The News Audit: A Simple Way to Make Time for the Things That Matter Most


The News Audit is a simple way to eliminate unnecessary news consumption from your life and make time for things that really matter.

Clint never felt like he had enough hours in the day.

As a rising young star in a prestigious law firm, he often worked 60+ hours a week. And despite an effective morning routine that had him in the office working by 6:00 AM, he still struggled to get home from the office at a decent enough hour to spend quality time with his wife and three young children.

During one of our sessions, Clint described in poignant detail how he felt like his kids’ early days were slipping away from him—that he was missing them and could never get them back. And while he and his wife’s relationships was strong, he knew it could be better. He worried that it might begin to falter if something didn’t change, if he couldn’t find more time to be available and present.

After listening to Clint’s story, I suggested we run a little experiment: I asked Clint to track his time in half-hour increments every day for an entire week.

The results (and his reaction) were fascinating…

Pssst: If you want to jump straight to the How To portion of the article, click here.

We Don’t Realize How Much Time We Spend on The News

make time news audit 1

When Clint came back the next week, having dutifully filled out his activity log, he looked dejected.

He explained that he felt even more depressed than when he started because the exercise only confirmed what he suspected: He just didn’t have enough hours in the day to make time for priorities outside his job.

I looked at Clint’s activity log and the first thing I noticed was, yes, this guy was insanely busy—and productive! He obviously wasn’t wasting huge chunks of time playing video games or drinking with his beer buddies. He was an organized, efficient guy who—at first blush—really didn’t seem to have enough hours in the day.

But I quickly noticed an interesting pattern in his activity log, something Clint either didn’t really notice himself or didn’t give much weight to: he was spending a huge amount of time each day on the news:

  • He listened to the news for 40 minutes on the way into work during his commute.
  • Then, when he first got to the office, he “skimmed” the newspaper for 15 minutes.
  • During lunch, he often watched the news on his computer or phone for 20-30 minutes.
  • He also reported checking the news online between 8 and 12 times throughout the workday.
  • He then listened to the news for another 40 minutes on his way home from work.
  • And finally, he had to watch at least 30 minutes of news in the evening to catch all the latest end-of-day developments.
  • He even read the news in bed sometimes before falling asleep.

I calculated that Clint was spending on average nearly 3 hours per day on the news!

This was incredible to me when I saw it. So I commented to Clint (in my calmest, most professional therapist voice) that it seemed like he checked the news a lot through the day. His surprisingly straight response was: “Oh yeah, I’m a bit of a news junky.”

Amazingly, it didn’t register for Clint that he was spending literally hours every day watching, listening, or otherwise checking in on the news, and that perhaps this might be a good place to “find” some more hours in the day and make time for other priorities.

When I did the math in front of him and showed how much time he was actually dedicated to the news, he did begin to squirm a bit and remarked something along the lines of, “Yeah, I guess it is sort of a lot of time.”

But I have to Be a Well-Informed Citizen!

make time news audit 2

Over the next few weeks, Clint and I had some interesting conversations about his news consumption habits and how important to him they really were.

Politics and certain cultural issues were very important to Clint, I learned. And doing his best to be a “well-informed citizen” was a value he believed in strongly. But it was also a value he hadn’t explored or clarified in much of detail.

In one conversation, we talked about how many hours per day it actually took to remain a “well-informed citizen.” I asked him to give me some examples of information he had gleaned from yesterday’s news that had made him more well-informed about a particular political or cultural issue he cared about.

Crickets

He admitted that most of the news that he consumed was “mostly superficial or re-hashing old information” and that very little of it was “actually substantive.” He had, it seemed, resigned himself to wading through 95% junk just in case there was 5% important information.

At this point, Clint was starting to get pretty uncomfortable with the amount of news he was watching and seriously questioning how valuable it really was to him. And yet, he couldn’t seem to get himself to change much about his news consumption habits.

