My Time vs. The News

Yesterday something weird happened. After reading a couple of news about the US politics on my phone, I suddenly felt a wave of stress almost physically hitting my body. I immediately locked my phone and pushed it away from me. Why would I have such a reaction to something that impacts me so little or not at all? Why do I even care what happens across the Atlantic ocean in the land of guns and burgers? I did not really have a good answer to this question. Therefore my quick fix was to just unsubscribe from all these news channels and go cold turkey on this type of media consumption.

Eventually after that first initial shock and defensive reaction, my phone found its way back into my hands. I did not go back to Reddit, which I use as my primary source for news inflow, but instead to Blinkist, a neat app that summarizes a great variety of books into short 10-20 minute articles. There a blink caught my attention. It was a summary of a book by Rolf Dobelli called “Stop Reading The News”. After my previous experience, I was very curious what this was all about. In a very brief summary, the author explains how an overload of information and especially negative news rewires our brain over time to focus more on short term memory and on absorbing as much information as possible in a short amount of time. The results are grave. Many people struggle focusing on one thing at a time, have a way shorter attention span and are on average less happy. The solution seems simply: don’t read too much news! Focus on information that actually impacts you! Do one thing at a time and spend your time doing things that you truly enjoy doing. 

For me this is a great nudge in the presumably right direction and it got me curious about how much time I actually spend per day consuming any type of information. For this, I will break my day into three equal parts of roughly eight hours: working hours, leisure time, and sleep. 

Let me start with the part that is most set, not so easy to change but also easiest to analyse:

Information inflow during working hours

I will not go into too much detail here as my possibilities to limit this information inflow is rather limited. Of course there are tools to help you block notifications or strategies to deal with incoming emails, but for the purpose of this analysis I just want to understand the frequency of information inflow. If your company uses Microsoft products such as Outlook, MS Teams, etc., you should be able to access some interesting statistics about your daily working habits via myanalytics.microsoft.com

The graph below shows my daily behaviour in reading mails and absorbing information. This includes updates from the company, requests from colleagues and stakeholders and other bits and pieces of information to digest. During the last 4 weeks, I read 1,176 emails, which is an average of 58.8 mails per working day. If on average each mail takes around 2 minutes to digest, I spend about 2 hours every day just reading mails and digesting information. Does not seem too bad. However when looking a bit more in detail into the below graph, this equals out to about 6 mails every hour. That means every working hour, I spend on average 20% on digesting new inflowing information or phrased differently: I receive a new mail every 5 minutes. This is a tremendous inflow of information, can be a huge distraction and requires a lot of my mental capacity.

However, this information is mostly rather relevant to me. It helps me keep informed about changes in the firm about requests and feedback and overall allows me to do my daily job well. I get paid for this and therefore have an incentive to expose myself to this waves of information clashing into me every day.

What about the rest of my day? The time no one pays me to do anything, the time I should be enjoying to the maximum and spending exactly as I would like to?

Information inflow outside of working hours

For my personal usage of devices and data inflow, I will go a bit more into detail as I want to understand usage patterns and ultimately come up with a conclusions that helps me to better spend my free time. Additionally, due to data availability I will focus primarily on my phone usage.

My day normally starts about the same every day. The alarm rings, I snooze it once to have additional 15 minutes of light sleep and then open my eyes. Sometimes the first things I do is to give my girlfriend next to me a kiss, some other times I reach right away to my phone. I wish it would predominantly be the first one but reality shows it is often the phone that I reach out to first. To do what? I don’t really know most of the time, it just happens automatically. Sometimes it is to read some messages from friends that live in different time zones, other times just to check some social media apps or to check the current stock prices of my investments. Nothing of this seems very urgent to be occupying the first waking moments of my day. After getting out of bed, I normally carry my phone with me to the bathroom and later to the kitchen. Throughout this first 30 minutes of the day, I more or less almost constantly look or engage with my phone. 

Good thing is that I do not need to rely on the personal perception of my phone usage as it meticulously tracks every single interaction that I have with it. Below you can see exemplarily my usage for the second week of February. In my Google Pixel phone, I can access these statistics in settings under the category of Digital Wellbeing.

While the number of notifications, hours of screen time and times of unlocking are only showing the usage for Monday, the graph shows the numbers for the whole week. On a first glimpse, there are some bits of information that stand out to me:

  • 4 hours and 43 minutes of screen time in a day. Does not seem to bad!
  • I use my phone quite a bit more on Mondays, Saturdays and Sundays.
  • Why did I open LinkedIn that frequently and how come other social media apps like Facebook or Instagram are rather low on the list of opened apps

Let’s start with the screen time and break the number of full hours a bit down and put it in comparison to make it more digestible. First, 4 hours and 43 minutes of screen usage account for almost 20% of my day. However, each day I sleep around 8 hours leaving me with 16 waking hours. Therefore, I spend nearly 30% of my waking hours on my phone. This looks worse than originally assumed. If I also take into account my regular working hours of again 8 hours per day, I spend almost 60% of my time off on the phone. This is too much! Of course I use my phone every once in a while during my working hours. Here, also for simplicity, I will assume that this accounts for about 43 minutes during working hours. Still, this means on February 8th, 2021 I spent 50% of my day, which isn’t dedicated to working or sleeping, glued to my phone. But doing actually what?

