My News Diet

One of the best things I have done for myself over the last six months is gone on an information diet. Just like a food diet, that means I have deliberately put limits on my consumption of information, and only allow myself to consume it at determined times.

Here is what that looks like:

First steps

I abandoned my Facebook account, and started a new one, with relatively few close friends on it. I belong to no affinity groups.

I quit consuming my news via Facebook or Twitter or other social media.

The diet:

I own a Kindle Fire (which is an amazing deal. For less than $50, you get a decent, fully functional Android tablet). The Washington Post has a super deal for Kindle Fire owners, where you get a six month subscription for $1, and it’s 3.99 a month after that.

I also subscribe to a couple of “news aggregation” emails, including the New York Times and Need 2 Know. They both send emails to my inbox every morning with top national headlines. (Need to Know is also good about sharing pop culture things, so I know what latest shenanigans Taylor Swift is up to.)

When I do see an article someone shared on Social Media, I save it for later. I use Pocket, which is amazing, but you could use Instapaper or just use Facebook’s saving function. The tool doesn’t matter – you just want to separate stimulus from response.

So, every morning, I get up, drink my coffee and scan headlines from many different sources, with professional editorial voices at work. I read the articles that interest me, and, wonderfully, I have no chance to argue with people I know.

Before, I would see an article someone shared and then read it right there. I might, in a 5 minute period, swing from something the president did to this weird thing a cat did to here is why you should be scared about bees.

Then you are whiplashed all over the place, and you are out of control of what you see and what you feel, and then you get angry and your blood pressure goes up and… but maybe you’ve been there?

You have to control what you allow in. If you don’t, it is easy to get overwhelmed with the weight of everything coming at you. The pace of information is maddening, and unsustainable. There is far more media created these days than we are capable of ever consuming.

So you need to go on a diet.

A helpful book for me in this was The Information Diet, by Clay A. Johnson

Don’t do it by yourself.

One of my favorite stories:

A salesman was driving through the country on his way to his next appointment. He took a curve too fast and ended up in the ditch.

He had no cell service to call AAA, and was cursing his luck when he looked over the field next to the road and saw an old man and a mule, plowing the field.

He walked over to the man and asked for help. The farmer unhitched his mule and together they walked to the car.

The man hitched the mule to the car, told the salesman to stand back and gave a mighty holler.

“Sam – Pull! Mikey – Pull! Davey – Pull!”

And then the mule leaned in, and pulled, and with a creak and a groan the car rolled onto the road again.

As the farmer unhitched the mule, the salesman stood there in disbelief.

“I don’t understand”, he said. “You called three names out, but you only have one mule. What was that about?”

The man smiled. “Oh, that was to trick Davey here into thinking he wasn’t trying to do it alone. If he thought he had to do it by himself, he wouldn’t have even tried.”

* * *

When we know we have a team of people with us, we can accomplish things we never would have dreamed of taking on by ourselves.

Don’t do it by yourself.

The most important thing to learn

In a meeting with an intern a while back, she complained that the things she was studying in school didn’t seem relevant to our work.

“After all”, she said, “how often do we use algebra here?”

I told her she was missing the point.

You don’t go to school to learn things. Not really, anyway.

You go to school to learn how to learn things.

Most of the ways people make money now did not exist when I was in college. There was no way, for instance, they could have taught me how to make iPhone apps – the average person had never even seen a cell phone, and the iPhone was years in the future.

Change is the only certainty, and in the world of the future, you have to be able to learn new things. Because if you don’t, you will get left behind.

As an example: right now everyone says the future of the internet is video. I love writing, and hate being filmed, so it would be easy to ignore them and keep on writing.

But if they are right, then I will one day be as obsolete as a computer programmer who hated all languages other than C++. People who do not change get left behind.

So I am trying to learn how to edit video.  I’m not good at it, and the learning curve is steep. But I will get there.

(On a related note – I now have a YouTube channel. The goal is to get to a place where I can release a video weekly.)

Plod on, brother. Plod on.

I have written about this story several times, but my blog post about it got lost in the website redesign. Because it is so important to me, I am republishing it here. – HH 

It was January of 2008. I had been doing this work for about five months or so, and I was already burnt out. I had no money. None. I was surrounded and overwhelmed by the immense amount of need I was confronted with daily. There was nothing I could do to fix any of it.

