Study Hacks Blog

Focus Week: Give Your Brain Some Breathing Room

August 25th, 2020 · 51 comments

I opened my book Digital Minimalism with an excerpt from an Andrew Sullivan essay, published in New York magazine in 2016. “An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts,” Sullivan warned. “It broke me. It might break you, too.”

I noted that Sullivan’s experience as a burnt out professional blogger was extreme, but that a diminished echo of his distress was beginning to spread through a culture increasingly glued to its phones. Over the past five months, this diminished echo has exploded into full out replication. We no longer just feel hints of Sullivan’s distress; we’re living it completely.

The anxious uncertainty of the pandemic, combined with social and political unrest, combined with an information landscape dominated by a tribalized social media, is breaking us. Our days are fragmented by a fast drip of insistently panicked content that wrings anxiety, outrage, and fear from our autonomic nervous systems until we’re left exhausted and emotionally dry.

If you’ll excuse the understatement: this is not good.

It is with these observations in mind that I think a fitting place to start Focus Week is with an urgent plea to unplug — to allow the fragments of your attention to coalesce back into meaningful stretches of presence, and your emotions to re-stabilize. You cannot reclaim a life of focus until you reclaim your brain from the distractions that have ensnared it in recent months.

I have two concrete pieces of advice to offer. The first concerns news consumption. To abstain from all information about the world at this current moment would be a betrayal of your civic duty. On the other hand, to monitor every developing story in real time, like a breaking news producer, is a betrayal of your sanity.

I suggest the following compromise: check in on the news for 45 minutes, once a day, preferably in the morning.

You can listen to one of those popular news round up podcasts while you perform chores or go for a morning walk. You can browse the main headlines of a newspaper. You can have the radio news on in the background while you make breakfast.

If there’s a hurricane heading your way, this is your moment to check on the latest cone of uncertainty from the National Hurricane Center. If there’s an activist cause in which you’re engaged, this is the time to check in on the writers or publications whose work on the topic you admire.

Do not watch cable news. Do not look to Twitter. It’s better, if possible, to find sources that do not so directly attempt to access your amygdala.

It’s important to recognize that many people find value from social media that goes beyond the news, such as inspiration or connection. During this current moment, however, these services must be treated with particular care. Which brings me to my second piece of unplugging advice: remove all social media apps from your phone; isolate the browsing of these services to a set period of time in the evening; avoid angry posts.

Do not allow these tools to become a background source of diversion that you turn to throughout your day. Access them instead only on your computer, only during a set time (perhaps one hour each evening). Be intentional about what you browse: focusing on the positive, and avoiding posts whose primary goal is to get you angry, or deliver the Faustian satisfaction of watching your team dunk on the other.

To summarize, in my proposed scheme, you engage with the world of digital information only twice a day: once in the morning, and (perhaps) once in the evening. Outside these brief moments of anxious consumption, you focus instead on living well.

Give your work the concentration it needs, be present with your family, rediscover the hard-won joys of high quality leisure, even experience those necessary moments of gratitude, once common during the lazy heat of late summer, but more recently lost to the insistent growl of the glowing screen.

You cannot reclaim a life of focus when you’re wallowing in a stream of insistent negativity. Learn what you need. Recognize its gravity. Then get on with living deeply.

51 thoughts on “Focus Week: Give Your Brain Some Breathing Room

  1. Michael Barnes says:

    Thanks Cal a great reminder. I digital detoxed six months ago and everything in my life improved. However I noticed this last month, a slip back into old habits and old anxieties. It is depressing to realise that this onslaught of digital ‘titillation’ will be a constant battle. I am in my fifties – born analogue. Thankful I can remember life before.

    1. Gran Torino says:

      Love the way you label yourself “BA”- Born analog. As someone in their mid 40s, I can relate. I think eventually people will be “BA” and “BD”- born digital. Obviously the demarcation would be 2007-the emergence of various smart phones which were the external version of implanting a neuronal chip in our brain. Eventually though, all the BA people will die. Thanks to this blog, commenters, and Cal for helping BA people remember our sensibilities and not being enslaved to our reptile brains and for outlining a vision for BD people to generate for themselves. GT

  2. I’ve come to realize the value of unplugging and disconnecting more acutely so in the last 2 months. There’s such an overwhelming set of triggers and news and emotional upsets that my mental health couldn’t take the onslaught anymore. I’ve deactivated Twitter and taken a break from Instagram and am slowly finding my peace of mind returning, at a genuine level of comfort.