On that particular Monday, I spent 1 hour and 47 minutes in YouTube. Frequently, I use YouTube only to watch a Tech podcast but at times I also spend more time there to look for cooking videos, Ted talks or some reviews about upcoming PlayStation games. As one of these tech podcasts can take around 1.5 hours, I would attribute the whole time spend that day in YouTube to this. When looking into other days, YouTube does not appear at all or only with a couple of minutes of usage. Other days have mostly WhatsApp, Reddit and Chrome consistently in the first place . WhatsApp in one of the top places makes sense as it is my primary messaging app. Ultimately, I would like to move away from it and start using other more secure messaging services but the platform power of WhatsApp is simply still too strong. 

I would like to dive a bit deeper into the usage of Reddit as it is my primary social media platform that I also use(d) as my source for most media consumption. It is also the reason that drove me to writing this, mostly for myself to reflect on my information consumption and to put the amount spent on doing so into perspective. On average, I spend 56 minutes per day using the app. As mentioned earlier it accounts for at least 20 minutes in the morning and then spreads throughout the day. Within the app, I am subscripted to various news subreddits that provided me with an almost continuous flow of news and other information with the push of a button. It is my number one app of choice when I have a couple of minutes to kill, when the series that I am watching is a bit boring or when I am on the toilet. I like the app very much as it offers an immense stream of whatever information you desire but this is not how I want to continue. 

Reflecting on it, whatever I consume via Reddit might seem interesting at the moment but I barley remember any of it the next day. Especially as the next day a whole new wave of news and other info is awaiting me. Even during these restricted times with curfews and lockdowns, I want to spend my time more wisely. 

This brings me also to the second observation. How come I use my phone so much more on Monday, Saturday and Sunday? Skimming through the other weeks, it seems that Monday is more of an outlier in this particular week. However, the trend with spending around 40 – 50% more time with my phone on the weekend remains. This seems to makes sense as my free time during the weekend doubles from 8 hours to 16 hours and therefore I can expect a similar increase of added time spend staring in the little device that I carry wherever I go. 

Lastly, why on earth did I opened LinkedIn 19 times on that particular Monday? You might have already observed that LinkedIn does not show up high on screen time spent. I actually had to scroll quite a bit down to find it with only 6 minutes of screen time ranking even below my calculator app. This means, on average I spend only 19 seconds in the app before closing it again. So what on earth drove me to open the app so many times and look at the content so little? 

I already hinted a bit towards the solution in my initial observation by mentioning that while opening LinkedIn so frequently, other popular social media apps like Facebook or Instagram don’t show up at all as they are far to the bottom of the list. If I would be able to access statistics from my phone, which is older than one month, I would be able to see how a few weeks ago my user behaviour with these apps must have been quite similar. So what did change? I simply removed both Facebook and Instagram from my primary home screen and instead moved them to a third screen that I only infrequently access while being on my phone. The effect is strongly visible. I barley open these apps any more as they give me little to no incentive to use them and without notifications activated and them out of direct line of sight, it is rather easy to forget them. 

What I did not expect however is that LinkedIn quickly took their place. You can easily change a system but not so much the human behaviour. After getting my regular dose of daily news via Reddit, I quickly get bored and search for a next best alternative application what could offer me even more information. This happens to be LinkedIn. Guess which app will be next in line to be banned to the dark corners of my phone.

However, this alone cannot be solution enough as my previous experience with Facebook and Instagram tell me. Instead, I will have to find a way to systematically rewire my daily behaviour and to find alternative activities that bring me more joy overall and with which I can fill the void that the reduced information consumption leaves. However, before jumping to solutions let me briefly cover the last but equally important third part of my day.  

Information inflow during sleeping hours

Mostly zero and this is great. If I woke up in the middle of the night, I at times used to check the time on my phone to see how many hours of sleep I had left but just ended up not being able to fall asleep anymore. Now I just barley open my eyes, wander to the bathroom and fall back into the sheets. I overall sleep very well with nearly no information inflow at all. 

In short this summarizes my average day and the exposure to information that I get or actively seek. For me a next step and logical consequence is to reduce my overall consumption of information. Here, I want to especially cut off the fast paced, low quality bits and pieces of information that are mostly shared in daily news or social media posts from random people.

Instead, I want to focus on more consciously consuming information in the format of physical books, book summarize via the above mentioned app, well written articles from magazines, such as the Economist, or other bloggers. I do not want to cut out on my daily news consumption completely but rather to reduce it to only one channel for now: the TV with my news channel of choice that happens to be Al Jazeera most times. I enjoy their short summarize of different worldwide events and find their investigative bits or interviews always very informative. Consuming the news via the TV will help me to consume both more actively and consciously. Plus I tend to normally limit this to only about 30 minutes per day. I also want to keep my phone a bit further from me and want to demote it in its rank of primary source of information. This is my first step in consciously analysing my information consumption behaviour and in finding ways to change towards a healthier approach. 

How does your own information consumption look like? What type of information do you consume most and what is your tool of choice to give you the daily kick? I am planning to write a follow up a bit further down the road of this self-exploration around info consumption.

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