Most days, my response was to weep.

I was sinking, and fast. I had only been in Raleigh a short time and had no real network of friends or relationships. There was no one I could talk to about my work or my despair – at least, no one who had also experienced it.

There were several people whose writing had inspired me to do this work, so I figured that maybe, just maybe, they knew what I was feeling. I wrote a couple of emails, asking for help. Only one of them replied.

But his email saved my life, or at the very least, made the life I have now possible.

From his email:

I hope you are able to pace yourself and develop enough of an outside life to sustain you over a long ministry in one place. The real fruit of this stuff doesn’t start to appear for years, and too often people burn themselves out early trying to prove how committed they are. Take days off. Keep your own living area sane and comfortable. Establish boundaries. Read good books about stuff other than the inner city. Exercise.  Eat as healthy as you can. Remember, the people you are working with mostly don’t change that much, so ministering to them isn’t about ‘getting things done’ but rather accompanying people on their hard journeys, and that is an endurance sport that favors the plodder.

So plod on.

The writer was Bart Campolo, a former inner-city youth minister with a famous dad and no illusions about the difficulty of this work. And he is one of the people most responsible for my ability to continue this work.

Because his response meant so much to me, I tear up a bit when I get similar emails now from fellow pot-stirrers and justice workers. They read something I wrote once that makes them think I would understand, so they write me. The emails that say, “I am doing similar work to you, but I am struggling because no one understands the work I am doing, and no one is changing.”

Because Bart’s email meant so much to me, I almost always respond to those emails when I receive them. And like Bart’s email to me, my advice is seldom what they are looking for, but most often what they need.

I ask questions like, “Who is your team? Who are you talking about this stuff with? What do you do to enjoy yourself? Do you want to do this in 10 years? When was the last time you saw the sunset? Who does this with you? What books are you reading that have nothing to do with this work?

They want me to tell them the magic words to fix the relationships they have with people who are desperately poor, or to show them the strategy that will make bitter, jaded people have hope, or the way to get their church to embrace people who live outside. Instead, I want to tell them how to live.

Because if you want to do this work long term, you have to learn how to live. You need to immerse yourself in beautiful things. You need to learn boundaries. You need to have friends who have nothing whatsoever to do with your work, and you need friends who do the work with you.

Most importantly, you have to realize that loving people is a team sport, and that whatever positive outcome you will see as a result of that loving takes years to measure. It is, like Bart said, an endurance sport best suited to the plodder.

So plod on.

The Twitter Cleanup

In one of her Lord Peter Whimsy books, Dorothy Sayers has Whimsy talk about books in a person’s library. He says that they mark a person’s history and are markers of their journey – that we move from book to book like a hermit crab outgrowing its shell, leaving the old husk behind.

That is how I felt Thursday, when I reviewed my list of people I follow on Twitter.

There were the nerds from back in 2007 and 2008. The people who work in homelessness I found in 2008 and 2009. The theology people came next, followed by the activists.

They were all markers of the journey I have been on the last ten years.

When I moved to Raleigh in August of 2007, Twitter was my jam. It was all new and we were all trying to learn how to live in this social media world.

Twitter was just over a year old at that point, and had blown up in March of ‘07, after it was profiled at South by Southwest that year. Because that is where we heard about it, most of us in those days were nerds.

But over time it grew, and I would follow people with reckless abandon. And the more people I followed, the less I enjoyed it. What had once been fun became a chore, and all the incoming data filled me with anxiety. By the time Ferguson hit in 2014, I was done.

Once a year or so, I would miss it enough to go check in, change my profile pic, update my bio – but we both knew it was over.

I recently have been trying to be intentional with the place Social Media sits in my life. I cleaned up Facebook, and after siting with that a while felt like I might have the energy to reexamine Twitter.

As a result, I unfollowed more than 500 folks, most of whom were talking heads or people I had no relationship with whatsoever. Many of them I had just automatically followed when they followed me. (I never recommend you do this.)

I don’t know that this is the answer to my rejoining Twitter in an active way, but it already feels calmer over there. If you want, you can follow me there at @hughlh. I might even follow you back.