So I recommend that we do another little experiment:

“For this next week,” I explained, “I’d like you to keep track in a note on your phone each time you consume or check the news and for how long. I also want you to write down anything substantive that you learned from the news when you do.”

The Law of Diminishing Returns

law of diminishing returns make time news audit

When Clint came back the following week and we reviewed his news tracking assignment, he was visibly irritated, angry almost.

I mentioned that he seemed a little upset, to which he replied, “Yeah, I guess I’m a little angry with myself. I put a lot of time into all this news stuff thinking that it’s important but really I’m not actually learning much of anything.”

I empathized with him—the disappointment and frustration he was feeling—and then drew a little graph on the whiteboard in my office that looked like this:

I explained that for a lot of things in life, we get most of the bang for our buck with an initial investment of time/energy/effort, and most of our efforts after that lead to disproportionately small returns (technically, this is known as the Law of Diminishing Returns). I wondered out loud if staying well-informed via the news might follow a similar trajectory?

Do 2 hours of news consumption really lead to double the amount of substantive information as 1 hour?

Together we hypothesized that while Clint was spending well over 15 hours per week consuming the news, it’s possible that—with a few modifications to his routines—he might be able to get nearly the same return on a much smaller investment of time and energy.

He seemed amenable to exploring this, so we designed yet another little experiment:

I asked Clint to cut out all news consumption except for A) listening to the evening news on his commute home from work each day, and B) reading his favorite newspaper (The Wall Street Journal) on Sunday morning.

And, like before, I asked him to track how much he actually learned.

The 80/20 Principle

make time news audit 3

When Clint came back to session the following week, he had a very different expression on his face—a coy smile. “What’s that smile all about?” I asked him with a pretty big grin of my own. “Yeah, yeah, you were right, doc.”

Turns out, even with a drastically reduced quantity of news consumption during the week (about 4 hours rather than 15), his “substantive learning” had essentially remained the same.

And interestingly, he explained that he really enjoyed the more thorough, slower pace of reading the whole newspaper once, rather than trying to “squeeze in” many little bursts of news throughout the day and week.

I remarked to him that this as a great example of the 80/20 Principle (also known as The Pareto Principle), which states that in many areas of life, an outsized proportion of our gains (roughly 80%) comes from a relatively small proportion of our energy (roughly 20%).

What Clint discovered with our little experiment was that essentially all of his “substantive learning” was coming from reading the paper once a week and listening to the news in the evenings on his commute—and that the rest of his news consumption (the bulk of it) wasn’t actually adding anything.

How to Make Time for the Things That Matter Most

make time news audit 4

Ultimately, Clint was happy to have discovered how unnecessary most of his news consumptions was. But a problem remained: He still found himself pulled back into consuming the news more than he wanted simply through force of habit.

He was spending more quality time at home as a direct result of not watching the news in the evening and only once during the weekend, but he often listened to the news frequently on both commutes and frequently “checked in” on the news during his workday, which he admitted, was “not great” for his productivity.

I asked Clint the following question:

Aside from spending more quality time with your family (which you’ve done a great job of achieving so far), what if I told you that I could give you an extra ‘free hour’ every day to use for anything? What, ideally, would you like to use that free hour for?

He sat thinking for a few minutes, at times appearing to give an answer and then sinking back into reflection again.

Finally, with a somewhat embarrassed and sheepish look on his face, he came out with this answer:

“I’ve always wanted to be a rock star.”

I smiled and he grinned back.

“Of course, I don’t really want to be a rockstar.” He explained. “But I have always wanted to learn how to play the guitar. It’s just that I was always so busy with school and then work that it never seemed like I could make time for it. But I guess if I had an hour a day of totally free time, it would be awesome to learn to play the guitar.”

“Jackpot!” I remember thinking to myself in my head.

I was excited because Clint had discovered another major personal value, which was exactly what he needed to fully extricate himself from his old news consumption habits.

