Some thoughts on working in a fast-paced news cycle.

Typically in the last week of a Thrive PhD session, I share some thoughts about how far we've all traveled, or how to feel good being in the middle of the work. In fact, I had intended to write an article today about how shame ultimately blocks accountability. 

But then, I couldn't stop reading the news. 

It's been a near constant loop of Twitter, various long form pieces, discussions with friends, televised news, and back again. It's been like this, on and off, for years at this point, but this week it's been a particular problem. Here's how it goes for me:

  • Work on something, or be on a client call, or otherwise in the flow of work

  • Open Twitter to see what's happened in the x time I've been away from the news

  • Become upset about what I read in the news

  • Vent to friends about being upset

  • Read more news to be well informed about how upset I should be, take in as many different perspectives as I can 

  • Feel guilty about ignoring the work to read the news

  • Vow to not open Twitter for two hours, and instead catch up with longer form journalism at the end of the work day. 

  • Feel guilty about spending an hour catching up on the news.

  • Decide to take a "news free day" tomorrow

  • Immediately feel guilty about taking a "news free day" because that's a privileged position that many cannot hold

  • Get back to work on something, repeat (with all sorts of mini loops between various steps in the cycle thrown in for fun!)

I think for me, at least two distinct things are happening:

1. News is breaking in the current climate fast enough that I have incentive and reason to believe I need to be checking constantly in order to be well informed. 

2. I don't always know how my feelings about the news (and my larger, human life embedded in the world) relate to my work, and vice versa. 

Number 1 is easy enough to address. I try and tell myself (and remind my friends) that the current culture of journalism is built on the idea of continually breaking news, and that the stream is as much informative as it is commercial. In other words, yes, new news is happening all the time, but the feeling that I have to check it is a part of a business strategy, as well. Just as limiting my time spent watching Harry Potter films does not make me less of a Harry Potter fan, my identity as "informed citizen" does not come with a "time on Twitter" requirement. I can be informed and still get my work done, and trust that I will be able to find a condensed version of the day's events in several places that I can access on my own time. 

But Number 2 is trickier. Here are some things that I have yelled into my slack room with my friends this week:

  • WHO CARES ABOUT WORK IT IS ALL MEANINGLESS IN THE FACE OF THIS NEWS CYCLE

  • who am I to act like this whole thing is about me?

  • I AM TOO UPSET TO WRITE

  • what kind of self-obsessed nonsense person uses the news as a reason they can't work today?? 

I swing from having such strong reactions to the news that it makes my work seem meaningless in comparison, to guilting myself for having any reaction in the first place. And I see advice from all sides on academic Twitter - "I never read the news because it just distracts me!" "Not reading the news is a crime! You have to be informed!" And, as per usual, the answer is somewhere in the middle. 

When my work is feeling meaningless, and that feels like a big barrier to working on it, I like to reconnect with my motivation - why did I start this work? What will it change? Who will it impact? Usually, I can look around and find that golden thread of alignment between what I believe is important, and what the project sets out to do, and hold tight on to that. Maybe it's the impact you'll have on your students. Maybe it's the communities that will read and benefit from your work. Maybe it's your belief that knowledge creation moves societies forward. Whatever your thread is, find it and hold on tight. 

I can't tell you how much news you should read, because I don't know you, your body, your history, your beliefs, your values. I can tell you that it's worth your time to come up with a strategy that helps you manage your reaction to the day's events, so that you can control when and where you engage with it (for the most part. Darn you, news blasts!!) I can tell you that it can be an act of self care to manage how and why and when you interact with the broader world.

It’s enough to make you want to hide.

It’s enough to make you want to hide.

But I also encourage you to NOT tamp down your emotional responses to the world around you in "service of the work." The stereotype of an academic is a person, removed and above, of the world they study; observing, analyzing, judging, but rarely participating. But you are a living breathing person, who must live and work in this world. To be in the world, and of the world, is also to the feel the world, regardless of how it "distracts" from the work. The world makes the work happen and gives it meaning. Don't let the culture of academia give you permission to abdicate responsibility for being within the world. Just take care to interact, as you do with your work, mindfully, and in accordance with what's important to you as a whole human, not just a grad student.