I am a mindfulness expert. I’m founding partner of a company called Mindful. I’ve devoted the last decade of my personal and professional life to building the skill of focused attention.
And yet, I have a confession to make. In the current climate of 24/7 political news and controversy, I have found it more difficult than ever to stay present, focused, and fully engaged in my work.
The problem? I wake up each morning to an addictive urge. I wonder, “did something outrageous happen?” “Did I miss something important?” “Is there some new ‘October surprise’ waiting for me in my news app?”
Psychologists would describe this as “novelty seeking.” In many ways, it’s a behavior similar to the gambling addict sitting in the corner of a casino, pulling the lever of a slot machine over and over again, for hours on end.
Like the gambler, I get that same hit of dopamine, the brain’s pleasure transmitter, each time I pull out my phone to see what’s happening in the world. Like the gambler, I always end up feeling unfulfilled and empty. And, like the gambler, I continue to feel this same compulsion to keep doing it over and over again.
If you’ve experienced anything like this addictive craving to the news, you may have also experienced its costs. It costs time and attention. Each time you pull out your phone to check the latest news, you’re taking time away from the things that matter most in your business and career.
And yet this habit costs more than time. It costs attention. Long after you’ve checked the news, the emotional stain of it persists. It generates what psychologists call a state of “mind wandering,” a state where your attention drifts away from the present moment for hours or even days, cycling through all sorts of thoughts about the past or worst-case scenarios about what might happen in the future.
So how can you stay productive in the midst of a political news cycle designed to hijack your attention?
1. Become aware of your craving for news.
James Clears’ model of habit formation tells us that habits like news bingeing begin with a cue: waking up, receiving a “news alert,” or some other environmental trigger to check the news. Then comes the second stage of habit, what he calls “craving.” It’s that strong urge you get to interrupt whatever you’re doing and check the latest news. If you can become aware of this craving, you can introduce choice into the equation. Without awareness, you feel the craving to check the news and, without ever even thinking about it, you lose yourself in blogs, podcasts, and headlines. With awareness, however, you can now ask yourself an essential question that interrupts the cycle: “do I really need to know what’s happening in the world right now?”
2. Remove your political news cues.
You can also leverage the science of habit by limiting your exposure to the environmental cues that trigger you to check the news. For example, move all of your political news apps off the home screen of your phone. Bury them away in a folder if you have to. Remove news sites from the top of your browser on your desktop. Or remove news magazines and newspapers from the top of the pile on your nightstand.
3. Set clear limits on your news consumption.
When it comes to food, most of us set limits on what we allow ourselves to consume. We don’t act on every desire and down three pints of Ben & Jerry’s during the workday. And yet, when it comes to our consumption of information, we exercise far less discipline. We allow the prehistoric structures of our brain — this novelty-based addiction to dopamine — to shape our behavior. So see what happens when you set clear limits on your consumption of the news. For me, I’ve realized that there’s no reason to consume political news more than one time each day. So I’ve set a limit. I allow myself to explore the news each day during lunchtime, and then do my best to resist this urge during the rest of the workday.
4. Pay more attention to the news of this moment.
Almost all political news happens outside of the present moment. It’s about yesterday’s controversy, this morning’s tweet, or next month’s looming constitutional crisis. Rarely, if ever, is it about what’s happening right now. And yet, science and thousands of years of ancient wisdom make clear that the highest forms of productivity and happiness exist right here, right now, in this moment. So see what happens when you respond to the urge to check your phone for the latest political news by instead checking in on the news of this moment. Notice the changing leaves outside your window. Pay attention to the sound of the wind as it rustles the trees. See what sensations are happening in your body right now.
The goal of these tips isn’t to hide out from the political and social problems we face. The goal isn’t to become apathetic or withdrawn from public life. Instead, the goal is to stay engaged and informed in a way that preserves our ability to stay focused, resilient, and attentive to our highest work in the world.