Intermittent content fasting: why I put myself on a content diet and what I learnt

I love podcasts. You’re never alone with a podcast. Every walk or commute with a podcast is time well spent. Contained on your phone just a few taps away are the familiar, comforting voices you go back to when everything is getting a bit much, and you just want to distract yourself from it all. You can listen to clever people have a clever conversation about clever things and there’s no pressure to contribute – you’re just there to listen. As the world feels like it’s going a bit pear-shaped, podcasts can be a wonderful tonic.

However, my consumption of podcasts is a bit more on the binge end of the spectrum than the sampling menu end. Every journey I take, to work, to the library, to anywhere, is soundtracked by the voices on podcasts, meaning I’m clocking up at least 10 hours of spoken word a week. In fact, it’s recently occurred to me that there is rarely a moment in the day (other than when I’m working) where I’m not consuming content – podcasts, online articles, YouTube videos – of some kind.

Content bingeing

It’s become impossible to keep a free moment free – I have to fill it with something, some content, whether it’s an episode of Hidden Brain while I’m making dinner, a quick look on Twitter when I’m standing in a queue for something, or reading a few saved articles in Pocket on a spin bike while waiting for the class to start.

As a citizen of the world, inhabiting a culture that’s allowed the proliferation of fake news, I feel it’s my duty to keep myself informed as I can. Why wouldn’t I take one of these spare moments to learn something new by reading an article or listening to an episode of NPR’s finest?

However, in the last few weeks, I’ve grown concerned about the impact my voracious content consumption is having on my wellbeing. If I’m only reading or listening to other people’s opinions, how can I know what I really think about things?

Passive consumption

It’s not just the volume of consumption that’s a worry, but the method of consumption, too. Listening to a conversation play out is more passive than say, reading the same conversation in a book. Am I really understanding a concept communicated via podcast or online article as well as I would have if I’d read the same thing on paper, and am I interpreting it in the same way?

And that’s when I decided to go on a content diet.

(By the way, I’m not entirely comfortable with the terms ‘content’ and ‘consumption’. It feels a bit gross how what is essentially ‘media’ has now been rebranded ‘content’ with its transition online – it’s a commodity now! – and that we’re all the greedy ‘consumers’ of that content. But it’s the best terminology to hand so I’m using it.)

Where were we? Oh yes, the content diet. Why did I decide to do this? Because I’m concerned all this easy-to-digest content – podcasts, or online articles that have been engineered to hold your attention, bouncing you from one page to another – is making me passive, and eroding my ability to concentrate on more intellectually challenging material, like stuff that’s actually printed on paper, for more than a few minutes at a time. The kind of thing that’s pretty important when you’re heading into your third year of your part-time degree, where success hinges on your ability to absorb new information (including some fairly abstract concepts) and hold on to that information.

Where did my focus go?

I knew something was amiss when I started reading a real actual book (with three dimensions and everything), and found my mind wandering… it was impossible to focus… I had to keep returning to the same passage again and again and found my mind wandering and, erm, where was I?

It wasn’t a particularly difficult book – the language was clear and the concepts weren’t completely alien – and it wasn’t that I wasn’t enjoying the bits I could focus on. Apparently I’d just lost my ability to concentrate on anything long form.

This isn’t the only thing I might lose, either. According to research by reading and language professor Maryanne Wolf, some of our most important intellectual processes, including critical analysis, inference and empathy, are enabled by our ability to read, and that ‘deep reading’ processes “may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading”.

The content diet

With all this in mind, what did I do on my content diet? To begin with, I stopped listening to podcasts and avoided Twitter for a week. This was much easier than I thought it would be. I didn’t miss Twitter, and surprisingly, for the most part, I didn’t miss the podcasts either. I thought it might be a bit too real being in my head for that long (I reckon I was listening to about 90 minutes of podcasts a day), but it wasn’t. It was nice to walk and to actually hear what’s going on around you.

Taking my time in transit to just walk allowed me to work on problems (such as how to finish this post) and notice things I might have just breezed by with a head full of (the delightful) Rutherford and Fry. Like this tree full of feral parakeets and their squirrel mate in Hyde Park.

tree full of feral parakeets squirrel.JPG

You get ideas because you’re observing more. Content-free time also provides much-needed moments to decompress, just put one foot in front of the other and take in the scenery. 

