Much has been written about the incentives driving the news media. One of their missions is to inform. But media companies are also businesses, which means they must sustain themselves.
By and large, media companies that deliver news online monetize attention through display advertising. They want to keep us clicking and scrolling as much as possible. If a story drives clicks, views, or reads, they have an incentive to publish it—sometimes to sensationalize it. Companies delivering news online have no incentive to encourage moderation of the time we spend on their sites.
Furthermore, the purveyors of online news profit most when we feel at our worst. It wasn’t until I’d wasted a few days scrolling through election news that I started to reflect on what was really driving me. I realized I wasn’t reading online news for the reason I told myself—to be informed. Rather, I was spending an inordinate amount of time online because I was scared. I feared what might happen to the country regardless of who won the election.
As I wrote in my book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, fear is an “internal trigger.” An internal trigger is a negative emotion that prompts the habitual use of a product or a service. Companies attach their products to internal triggers to prompt us to perform a behavior with little or no conscious thought.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; many products we use habitually enhance our lives. When we feel lonely, we might reach out to a friend over Facebook or Snapchat. When we’re uncertain, we reflexively Google a question on our smart phones. When we’re bored, we might tune in to the big game to check the score.
It’s important to note that companies don’t necessarily create internal triggers—rather, they satiate existing pain points. When the election heightened people’s fears and uncertainties, media organizations leveraged this to their benefit. When we’re in pain, we look for relief. But in my case, I realized that relying on the news to alleviate my fear wasn’t making the matter better—in some ways, it was making things worse. I had lost control of how I was choosing to spend my waking hours.
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The Critical Question
Not My Newsfeed
I’ve implemented other changes to my information-consumption routine since the election:
– I no longer get my news from newsfeeds. I uninstalled the Facebook and Twitter apps from my iPhone and check these sites once per day from my desktop instead of several times per day on my phone.
– I use the DistractOff plugin to block online news sites.
– I installed the Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator on my browser, which, just as the name implies, completely removes the newsfeed from Facebook. I can still check the pages of people I care about, I just no longer have to wade through the distracting wall of algorithmically curated content designed to suck me in.
– Though I no longer scroll news sites, I still subscribe to email newsletters from select publications and writers. As a rule, I never read the articles they link to online. Instead, I save articles to the Pocket app so I can read or listen to them later.
Of course, I get the irony that you’re reading this online. To be clear, I love the Internet and all the ways it enhances our lives. I’m also not advocating media asceticism. I still consume a ton of news—I just make sure I’m getting it from trusted sources, in a way that serves me.
As the Greek philosopher Sophocles reminds us, “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” Today, many of us struggle with the curse of having access to vast amounts of information through our connected devices. We need to re-examine why we use these technologies and how. It’s up to us individually to figure out which and how much news content is good for us by asking the critical question, “Is this technology serving me, or am I serving it?”
Once we know the answer, we can adjust. Sometimes the solution is to adopt new technologies. But other times, as was the case for me and online news, the solution is to go back to the old way of doing things for a while.
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