press on that app, you get a menu where you can pick One Year Ago. That brings up a selection of photos from last year. You don't know which. And it's a delight to be surprised. So you get the slot machine effect, but again, it's limited. 10 photos, then you're done.

The second effect is that when you don't have a never-ending stream of news, commentary, and think pieces to consume, you're all that much more likely to spend time reading actual damn books. Which is exactly what I've been doing too. I'll be sure to recap those soon, but just in the last month or so since breaking with the news, I've made it through Maverick, a biography of Thomas Sowell, most the way through The End of History and The Last Man by Fukuyama. I've listened to Hardcore History's account of The Atlantic Slave Trade and James Lindsay's deep dive on Herbert Marcuse.

But really, the pay-off from breaking with the news isn't rendered in these high-minded goals. Less screen time! More books! It's much simpler. It's a calmer mind. A sense of time slowing down. A greater distance from the woes of the world you can't affect either way.

Give it a try. Give it a break. I bet you won't miss a thing.