COVID-19 news: How much is too much?

How to stay informed and mentally flexible during a crisis.

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When the year began, we were already inundated with things vying for our attention: Instant message pings, news alerts, auto reminders…  

Then came coronavirus. 

Now, on top of the disruptions to routines and responsibilities, “important” news continually breaks across our phone and computer screens. Reading or watching pandemic-related stories takes time and can cause energy-sapping anxiety. Then again, not knowing what is going on can also be a distraction. It’s hard enough trying to get work done without worrying what the future will bring.

What’s the solution?

Attention management

For help we spoke with behavioral design expert Nir Eyal. When he wrote his bestselling book, Indistractable - How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, he was focused on helping people limit their time spent on attention-sapping sites like news and social media. 

Six months later, he says everything has changed.

“We need to shift the way we view our relationship with information due to this crisis,” Nir said. “New rules apply. At the time I wrote the book, I would have urged people to watch less news, for example. But now that type of information can be lifesaving, we need to stay informed.”

To engage with news in a healthy and efficient manner - be it local, social or global - Nir suggests using the following framework: 

  1. Orient
  2. Decide
  3. Act

Why it works

This framework, modified from the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop used to train military pilots for aerial dogfights, appears easy to follow: Orient yourself by taking in the news of the day, decide if you need to take action and then take action.

The problem, Nir says, is that people often get stuck in step one. “They spend all of their time ruminating on the news, like a cow endlessly chewing their cud, without ever doing anything.”

That’s because people use news-gathering as an emotional crutch. “We don’t want to spend the mental energy to do a difficult task like changing our own mind. We’re like water. We look for the path of least resistance. We hate to admit we're wrong, whether it's a political stance, religious affiliation or even a dietary habit.”

News headlines are also powerfully seductive in their offer of unpredictable rewards. Like a slot machine, you never know if there may be something of value until you take the time to digest it.

How it works

To avoid getting sucked down a pandemic news rabbit hole, Nir recommends timeboxing: Schedule a set amount of time for news gathering - say 20 minutes in the morning and evening - and once that limit is reached, force yourself to move on. 

Another way to limit your news is to use a physical source like a hard copy of The New York Times, which offers a tangible endpoint: The last page. 

You can then move to step two: Decide. Meet with your family, work team or just yourself, consider all of the new facts and come to a decision. Then move to the “action” step, which most days will be nothing. But if action is required, you’ll be ready to take it.

With efficient information gathering, you can get on with your day, focus on your work and spend quality time with your loved ones, knowing you’ve taken the appropriate steps and have done all you can do.

Now that’s some news you can use. See Nir’s free schedule-maker tool.

Click here to learn more about Verizon’s response to COVID-19.

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