By the end of my week of content fasting, I felt I’d had enough of a break, and was ready to introduce content into my life again. In an attempt to get the best of both worlds – the information, education and entertainment of podcasts, as well as the headspace you get from periods of not listening to them – I’ve created a few rules for responsible content consumption, an intermittent content fasting regime, if you will.

First rule: no listening of podcasts on the journey home, wherever I might be coming from. This will help me digest what happened during the day, and think about how to tackle the next one. Second rule: at least two podcast-free days a week. Third: limit Twitter to just 10 minutes a day at lunch, as it can be a real time suck. Save any articles of interest to Pocket, then GTFO.

Finally: at least 30 minutes a day of reading that’s not a screen, to see if I can restore my depleted attention span.

This is just something I’m trying as I felt like I was growing a dependence to content. Has my week of content fasting stopped my transition into an unempathetic sociopath who fails to perceive beauty? In the coming weeks, I’ll let you be the judge of that.

What I've learned about distance learning (so far)

A couple of autumns ago, keen to add some legitimacy to my nerdy day trips and with an urge to kiss goodbye to 20 good hours a week, I started studying for a degree part time with the Open University. One-third of the way through the physics BSc I always wanted and with the first exam out of the way, I feel compelled to share a few things about my experience so far.

Going into this (six years’ worth of study!), I knew that the actual learning of the material would be challenging, not to mention the moving around of things so that my week could accommodate this extra 20 hours of required study. What I didn’t expect from the experience was to learn so much about *dramatic pause* myself.

What follows is a few of these lessons, or things I’ll want to keep in mind over the remaining four years. It’s not quite a guide to distance learning, or a crash course in how to study (I’m still figuring that out). Instead it’s more a list of things I wish I’d known before I started.

Learning how to learn is an ongoing process

It was only a month before my end of year maths exam when I realised, after having studied (nearly) all of the module material and meticulously planning my revision timetable that, well... I really hadn’t taken in a lot of it over the last year. In the nearly two years since I started this degree, had I really not yet learnt how to learn?

Apparently not. But sheer panic can be a great motivator. Those four weeks before the exam were a great crash course in how to learn and retain. My findings? They boil down to three simple rules about studying: 1) little and often beats long weekend binges (and makes you hate it less), 2) take yourself out of the house and 3) review what you’ve learnt on a regular basis (say, the next day, then the next week, then again the following month).

Falling behind is not your failure

The brilliant thing about the OU is that they really want you to succeed. They’ve planned out all your module material in lovely neat little chunks which are helpfully arranged into two-weekly blocks, so you know what you should be studying and when. They understand that we’re busy and that some of us are returning to education after many years, so we might need a bit of nudge in the right direction.

Everything is organised at our convenience. All they ask of us is to bring the hard graft.

These delightfully finite and organised units of work with their accompanying tick boxes however tend to imply with their neatness that the learning experience will be also. Of course, that’s not the case. Learning is messy. You will get stuck, you will run over the allotted time, you will want to spend some extra time on an assignment, there will be life grenades. There will be late nights and whole weekends spent indoors, and that’s not your failure. Life is unpredictable, so as much as you’d like to stick to the study plan, it won’t always be possible. And that’s ok.

Sometimes you’ll have to say no

After deciding to share your life with a part-time degree for the foreseeable future, you’ll find that you’re going to have to start making some sacrifices. As we’ve found, there will be evenings or weekends where you’re just not going to be available, and that’s when you’re going to have to start saying no to stuff.

It won’t feel very nice, and if your experience of school is anything like mine, where you will do anything to avoid sitting down to do some proper study, pretty unintuitive. But the difference is you chose this. You took this step because getting a degree is important to you. Also…

...it’s the best thing ever

It’s thrilling because it’s all you. Your successes, your failures, they’re all your making. You chose this. You’re making it work. That study plan? It’s great for giving you a sense of your progression. And receiving useful feedback about your performance is something that’s usually missing from work. Sure, there are sacrifices to be made, but so far, I feel enrolling on this degree is the best thing I’ve ever done.

To the next four years.