Garbage in, garbage out
On rewilding your attention, and cultivating your own garden
“Tell me with whom you consort and I will tell you who you are; if I know how you spend your time, then I know what might become of you.”
I've stopped reading the news. Again. 2017 was the first time, after moving to San Francisco. The cadence of the news cycle on Pacific Standard Time was anxiety-inducing: we'd go to bed with the latest "breaking alert" from the Brexit shitshow, then while we were sleeping Ol' Orange Face would wake up, sit on the can, and excrete something new to get Twitter all riled up before we had the chance to put the kettle on.
So I stopped. I fell back into the habit for a while, but I've managed to kick it again. And yes, I know how lucky it is to be able to choose to ignore the news. To be at a place in life where my livelihood, and the wellbeing of my family, isn't dictated by the personal agendas and whims of corrupt politicians and billionaire media tycoons. It's a privilege. But it's also an intentional choice, and one that many of us can take.
Cool kids who studied Computer Science (like yours truly) once learned about Garbage In, Garbage Out (GIGO), a simple concept that encourages the strongest input possible—data that's sanitised, verified, and as error-free as it can be—before running it through the algorithms to get your desired output. In the early days of computing, Charles Babbage was asked "If you input wrong figures, will the right answers come out?" To which he curtly replied "I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion that could provoke such a question." (Now he'd tell them to RTFM or STFU.)
Cutting the daily drumbeat of breaking news out of my life has had a remarkable effect1 on the way I view the world. The majority of online media runs on CPM: how much money they make for every thousand views they get. They succeed through a symbiotic relationship with giant social platforms that prioritise engagement over all else. This is exacerbated by our own cognitive biases that make us respond physiologically to news when it’s more negative. So manufactured outrage has become the primary currency of online spaces: if you can make people angry, they're more likely to comment, to share with their own networks, and drive more of that sweet advertising dollar into someone’s pocket.
I'm not here to yuck anyone's yum. There's a lot of great journalism being done by brilliant people at big organisations, speaking truth to power and uncovering secrets that those in charge would rather kept hidden. And for those who get value out of daily news, and can consume it happily without getting sucked into these negative undercurrents, more power to you. This isn't a diatribe against whatever you’re into. I mean, you've signed up for The New Fatherhood, so IMHO you're already doing a pretty good job—a pretty pretty pretty good job. And I’m far from perfect: I've gotten as much out joy out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as I have from the works of Martin Scorsese, and whilst I've not picked up a console controller for almost a year now, I don't regret any of the many, many, MANY hours I spent playing videogames.
But the media you consume influences so much: your worldview, how you think, what you care about, what you tell your kids when you’re tucking them in at night. And what your kids see you watching and reading, even when you don't notice, influences them too. So it's worth spending some time thinking about what we do with our most precious resource: attention.
The bottleneck of human thought
It isn't new news that we live in an attention-based economy. I've seen some of the best minds of my generation wasted on relentlessly getting people hooked on apps, sites and services for one simple reason: converting eyeballs into revenue. (I'm not totally without sin here. But today I’m CASTING STONES ALL OVER THIS PLACE.)
Every moment I spend writing this newsletter is a moment I could be doing something else. And I write with the same thing in mind for you: since the second you signed up, every moment you spend reading this newsletter is one you aren't spending with your kids, or your partner, your job, or the side project you've been noodling on. Time you could spend on something else. Time that, as parents, we're spreading across so much that it's almost rude to ask you to spend 5-10 minutes reading this.
But I continue to write it and you (hopefully) continue to read it because it's time well spent. Writing this newsletter has helped me be more conscious about how I spend my time, and (hopefully, again) help you to do the same: through making better habits, taking up new hobbies, watching shows that can help you have deeper conversations with your kids, or starting a daily meditation practice to be a better parent and gain a deeper understanding of yourself. I've had emails from people telling me that "your newsletter gives me permission to just sit and think about the kind of dad I want to be, even for a few minutes every week, that I didn't have before."
Your attention is exactly that: yours. Yours to choose what you want to spend it on. And not something to be hijacked through relentless notifications and UX dark patterns by an Allbird-wearing, Patagonia-fleeced, Mount-Tamalpais-weekend-hiking Product Manager in the Bay Area.
Rewilding your attention
The first step to redressing the balance is to become aware of the patterns you might have fallen into, then to break out of them. Tom Critchlow coined a beautiful term for this: Rewilding your attention.
Clive Thompson unpacked what this meant to him:
"The metaphor suggests precisely what to do: If you want to have wilder, curiouser thoughts, you have to avoid the industrial monocropping of big-tech feeds. You want an intellectual forest, overgrown with mushrooms and towering weeds and a massive dead log where a family of raccoons has taken up residence."
