The News is a Waste of Your Time

By Nat Eliason in Productivity

Waking up and watching “Real Housewives of Orange County” is not a good way to start your day.

It’s ridiculous insight about people you don’t care about, it’s probably faked or exaggerated, and you’re not going to do anything with the information in the show except talk about it with other people.

It would be much better to wake up and read or watch the news, right? Well, no, there’s hardly any difference and you shouldn’t do either.

Here’s why.

You Shouldn’t Watch the News

Television news is pure entertainment. It’s not possible for a news channel to run 24 hours a day and have truly important global events to report constantly throughout that time. It’s not even possible for a news channel to run for four hours a day and have truly important things to report–there simply aren’t that many important things going on in the world.

It comes down to a simple comparison. A news show could work one of two ways, they could say:

“Okay, go out and see what important things happened in the world. We have four hours of air time but if there were only a few important things then we’ll just report on those for 1 hour and sell back the remaining. We don’t want to waste people’s time.”

Or they could say:

“Okay, we have four hours of screen time, go find whatever you can to fill it that will be the most interesting to viewers so they stay on our channel and we get more advertising revenue.”

Which do you suppose it is? The second, naturally, and in that case it’s impossible that the things they’re reporting on 95% of the time are meaningful or useful. In fact the likelihood that what they’re saying is meaningful will naturally decrease rapidly as the amount of airtime they have goes up.

The problem is compounded by the way TV news is structured. Almost all “bits” or pieces are covered in around 45 seconds because they’ve figured out that that’s about how long they have our attention for, and if they don’t change it up quickly then we’ll get bored and leave. Even if they were talking about something important, I highly doubt that thing could be well represented in 45 seconds, that’s hardly enough time to make one coherent point before you have to move on to the next one.

Which is part of the reason we end up with highly partisan news channels like MSNBC and FOX. Channels like those aren’t looking to educate, they’re looking to coddle viewers and reinforce or strengthen their existing beliefs. It’s masturbatory entertainment that’s only made funnier when one side criticizes the other’s news channel for being ridiculously partisan (unlike their own, of course).

Watching the news is out, so we have to stick to reading newspapers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, right?

Well…

You Shouldn’t Read the News Either

Reputable newspapers like the NYT and WSJ are certainly less partisan and ridiculous than televised news. But that doesn’t mean they’re worth reading.

We can use the same comparison of situations that we used for television news. How do you suppose the news-gathering at the NYT works?

Either they say:

“Okay, we can print as many pages we need to, go find the absolute most important things to tell people about and we’ll just run those”

Or, they say:

“Okay, we need to fill at least 12 pages, maybe 16. Go find the most interesting stuff you can so we hit our quota.”

And considering I’ve never seen a 2 page newspaper that had a short heading at the end saying “Sorry, nothing major happened in the world yesterday” I think we can assume they operate on the second principle.

Worse, the news is heavily manipulable. This applies to television news as well, but there are people whose full-time job is “media manipulator” and they know how to engineer stories to generate press as a result of the short amount of time reporters have to pull together their stories and their reliance on less-reliable news sources for ideas. Just read Trust Me I’m Lying.

Okay, so if TV news and print news are out, you’re probably wondering: “How do I stay up on the news and be an informed citizen?”

You Shouldn’t Stay Up on the News or Try to Be an Informed Citizen

Once you cut out TV and print news, you’ll have no idea what’s going on in the world aside from what other people tell you, and that’s perfectly okay.

Staying “up” on current events is something that’s treated as important because it’s treated as important. At some point we were told by other people that it’s important, and we believed them, and since we started doing it we have to tell other people that it’s important in order to justify our behavior. (See cognitive dissonance).

But it’s not important. Any news or current event is only as valuable as it applies to your own life, and if it’s not valuable then it’s simply trivia or entertainment. Remember when CNN ran weeks of coverage on Malaysian Airlines? It was a tragedy, yes, but they were clearly milking the situation by talking about a recent “scare” event for hours and hours. John Stewart nails it.

If information is not going to affect your day to day decision making or make you a more intelligent, well rounded person, then it’s useless. You might feel like it’s important to know what’s going on with ISIS, but you’re not going to do anything about it unless you’re in the military or politics, so stop worrying yourself. Don’t waste your time on it.

In the vast majority of cases, people will use the news for one of two things: to post a politically charged Facebook status / tweet about (which, surprisingly, doesn’t do anything) or to talk about it with other people. In the first case it’s masturbation and just makes us feel good without doing anything, in the second case it’s trivia no different than what happened on the latest episode of Real Housewives of Orange County.

The only real exception to this is highly targeted news focused on what you’re doing in the near future. If you’re a consultant working in Mortgage Backed Securities, you should probably have some idea of what’s going on in that market, though no more than a 2-3 minute skim through a more curated source of news like Feedly. The same goes for people in tech, finance, etc.

But How Will I Vote? 

The same way I voted in this election. Take twenty minutes, read through the personal sites of each candidate as well as some of the top sites referencing them (with pro and con stances), and make your decision that way. There’s no reason to follow a candidate for months in order to make a decision. You probably have a few sticking-point policies that a candidate needs to support for you to support them, and even if those aren’t enough for you to make a decision then there will be secondary policies you can go off of.

Also, The News Makes You Fat

Have you ever had one of those friends who’s always having some sort of crisis. Nothing is ever right in their life, and they can’t help but tell you about everything that’s going wrong. They post depressing Facebook statuses so you’ll comfort them, send you sad Snapchats, and so on.

Every day you wake up and you have a new, long, defeatist email from them about “oh my life is so tragic,” “oh I’m so alone,” “oh I’ll never get better,” etc. etc. and while you might feel obliged to stick with your friend… you should ditch them.

Complaining is just a cheap way to get attention, and when you’re constantly bombarded with depressing and negative news it makes you more negative, depressed, and stressed out yourself. That in turn lowers your willpower throughout the day, which means you’ll have less energy to do your best work, and you’ll have a harder time resisting things like that doughnut in the lounge.

The news is that negative friend. You’re rarely going to skim through the NYT and hear about all these wonderful things going on in the world, because as James Altucher puts it:

“I’ve worked at newspapers… you’re basically told to find the scariest thing you can, and write about it in the scariest way possible… every day is Halloween at the newspaper.”

So by reading the news, you’re hitting yourself in the face with largely negative commentary on things that don’t matter to you and that you’re not going to do anything about, and as a result lower your effectiveness for the rest of the day.

But the Best Reason is This

If you lose $100, you can get that $100 back. Money is not a limited resource. If you lose 5 minutes, you’re never getting those 5 minutes back. Time is the only truly limited resource in your life, so there’s no resource you should be more judicious with.

Given all the things you could be spending it on, the news pales in comparison to the literature or history you could read, to people you could spend time with talking about things bigger than current events, and to creating things that improve other people’s lives.

It’s simply not a good use of your time.

Footnotes

Did You Enjoy This?

Then consider signing up for my Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles, book notes, and podcast episodes.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.