    Your podcasts are phenomenal and I listen to them every week. Thank you for that as well as your insightful books, Cal.

  3. Bill Brokaw says:

    Seems like a pretty low bar to achieve, but it’s not. It isn’t the news and gossip we crave. It’s those dopamine surges.

  4. Joe says:

    Do you allow yourself to listen to some thematics podcasts (no news) when walking in such a challenge ?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I think listening to most podcasts and books on tape is fine. The consumption that I worry about is that which directly pushes your emotional buttons (intentional or not) and/or tries to snare your attention.

      1. Gabi says:

        Interesting that Sullivan has left his journalism job and now gone back to blogging: https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/07/andrew-sullivan-see-you-next-friday.html

        I’m concerned with how social media is influencing things like print journalism and podcasts. The reality is, the people who produce those articles and podcasts spend a lot of time on Twitter. So I can detach from Twitter, but the news I’m getting is still influenced by outrage and hot takes on Twitter. The journalists who write for WSJ and WaPo are forming their perspective, in part, through their social media consumption.

        Twitter has been useful for me to find more independent journalists I can support through Patreon and paid podcasts. That’s helped some. But I still find myself genuinely confused on where to find information that is not edited de facto by Twitter, a la the New York Times.

        A direct quote from Sullivan:
        “What has happened, I think, is relatively simple: A critical mass of the staff and management at New York Magazine and Vox Media no longer want to associate with me, and, in a time of ever tightening budgets, I’m a luxury item they don’t want to afford. And that’s entirely their prerogative. They seem to believe, and this is increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media, that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space. Actually attacking, and even mocking, critical theory’s ideas and methods, as I have done continually in this space, is therefore out of sync with the values of Vox Media. That, to the best of my understanding, is why I’m out of here.”

        It seems obvious to me that this would not have happened without the influence of social media. Maybe it’s not that simple, but it seems like it is. And I simply don’t know how to access information that has not been shaped by social media at some point.

        1. Marie says:

          This is a very insightful comment. I was a journalist decades ago, and my methods seem almost quaint in hindsight. The expectation was you spent a tremendous amount of time with your sources, in person. Even a phone call was discouraged if you had other options. Then you sat by yourself and distilled and considered for however long your deadline allowed. Finally, you met with your editor in person and he or she questioned every sentence and assertion until you had an airtight story. Sometimes, your story never made it to print. The quality just wasn’t there. You picked yourself up and started over. Contrast this with a news process that allows an individual to screenshot Twitter quips, frame it with opinions, and somehow, what should be a blog post is on the front page of a national newspaper, likely within the space of a few hours. All in service of instant metrics for advertising and a literally endless need for copy. Where do we turn for truth at this point?

      2. Andres says:

        I love this blog, your books and listen some partes of your podcast from time to time. But I know people who suffee from addiction to productivity information. They think They always need the new episode of the podcast, the new book with the new strategy. The self-help industry wants you to feel that something is missing to make a sell. That’s how they make millions.

        I think the realm of silence is better than the realm of podcasts. And too many people have already what they need to take action today instead of being paralized waiting or searching compulsively for new advice.

        1. Sonia says:

          I agree! I fight against this too. I’ve clicked on other productivity/time management sites with influencers/authors who I don’t think have the street cred Cal has, constantly jonesing for the next tip or strategy that will fix my distractions, my unwieldy work flow and hand it to me all shiny and wrapped in pretty paper. Luckily, I’ve pulled myself back (I got lost on Scott Young’s site for a bit) and then realized I’m going to keep it simple, and stick with a curated selection (Cal, MMMustache for finance and 30 min of my NYT app/Smarter Living section). And that’s it! Vigilance is key!

        2. James says:

          There’s a blog I read on occasion called “Thinking Directions”. The author advises that 5% of your time be spent on planning. If you spend more time than that, you’re using planning as a way to procrastinate. That doesn’t always hold true–a project like an environmental cleanup at an active industrial site will be different from a project like writing a book or organizing files–but the general concept, that planning should be a very small portion of the time spent on anything, is a good thing to remember.

          I also remember a relative complaining about coworkers who were obsessed with planning. She said they spent more time writing down what to do than they did doing it. This fits with the “Getting Things Done” advice that if something takes 2 minutes, do it now.

