To Be Awesome at Work, Stop Reading the News

I once ate 60 Chicken McNuggets in one sitting. As a product of the 80s, McDonalds was the ultimate teenage reward. Yet today, my daughter doesn’t even notice the Golden Arches. Times have changed. Growing up, my folks’ news consumption consisted of a morning paper, the evening news, and some AM radio during major news events. Today, I can’t go for more than 15 minutes without reading the news. Times have changed.

So many professionals I speak to find their news consumption troubling. They have a nagging suspicion that we’re consuming noise, which doesn’t build foundational knowledge yet keeps them in a permanent state of anxiety. Deep down, we all know we’re eating too many Chicken McNuggets and as Shane Parrish says in Why You Should Stop Reading the News:

Most of what you read online today is pointless. It’s not important to your life. It’s not going to help you make better decisions. It’s not going to help you understand the world. It’s not going to help you develop deep and meaningful connections with the people around you. The only thing it’s really doing is altering your mood and perhaps your behavior.

Let’s take a first principles approach to why we read the news: for work and to build knowledge. Let’s illustrate that with the two lucid fishes, below.

The worker fish wants to be a great employee. That means staying on top of trends and competitors, watching the companies in its portfolio, or identifying macro events that could impact its business. If you’re in sales, this fish always keeps you one step ahead of your prospect list.

Meanwhile, the knowledge fish seeks to learn and expand its ideas, creativity, and reasoning capabilities in the pursuit of being a well-rounded individual. But if this fishbowl is your brain, here’s what’s really happening:

Three unsavory characters quickly come and appropriate your attention.

Beware of FOMSI, Pringles and Fake Activism

The FOMSI shark represents the Fear Of Missing Something Important (a term coined by Tristan Harris). It’s driven by that nagging insecurity that someone — a boss, investor, client or prospect — will always have some piece of news before you do. And consequently, you’ll look stupid in front of them when you get called out.

The Pringles shark represents the news that “once you pop, you can’t stop.” Is it really possible to read a single Trump article? It’s exacerbated by the crafty ways in which the social media platforms game our emotional blind spots. It’s that crappy feeling you get when you realize you spent twenty minutes reading detailed commentary on presidential tweets.

The piranha is the (false) belief that it’s my civic duty to read every single political article. I’ve seen my Faux Activism at play when I find myself reading New Yorker profiles on Kellyanne Conway at 10pm in the name of “the resistance.” (Personally, I struggle to find where/how to insert myself politically — for now, it’s been mostly canvassing on behalf on like-minded candidates.)

Presumably this is just the “new normal” and these are the cards we’ve been dealt. I’m opting out. And like Aziz Ansari said “I’m not choosing ignorance. I’m choosing to not watch wrestling.” So let’s reexamine how to combat each of these predators in our head.

Cure your FOMSI

This is reactive and fear-based thinking, particularly when it comes to work. It’s perfectly normal to want not want to look stupid around colleagues. But that doesn’t mean you need to check the news every five minutes.

How can you shift to a proactive mindset? Take an inventory of the really important news events that would impact you if you missed them. And remember that you don’t work in isolation, so god forbid if you missed something a colleague would have your back.

Next, define a window of time during which you take a news break. Unless you’re a day-trader or a breaking news specialist, you can take a break. Start small (say 30 minutes), if this causes a panic. To ensure you don’t miss anything, use technology as a safety net for any mission critical news with the following approaches:

+ Create specific Google Alerts paired with VIP setting or email rules
+ Set up an RSS reader for important feeds (i.e. SEC filings)
+ Use IFTTT triggers to enhance the notifications listed above
+ Create a user manual with your colleagues to define accountability around news-related events
+ Most importantly, remember we’re talking 30 minutes ?. (Having a good laugh about this all will help bring some perspective)

Manage the Important, but not Urgent

So how do we balance news consumption with becoming well-rounded polymaths? First, by remembering that this type of knowledge falls into the classic Eisenhower Box trap — the Important, but not Urgent. You should absolutely read that long NYT feature — just not when you’re trying to do your most important work. Here are some approaches to consider:

+ Using a Read-It-Later App (like Instapaper or Pocket)
+ Using an RSS reader to subscribe to blogs
+ Subscribing to email newsletters (and then having them delivered once a day, using bundling)
+ Re-upping on physical magazines to slow down your consumption (personal favorites, Foreign Affairs and weekend FT)

Admit that tech will always win the willpower game

A key part of managing news consumption is to stop eating Pringles. My approach here is simple. I acknowledge that I won’t be able to beat the Tech Cos at the attention game. So instead, I just disable their most pernicious features, using the following approaches:

+ I use parental controls on my iPhone to disable all news sites except for the NY Times
+ My iPhone is deliberately hard to unlock, in grayscale, and devoid of any social media
+ On my desktop, I use the StayFocused Chrome Extension to block news sites during specific parts of the day and have permanently eradicated my Facebook newsfeed.

Avoiding news isn’t ignorance… it’s career building

Stepping away from the news doesn’t mean ignorance, nor does it mean taking your job less seriously. On the contrary, it means bringing acuity and clarity to your thinking, freeing up precious cognitive resources and a commitment to develop real knowledge. The only loser? Those tasty Chicken McNuggets.

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