Ultimately, the most powerful way to get out of a bad habit is to build or discover a good habit that “outcompetes” it. Ironically, as much as Clint wanted to discover more hours in his day, he hadn’t really thought a lot about what he wanted to make time for. And because he lacked that powerful “why motivation,” the old news consumption habit continued to be the stronger pull on his behavior.

So, after some in-session planning (and guitar research), Clint and I worked out the following strategy:

  • On his drives to work in the morning, Clint would use the time to listen to his old library of favorite songs and curate a list of the ones he’d most like to learn to play himself (Elaborating on and clarifying his value of learning to play the guitar and therefore building a powerful why motivation).
  • During his workday, each time he was tempted to check watch the news, he would remind himself that if he simply kept working rather than getting sucked into the news, he’d have time to work on learning the guitar (Extinguishing the association of checking news with various cues at work).
  • After discussing it with his wife, Clint arranged a weekly guitar lesson that he would attend every Friday on his way home from work. And on the other weekdays, rather than watching the evening news after the kids were asleep, Clint would practice guitar for 30 minutes before spending the rest of the evening with his wife (Specific planning plus a Ulysses Pact to help him maintain the new habit).
  • Finally, because he so enjoyed his weekly in-depth news reading on Sundays, Clint added another “high-quality” news activity. He bought a subscription to another of his favorite periodicals, The Economist, and read that in the evenings. His reasoning being, “I’m not a journalist, so there’s no need for me to be up-to-date with the news on an hourly or daily basis. Plus, if I read about a week or two later, I’m more likely to get the full story rather than someone’s ‘hot take’ two minutes after it happens.”

In the end, Clint settled into a news consumption rhythm of reading the Sunday paper in depth for one hour on the weekends, reading The Economist for 30-40 minutes a few evenings out of the week, and occasionally listening to the news on his commute home from work. In total, this added up to between 3 and 4 hours per week consuming the news (in stark contrast to his original 15+!).

Clint reported that not only was he not missing anything, but he actually felt better informed because he had shifted to a “quality over quantity” approach to consuming the news. Plus, he was spending more time with his family, getting “pretty legit” on his new guitar, and reported feeling less stressed and more energetic to boot.

How to Do a News Audit Yourself and Make Time for Meaningful Pursuits

make time news audit 5

Of course, most of us probably don’t consume quite as much news as Clint had been. Which means the amount of time-saving a news audit will buy you may not be quite as big as his. Still, most of probably consume more news that we need to, and getting back an extra half-hour or hour per day is very realistic for many of us.

In fact, since doing this exercise with Clint, the news audit has become a common exercise with many of my clients and almost all of them remark on how meaningful it can be to find even just a few extra hours per week. Often because this is enough to let them get started moving toward a goal or dream that they had all but given up on for being impossible due because they couldn’t make time for it.

So, if you’d like to apply the same principles and lessons from Clint’s story to your own life, here are a few practical guidelines to get you started doing your own news audit so you can make time for the things that matter most.

STEP 1: Track your news consumption for a week.

You can use pen and paper, but I find tracking with the notes app on your phone to be more successful since—for better or worse—we all tend to have our phones on us all the time. Convenience is king.

Be sure to note:

  • When and for how long you consumed the news
  • What type of news and what medium (e.g. podcast, newspaper, blog, etc.)
  • Whether you learned anything “substantive,” and if so, what

STEP 2: Apply the 80/20 rule to your news consumption

After you have at least a week’s worth of data on your own news consumption, apply the 80/20 principle by asking yourself:

Which 20% of the news that I consume is leading to 80% of my overall value gained from the news?

For Clint, this was reading the Wall Street Journal and listening to the evening news on his commute home. But whatever the particulars of your situation, try to tease out the high-quality news from the low-quality “infotainment” and recaps.

STEP 3: Experiment with an information diet for a week

Based on your 80/20 analysis in Step 2, go for a week only consuming about 20% of your typical news “calories” and see how you feel. If possible, make the 20% you stick with the highest quality news you have access to.

