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Alan Jacobs has recently posted about his news consumption habits in response to a worthwhile piece by Oliver Burkeman. Taking the latter first, Burkeman says that while there has always been alarming news, “the central place the news has come to occupy in many people’s psychological worlds is certainly novel”. Is this a healthy state of affairs?

Assuming you’re not reading this in an active war zone, it doesn’t follow that you need to mentally inhabit those stories, all day long. It doesn’t make you a better person – and it doesn’t make life any easier for Ukrainian refugees – to spend hour upon hour marinating in precisely those narratives over which you can exert the least influence.

What approach is preferable to marinating in the news? He discusses and dismisses both the “renunciation” and “self-care” approaches. Instead, he says, we should “adjust our default state”. Dip into and out of the news. Take action where you can and then move on. Then guard this practice with some “not-too-rigid” personal rules for handling the information. Rather than marinating in the news, do the good you’re actually capable of: “meaningful work, keeping your community functioning, being a good-enough parent or a decent friend”.

Burkeman’s rules involve putting physical distance between himself and his laptop and phone, along with time limits for their use. Jacobs describes his practices in his blog post:

  1. “Most important: I avoid social media altogether.
  2. I always have plenty to read because of all the cool sites I subscribe to via RSS, but not one of those sites covers the news.
  3. I get most of my news from The Economist, which I read when it arrives on my doorstep each week.
  4. In times of stress, such as the current moment, I start the day by reading The Economist’s daily briefing.”

I second Jacobs’ recommendation of RSS feeds. I use NetNewsWire and it really is a good way to keep track of writers and sites you’re interested in. Whenever something new is posted, it simply appears in the app and I can read it whenever it is convenient for me.

I also second his recommendation of avoiding social media. I’ve written before (and likely will again) about my discovery, once I closed the accounts, of how much my thoughts were driven by the timeline, not my own interests.

I avoid cable news at all costs. I believe it is, just as much as social media, engineered to hijack your brain. #CNNsucks

I tend to pick up most news through something like ambient awareness. If something is big enough, I usually hear about it one way or another. In times when I feel like I need to attend to the news (as in recent days), I typically go to the BBC news site because

  1. They have a reputation for being reliable and professional, and
  2. I don’t constantly hit paywalls, like at the NYT or WaPo, and
  3. It’s not jammed with video and ads. Again, #CNNsucks.

For me, it is an essential practice (and Burkeman refers to this) to continually distinguish between what I can and cannot control. I have little to no control over much of the awful shit that happens in the world. There are a few practical actions I can take. Beyond that, though, my responsibility is to learn (both for myself and with my family and friends) how best to navigate and understand the world we find ourselves in. It is useful to remember that, if life is the Battle of New York, I am not Thor or Captain America or even Hawkeye. I’m not even the NYPD. I am one of those people in the background scrambling to avoid falling debris.

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