  5. Raf Castillo says:

    Currently my iPhone X is inoperable due to what is likely a battery issue and the soonest I could get an Apple Store Genius Bar appointment is Friday Aug 28th. This issue started Sunday morning so as I write this, today will be Day 3 of no smartphone.

    I have to say aside from the annoyance of an expensive piece of equipment not working properly and it being beyond my capability to repair it myself, the feeling is quite liberating. I’ve been forced off of Twitter (news is consumed on demand in the morning with coffee as Cal suggest), no more Instagram, no more distractions connected with a smartphone. My morning runs are now in the peace and quiet of my suburban NY neighborhood. Since the wife and I work from home and side from short trips for exercise and groceries, we know where each other is and anything important can wait until we see each other in person (Full disclosure, we don’t have kids).

    I’ve gotten quite a lot done work wise in the past two days and have also read more on my Kindle (currently on So Good They Can’t Ignore You =) ). I’ve realized that practically everything I do on my smartphone can be done elsewhere with less distraction potential, i.e. my MacBook and my Kindle Paperwhite. When I originally read Digital Minimalism, the thought of going back to using a “dumb” phone seemed like a good idea, but I never seriously considered it because of the sunk cost I’d already invested in my iPhone (this current one that’s now having issues). I’m now seriously considering buying a $30 ZTE “dumb” flip-phone for calls & texts only if Apple is unable to repair my iPhone X.

    1. Jared Wyllys says:

      I’m in a similar spot. I have an iPhone 7 that likely won’t keep working properly for much longer. I’m giving serious thought to a “dumb” phone as its replacement. Curious what versions other readers have had success with.

      1. Joe says:

        I didn’t have success with the dumb phone approach, so I went with Google Fi and an Android phone that Google makes. Runs pure Android, none of the nonsense apps that other carriers force on you are there, and Google Fi is set up as a $20 flat fee plus $1 per 1 gig of data used, so it’s a financial win to use my phone less. Granted, wifi is everywhere for most people, but I’m in west Texas where the nearest city of any size is a 2 hour drive.

      2. James says:

        I couldn’t tell you what model I have. I do know it’s the one they give folks in retirement homes. I’m helping run field efforts for an environmental remediation firm, where communication is often critical and situations change by the minute, and while I’ve had a lot of people mock me for it I’ve yet to have any actual problems. I can get calls, I can get texts, and I can get photos; if information can’t be conveyed by those means, I have a laptop. The battery can last for several days (less if the cell reception is bad), and there’s no apps to distract me. Considering the number of people in my position who get killed each year due to being distracted by their phone, I consider being picked on occasionally to be a fair trade-off.

      3. Lou Mitchell says:

        I’m in the UK, but 2 weeks ago bought a nokia flip 2720 – done because my family and a community music band/group i’m part of use whatsapp a lot to communicate, and this ‘feature phone’ can (just) manage whatsapp. Despite deleting all the social media apps from my iphone, and various other experiments, I was still finding myself down internet wormholes on my phone when I wanted to be doing something else. And I had a suspicion that so much connection and potential in my pocket was just making me anxious. The experience so far has been transformative. Things I’ve learnt;
        1. life is already so much more peaceful and intentional without the internet in my pocket (well – it’s there – just hard enough to access that I don’t bother.)
        2. it’s a pain texting on a predictive text phone – to the point where I just call the person instead. This is better communication, faster, and so much more human-feeling.
        3. I have a phone that works for days on a charge not hours.
        4. the reception is better, wierdly, I think that’s coz it’s not obsessed with finding 3/4G – this matters as I live in rural UK.
        5. I can finally concentrate on doing one thing at a time. My kids get much more of my attention. My brain just feels like it has space to think again.
        6. my iphone is still useful – but it’s turned off a lot. I use it for podcast aggregation and listening, as a camera, and a few other deliberate bits, and that’s fine. It’s basically just making it one step removed from me – not ‘always there, always on’ that has really helped make my actions much more deliberate.
        There’s no going back – thanks Cal Newport for getting me thinking about all this in the first place.

