News detox: breaking out of the habit loop

After deciding that the volume of news I was consuming was unhealthy and unhelpful, I set out on a news detox. I can now report on this experience and how I increased my awareness of my news-checking “habit loop”.

I wrote in August about trying a news detox, and set out on a year of news detoxing and experimentation with reading the news in digest form. In my first month I decided to cut out news altogether. One month turned into two, and now I’m finally ready to report on my experience and set a new challenge for the next month.

The first few days of avoiding news were tough. I discovered how automatic this habit of checking the news had become. I would frequently find myself hitting a news site as soon as I was in front of a web browser. I would remember as it was loading that I’d committed to stop, so I would instantly shut the tab.

News-checking “habit loop”

I had been stuck in a habit loop. Whenever enough time had passed that I felt there might be some nuggets of news I hadn’t seen yet, I would check the news, and be rewarded with some new information about what is happening in the world. It didn’t seem to matter how irrelevant this information was to my life. A few hours later I would start anticipating more stories, and repeat the process.

Habit Loop: Cue, Routine, Reward. Repeat.
The habit loop as expressed in The Power of Habit. Image: Terry Chay (CC BY-NC-ND)

The structure of a habit loop, as set out in The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, is a cue followed by a routine, followed by a reward. This process is repeated and strengthened over time: hence “loop”. The routine and reward I had already identified when I began the news detox. My routine was checking the news: visiting some news sites and looking for new stories. My reward was consuming information that added to my understanding of the world (albeit a very narrow view of the world, for example, UK politics). The cue is more difficult to identify. There were multiple cues that could increase the chance of launching this habit loop: a moment of boredom or frustration, or simply getting distracted after opening a web browser or a new tab.

The design of modern web browsers does not help with changing browsing habits: many now show your most visited sites whenever you open a new tab, which can reinforce the habit loop. I made the effort to remove any news sites from the most visited sites, to reduce the chance that I would habitually visit a news site.

Coping with the change

After a couple of days of avoiding the news I felt mildly depressed. I found myself trying to replace the dopamine hit I had been getting from news with alternatives. As I had recently launched this blog, this mainly took the form of checking social media – not something I really wanted to be doing much of either.

I definitely missed the news. I even dreamt about checking the news one night!

As the month went on, my mood recovered. I found I was happier. My behaviour more closely matched my intention, as I had mostly broken out of this habit loop. I was able to spend the time I had reclaimed in a more intentional way.

After the month ended, I relaxed a bit. I was intending to write this post sooner and review my news consumption, but due to a holiday and general busyness I did not get to it, and I started to return to the news checking habit. But it has been more under control, and there are days when I do not check the news at all.

Developing greater awareness

I feel this period of news detoxing has been partly successful but I have not entirely kicked the habit yet. Over the next month I am going to work at better recognising the habitual cues that lead me into wanting to check the news or similar repetitive activities such as checking social media or my website analytics. According to The Power of Habit, cues can include factors such as location, time, emotional state, other people, and preceding actions.

I suspect that the most common scenario for me is that I am in between activities, and haven’t decided what to do next. Rather than decide my next activity (which feels difficult in relative terms), I have an urge to check the news. Instead, when I finish an activity, I can replace this bad habit with a short meditation, or some other short and easy activity like tidying up, which I can also use as a mindfulness practice. This should improve my state of mind so that I can take deliberate action on my next activity.

I will also start allowing myself to read news in a limited digest form, checking the news once a week for up to half an hour. For the next month, I have decided to use Reddit as my source for checking the news.

Reddit Top Weekly Links

For those unfamiliar with Reddit, it is a social news and discussion website. Users can submit links on specific topics to be upvoted or downvoted by users. The most popular posts on Reddit are typically cute pictures of cats, humorous posts, or memes, but I can limit my browsing to news by selecting particular “subreddits” focusing on news-related topics. In order to get the top stories for the week (as voted by users) I can use the “top” tab and select “links from: past week”. Next month I’ll report on how this worked out!

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