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.
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?
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.
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.