        1. Liz Williams says:

          It does obviously depend on your lifestyle. Until recently my partner (personal and business) were working from home or on business premises and in touch pretty much exclusively by Messenger on laptops. Neither of us had a mobile until recently, since 2013. I now have an old iPhone because my mother is on a care line, and they need me to be in touch when I’m out, in case she falls. However, the battery life of the thing is so slight that I am not using it for social media. I either use the laptop on trains or take a book. During the 7 years of no phone, I can’t say I really missed it. I started with email in 1987, by the way: I have a Masters in Artificial intelligence and this early start made me really conscious of what tech I needed or didn’t need. Turned out we didn’t need mobiles, but your mileage will vary.

  6. Katy O'Grady says:

    Love this — thanks for the excellent advice and inspiration.

  7. Brad Borland says:

    Everyone should read this. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), I won’t be sharing this on social…
    The world would be a much better place if people just did these two things. Simple, but hard for many.

  8. Jim Dingman says:

    A great daily reminder that can extend beyond news and social media. The number of people and poducts that we’ve allowed into our lives to indiscriminately tap on our shoulders for – “hey got a minute” I’m so done …thanks as always

  9. Nico Beaumont says:

    I find it difficult when coworkers, friends, and sometimes even family members are still trapped in the distraction of screens and notifications, because it is difficult to tell them about the problem without causing discomfort and we cannot disconnect from the people we love either.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Call them regularly…but be bad at texting

  10. Ian Howlett says:

    For getting the news, try an old-fashioned printed newspaper.

    I’ve been rediscovering the joys of a printed paper, and I find it much less time-consuming and dopamine-inducing than reading online. I find it easier to read long-form articles when they’re in print: less distraction and I seem to retain the information better. (See the Millward Brown study for why this is the case.)

    The only downside is that I don’t see readers’ comments, although these tend to be tribal and o my very rarely enlightening.

    I’m in the UK, and The Times and The Telegraph are fairly decent. I’m not sure about the US: I subscribe to the New York Times app, but “The Gray Lady” is too left-wing and woke for my taste.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I get the print version of the Washington Post, since I live in DC. It remains my main source of national and international news, as I also love the advantages of print over digital.

      I did find, however, that during the earlier stages of the pandemic they went a little off the rails — like they were trying to terrify people into behaving properly instead of straight reporting — so I had to cut back some on my morning ritual of going through the paper.

    2. Joe says:

      That really depends on where you are. I’m in a college town of 300k people, but the daily paper is usually about 20 pages of fluff and syndicated articles with nothing worth reading. None of the major newspapers deliver here and I don’t want to read online, so there isn’t much of an option. I have supplemented that with subscriptions to three magazines (Chronicle of Higher Education, Economist, Foreign Policy) which I collect for a few weeks/months depending on the item and then read all at once at a local coffee shop.

  11. gauthma says:

    Hi Cal,

    Sullivan’s essay is from 2016, not 2007.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Not sure why I made that mistake…will fix.

  12. Pili Montez says:

    You always provide great insights, Cal!
    I read “Digital Minimalism” a little over 2 months ago but only started digital detoxing last week. I have to say it feels specially challenging to try this during a pandemic, given that I can’t replace the time I spend on social media with enjoying quality time with my friends, for example (at least not in person).
    However, the way I was making use of technology wasn’t healthy at all, and it is definitely time for a reset. I allow myself to check your blog every now and then and it always reminds me of why I started this in the first place 🙂

  13. Nick Harsh says:

    Thanks, Cal!

    I really appreciate your perspective on media consumption. My first exposure to your writing was Deep Work and you’ve been blowing my mind ever since. Now I find myself thinking, “Why doesn’t everyone see this?” Since Digital Minimalism I have worked hard to turn off my phone for at least an hour a day. It’s been one of the greatest ideas ever — I don’t even panic anymore when I forget my phone at home. I am still trying to wrestle with the value of social media in light of your book. I hardly ever browse and don’t have social media on my phone but then I wonder if it is even worth keeping. Perhaps a week without would provide the answer to that question!

  14. Not sure how others feel about this, but I love my RSS reader for blogs and news. I have mine pretty tightly curated and it allows me to read news/articles as part of my morning routine without having to surf to them (which causes me to often go off the rails and down a rabbit hole). How do others feel about RSS readers?

    1. Joe says:

      I use Feedly for a few blogs, but usually only look at it on the weekends. It’s nice to self-curate and leave it there until I actively mark it off on my own schedule.

    2. JH says:

      RSS Readers are great, but not all blogs have an RSS feed anymore, opting for emailing lists instead. I use Blogtrottr, an rss-to-email forwarding service that files any RSS feed item into my email’s “Toread” folder.