I'm a sucker for a plant-based metaphor (especially one "overgrown with mushrooms") and it seems I’m not alone. Austin Kleon, a modern-day sage in art of creative inspiration explored how Voltaire would "cultivate one's own garden", as well as surfacing Ann Patchett's powerful idea of the creative compost heap:
A short poetry interlude
Yung Pueblo, a frequent guest here, found the metaphor fertile too:
is a garden;
what we decide
to grow there will
determine our prosperity
— yung pueblo
Some thoughts on cultivating your own garden
This isn't a new idea. I'm standing on the shoulders of very smart minds here—l’ve taken you on a short walk through the garden I’ve been nurturing, and you can see the result on the things that Diego, Austin, Krista, Ryan, Shane, Tom and Oliver have planted there over the years. And there's an even longer list of people who don’t have gardens “open to the public”, but continue to share things with me in person, over Facetime, or via messages and voice notes that feed my creative compost heap every day (thank you to all of you.)
As parents it's on us to break out of the traps that these glowing rectangles lure us into—and to teach our kids how to do the same, when they get old enough. If this feels like something that makes sense, here's five things you might try (and if not, feel free to move onto the next email, I won't be offended at all.)
Still with me? OK.
Be aware of how you feel when you're consuming content. When feelings of despair, anger or irritation arise when reading something, do two things. First, think about if you can use these emotions to affect2 real change—Tim Krieder, who coined "Outrage Porn" in 2009, said "outrage is healthy to the extent that it causes us to act against injustice". If not, think about how well those feelings are serving you. If you're feeling neither of these ...
Ruthlessly cut, then replace with better. Unfollow accounts. If you don't want to come off as rude to people you know, mute them (they'll never know). Stop visiting certain websites. Turn off app notifications, or—better yet—delete the offending ones from your phone. Unsubscribe to emails that don't help you (honestly, truly, even if it means this one!) Delete those podcasts that are 60 minutes of white guys saying literally saying nothing and replace them with something that could fundamentally change your worldview forever. Oliver Burkeman put it perfectly wrapping up his decade long Guardian column: "The only viable solution is to make a shift: from a life spent trying not to neglect anything, to one spent proactively and consciously choosing what to neglect, in favour of what matters most."
Use guardrails to moderate your usage. Look at using the Screen Time functionality on your iPhone (or Digital Wellbeing on Android) to limit time spent on certain apps, or your device altogether. I use a 40 minute a day social "limit" and a Screen Time widget on my homescreen to try and keep under 2 hours a day (I'm trying Ringo, I'm trying real hard.) I've been attempting "no internet before midday" for a few months now, which has obviously and fundamentally changed the way my day starts. Clearly that's not possible for everyone, but there's probably some flavour you can try: no internet after 9pm, something like Katie Hawkins-Gaar's Screen Free Saturdays or maybe saying a long goodbye to a soft addiction.
Break those bad snacking habits. When dieting one of the smartest hacks is to swap out the bad things you have in the cupboards for healthier ones—La Croix on the beer shelf, nuts in the snack drawer, cereal bars where you used to stash the chocolate. So why would consuming media be any different? Think about where you are when you reach for your phone. I like to sit on this sofa in the morning, and it was a spot where I’d browse the news while drinking a cup of tea. So I put a few a stack of brilliant, powerful, and easily-snackable books there that I read instead. I've started to take a minute and notice three things while waiting at a red light, which used to be a moment I’d needlessly check my notifications. Notice the moment you reach for your phone, and think how to break the habit (Huh, I'm suddenly realising how much Allen Carr might have to say about this topic3.)
Make it easier to resurface things you like. What you consume is just one piece of the puzzle. The next is how you bring it back at the right time. You can implement all kinds of systems to help you retain and recall what you've read, or (if that seems like too much work) you can offload some of that to Readwise—I get a daily email with five of my own highlights from the 200+ ebooks I've read over the last 8 years, and they always seem to come at the right time (however I write that, it sounds like an advert. It isn't. I promise. It's just a great product.)
Three final bits before I sign off for another week:
Like I said up top: I'm not here to criticise anyone's decisions about what they spend their time doing. Life's too short for that. Whatever you do, whatever brings you joy, works for me. All I'm trying to do is make you notice (even if it's only for these few minutes) what you're doing with your time, how others might be manipulating it, and—if anything isn't serving you well—figuring out a way to let it go.
I'm aware of the irony of appearing on these channels in order to decry them. So don't bother pointing that out.
If you enjoyed reading this post, consider sharing it. Thanks, and see you next week.
Slight break in the format this week. Long old essay, no end bits. Like it? Hate it? Let me know. Your feedback helps make this better.
Branding by Selman Design (thank you again, you wonderful human beings.) Illustrations by Tony Johnson who took it to a whole new level this week. Putting this thing together feels like assembling a parachute whilst hurtling to the ground at 120mph, more so than ever this time around, but it’s turned out to be one of my favourites so far. I think I want Tony’s illustration on a tee, or maybe on the wall at home.
Confession time: I avoid using the words effect of affect when I write because I’m never be sure which one will be right. It's a crapshoot with a ~50% chance of success. So I hope this one is right.
See Footnote 1.