Keeping Up

Every time I go through my Twitter feed (or any service for that matter), I feel this need to “catch up” to it so I can bring the unread count to zero. Now, I try to be super intentional about who I follow and why, in order to keep the feed digestible.

In the past, I have done a few things to control my feed and limit the number of tweets I see every day, such as…

  1. Following only those who have something to say in their own words, rather than those who simply regurgitate what others are sharing.
  2. Muting some people temporarily when they seem to post too many updates in a short span of time about something I don’t care about.
  3. Unfollowing people because they were mostly using it to promote themselves using automated services.

Most days, I spend about an hour going through social media feeds, RSS feeds, and newsletters towards the end of the day. The problem occurs when I miss doing that for a few days, and the unread count builds up enough that it becomes hard to keep pace with. Then, I find myself playing catch-up, skimming and scanning through my feed—all the while feeling a bit of unease that arises out of a lack of intention.

By this point I may succeed in bringing the unread count to zero, but I’m no longer enjoying the experience of reading those I follow. There’s a certain sensation of being on a constant treadmill of information, and this nagging feeling that if/when you jump off, you’ll be missing out.

Why do we feel this constant need to keep up with things? Why do we feel we are missing out when we are not checking the “firehose” that is our feeds? I suspect I am not the only one who feels this strange compulsion to keep up with things, seeking some semblance of control.

I think the problem isn’t with missing out, necessarily, but more specifically missing out on something that might have been potentially meaningful to us.

Oddly enough, when I don’t check my feeds for a few days in a row, I don’t actually fear that I’ve missed out on anything—there is no “FOMO”. It’s only when I am checking all these feeds day-to-day and then stop doing so that I suddenly feel this need and anxiety.

I haven’t read newspapers in years; maybe that’s why I don’t feel I am missing out on them at all. It could also be that I just don’t care for the news enough, because it has more negative information that I’d rather stay away from. In any case, there are people in many households for whom it’s unthinkable to get through their morning without their caffeine drink of choice and the paper.

I also haven’t had cable TV for years. I think of cable TV as passive entertainment infested with useless advertising, which I believe has ruined the whole experience of watching TV and which I think runs contrary to being intentional. If I want to watch a TV show or a movie, I’d want to watch it when it’s convenient for me, not when it’s scheduled. I am also not interested in watching something only to be constantly interrupted by useless ads. I have better uses for my time. About the only time I sign up for cable TV is for a couple of weeks each year to watch Wimbledon, but I digress.

I think it’s important to remember that while we may have instant access to information at our fingertips today—which is unprecedented in the history of mankind—it is just as true that information has endless access to us. Our attention has never been so deeply under threat until now; it’s never been less scarce and more valuable.

While I understand that this need of feeling caught up with things is largely self-inflicted, I suspect I am not the only one who feels this way. If we feel this constant need to catch up to things, it’s also in our power to feel otherwise.

There are two ways to approach this problem. Either 1) we only commit to how much ever we can consume (not always easy), or 2) we sign up for anything and everything we find interesting without feeling any compulsion to consume it all. We can apply either of those approaches to just about anything we decide to consume.

The first approach isn’t that easy, as it’s quite easy to go overboard with things we commit to. The second approach is more flexible in its thinking and provides greater leeway to work around it. It also removes any compulsion and we are less prone to feeling guilty by not consuming it all.

Of course, it would be easier if the services/feeds we signed up for allowed us that freedom by design, but even when they don’t, we can still take the manual approach. For instance, I could choose to ignore my Twitter feed (including the Unread Tweets count) for days, only occassionally dipping into that pond as I see fit. As another example, I don’t feel compelled to read every newsletter I’m subscribed to, because by design, there is no Read/Unread count in the “newsletter” feature of my email. While this makes it easy for me to sign up for more newsletters, I don’t feel guilty about not having read some (or any) of it.

Regardless of the approach we take, one thing is for certain: There are limits to our capacity to absorb and comprehend information. In the first approach, we get to decide consciously what we want to pay our attention to, and we commit to those things—while with the other, we let go of the need to consume everything.

We feel obligated to consume the things we have unwittingly said yes to. We need to remind ourselves there is nothing we have to do. We don’t have to read every newsletter we subscribe to, or listen to every podcast, or keep up with every social media update from others in our feeds. Heck, we don’t even need to “follow” others at all if we don’t want to.

We need to stop holding onto this feeling of being caught up with things and embrace the joy of missing out (JOMO). As long as we are focused on the important and non-urgent things in our everyday lives, those other things won’t matter much in the long run.

Whenever you feel this internal need to catch up with things, realize that you may be on this non-stop treadmill of information coming at you, but ultimately you get to decide how much of your access you want to give it. Once we stop holding onto this feeling that we need to be caught up on everything, it frees our mind.

We can choose to be more prudent. We can set limits to things. We can act with intention. We get to decide. Our attention is finite, so we need to use it wisely.

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