    3. Oh yes!
      I use Feedly as the RSS reader for blogs and podcasts, and you can even use it for job offers and other announcements.
      I love that it’s self-curated and that everything is deleted (or at least hidden) if you haven’t read it within a month. I miss a lot of information that way, but I would never have found the time for it anyway. Let it go…

  15. JH says:

    I’ve basically consolidated my news consumption to Quanta Magazine for quality science journalism, MIT Technology Review for technocriticism, and the New York Times weekly newsletter for catching up to current events. Add some longer periodicals like Communications of the ACM that take many reading sessions to finish, and I’ve got quite a bit of content to consume, all with a minimum bar of quality I’ve filtered out.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I like Quanta a lot…always gives me a burst of enthusiasm as a theoretical computer science researcher…

  16. Tolga Çetinkaya says:

    About news I really recommend the book of a former self-called ‘news-aholic’ Rolf Dobelli ‘Stop Reading The News’ about the damages that a daily news-check routine can cause on our mental health, how irrelevant conventional news media actually is for us and how he did get rid of this habit. It’s really on line with the digital minimalism approach of Calvin.

    1. Ian Howlett says:

      That’s a truly great book, one of the best I’ve read for a long time (and I read a lot).

      1. Tolga Çetinkaya says:

        That also counts for me, together with the book of Jules Payot ‘The Education of the Will’ (1909). It’s possible to add the last mentioned book in the same tradition as the the intellectual life of Sertillanges(mentioned by Cal Newport) and Deep Work: all about a deep life.

    2. Joe says:

      Interesting. That book isn’t available in the US until November 24, but I just pre-ordered it. Looks like it’s right up my alley.

      As a bit of an aside, check out the song “Turn off the news” by Lukas Nelson, one of Willie Nelson’s sons. It’s a clarion call to shut out the garbage and start building community.

  17. Grace says:

    Hi Cal! I’m back! I had a relapse into the old ways of social media and news consumption and it took a toll on my mental health (again). I read your Digital Minimalism, Lanier’s “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media” and Mander’s “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television” and I was doing pretty good, until the beginning of the pandemic. So:
    “Pick yourself up
    Take a deep breath
    Dust yourself off
    And start all over again”.
    Thanks for your work and for keeping this blog.

  18. Sandra Lukic-Dapoigny says:

    Hi Cal,
    I work for company who’s flagship product is software used in healthcare for managing complex cases. My team is burned out with constant escalations and pressures from client and has little time to focus on creative work. Multi-tasking is a norm. I took Top Performer and benefited greatly from it (I reached my goal to lead large teams and become the best in class) and I would like to take the new course as well as reference couple to my top performers. How can they sign up?

  19. rahiimus says:

    Hey cal, Thanks for everything you are doing for the community. I started the detox 4 months ago and deactivated all my accounts (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter). I left only a Viber as a messaging service. My problem is that I started plugging-in at a young age so, as a result, I do not know how life was before. I am 23 yo, I have a dissertation to finish, and I work from time to time. when I have nothing to do, I tend to spend my time checking my favorite football team updates and have a look from time to time to be updated. when I am not I focus on the task and finish it with better concentration than before but still struggling a bit. I want to know how to get the most out of my free time and how can I improve my work resistance?

  20. I fully agree with limiting one’s exposure to media and social media,
    but I find the call to “focus on positive things” wrong.
    The world is not (only) and this cultural trend to happy-hunky-dory positivity and optimism is what has brought the Corona virus disaster upon the US, while other countries with a culture of more pessimism (like Germany) have a much better grip on it. This positive thinking also is behind our insufficient response to climate change.
    No, the world is not positive, and it doesn’t hurt to read about serious and problematic issues. Actually, doing so teaches me the value of staying disconnected electronically even more, and makes me go out and speak to random people collecting bottles in the park.

  21. Richmund M. Meneses says:

    I know someone by the name of Mo Gawdat, author of Solve for Happy and former Google CBO and he has said that he has not touched a single news site ever since the beginning of the pandemic. He believes (and it most likely right) that watching news media constantly trains your brain to look for the negative in everything. I’ve followed his advice and haven’t looked back.

    https://www.instagram.com/p/CEhzYGun7FA/

  22. June says:

    I de-activated my Facebook account and I have no Instragram and Twitter accounts. However, I spend a humungous amount precious time in Youtube. How can I discipline myself?

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