STEP 4: Clarify and elaborate on your values

In order to resist the pull toward more and more mindless news consumption and fall back into old habits, it’s important to be clear-eyed and intentional about where you’d rather be putting your time and attention. In other words, spend some time clarifying what your values are.

Ask yourself:

If I had an extra half hour or half-hour per day, how would I like to spend/invest it ideally?

The more clear, specific, and elaborated your answer to this question the better.

STEP 5: Establish your replacement activities

Once you’ve clarified what you’d rather be doing with your extra time, make a specific, reliable, and doable plan for getting started.

If you need suggestions on this step, here are a few helpful resources from myself and others:

While analyzing and becoming aware of how much wasted time goes into consuming the news, it’s the establishment of newer, values-based habits that will allow you to maintain your gains and newfound free time so that you can make time for the things that matter most in your life.

Summary and Key Points

We often underestimate how much time we spend consuming the news. Doing a news audit is a simple way to be more intentional with our time and energy so that we can make time for what really matters.

6 Comments

EA March 18, 2019

Great article! I stopped reading online news entirely, and I stopped listening to news. I do not watch CNN/Fox/MSNBC unless it’s a glimpse when I am at the gym (screens are on, sadly). My solution: WSJ, Financial Times, local paper. Delivered. On paper. In addition I subscribe to a few specific magazines (Foreign Affairs, National Affairs, City Journal) which allow me to remain updated on specific issues. I don’t read them in their entirety, but it’s pretty easy to spot what article worth reading and what not (WSJ’s summary is quite good too). No clickbait, and virtually no drama. Much less stress. I also noticed that I am way more informed on the intricacies behind the news than someone that checks online news continuously, probably due to the quality of the content.
I already converted a few people to this slow news mentality.
For the commute: podcasts (Dave Ramsey, Art of Manliness etc.) or audiobooks.
One tip: if your week is too busy/stressful, just keep the papers throughout the week. On Sunday schedule one hour – and just one hour – to skim all the newspapers, from newest to oldest (that way you know what is really news of which the importance lasts, and what is not), and read the five to twenty very important articles depending on their length and importance.

Nick Wignall March 18, 2019

Thanks!!

And there are some really cool ideas in here. Love that term “slow news” too 🙂

Thanks for sharing!

James March 18, 2019

Due to my job in Finance I spend over 10 hours a day on News & research. Every morning I have a burst of a few hours then another at lunch then after markets while updating throughout the day on Bloomberg.

Wading through 95% of crap for 5% of useful news really resonated with me.

The crazy thing is during my downtime, I consume non-financial news & research like yours on productivity as I feel like I should be better and more productive at consuming news & information.

Feels like my whole life is about optimizing for consuming, filtering & analyzing information.

Nick Wignall March 19, 2019

James, thanks for the thoughtful reply. Yeah, overoptimization can definitely be a subtle trap and source of stress.

In my experience, a key principle for avoiding this is intentionality.

It’s not that consuming the news (or self-improvement strategies) is intrinsically bad; it’s the way we go about it. Which much of the time is in a habitual, semi-unthinking way.

So if we can set better, more intentional boundaries on our consumption, I think it’s possible to have the best of both worlds.

JulieJulie March 20, 2019

Thanks for this article. It is poignant today with news always popping up on your phone in various ways. Newspeak so to speak.
The Wall Street Journal makes a point to highlight all their news stories their reader needs to be informed on right on the front page. You don’t need to open it or even buy it, it’s there for your viewing pleasure. And the best part, they usually have a happy piece to make your day. What a wonderful news medium. 🙂 They actually care about their audience and want to draw new ones in by sharing their knowledge. Knowledge is power and can create a bond with their targeted demographic. My professor told me this years ago, and it brings a smile to my face everytime I see the newspaper. 🙂

Nick Wignall March 20, 2019

Thanks Julie! Yeah, for as long as I can remember that WSJ front-page left column has always been my dad’s go-to strategy for efficient news consumption as well! Good stuff.

Comments closed

11 Shares
Tweet
Pin9
Share2
Share