Zach Ware

We are addicted to now

This weekend I read The Economist and the printed Sunday New York Times. I’ve done this every Sunday for a few months. For the most part, it’s the only hard news I read and I only do it once a week.

I used to be hooked on real-time information. I needed to know everything now. I feared that not knowing would create some kind of vacuum. I would miss out. Looking back I don’t know what I feared missing. But I feared missing it.

At one point I had a screen on my desk dedicated to public market data complete with a CNBC live stream. My phone received every breaking update. I relied heavily on my tightly curated Twitter follows to surface what I needed to know about world events and the startup world. I’ve always used Twitter that way.

To “keep up to date with my market” I hungrily consumed updates about huge startup fundraising events and unicorn stumbles. There was much data. I needed to know what was happening. Right. Now.

Until I didn’t.

Our media culture feeds an addition to comparisons. This is especially true in the startup world. Fundraising, speed bumps, the Zenefits’ debacle. This company raised $20M. This unicorn’s valuation is under pressure. We need to know everything NOW. We feed off knowing how we’re doing compared to everyone else.

Outside of the startup world, the media culture feeds and addiction to information. We need to know what’s happening in an election caucus in a random state at 7 pm on a Saturday night. And while we’re finding out, we need to know what’s happening in every other caucus plus the current time in Shanghai. And we need a countdown showing when we’ll know the next bit of information from another random state.

We are addicted to now.

Those addictions were distracting me. I was getting mid-day headaches. I couldn’t focus. So why did I keep going back?

My media consumption differed from how I work. I apply a very strict set of restrictions on information in my work in business. When looking at business data, project data and information sources in my companies I always ask (and pressure others to ask) “what specifically will we do with the answer to this question.”

What will I do differently if I know? That’s a powerful question. It’s another way of challenging yourself to consider how the information you are seeking will inform your actions. In the absence of a clear answer then the information’s role is to entertain. And that’s ok.

Each of those events is potentially important. But they are not important in isolation. They are important in context.

There is nothing I can do right now with the results of a primary in a random state other than post a snarky Tweet. Since I’m not an active day trader, there is nothing I can do in real-time in the midst of a public market sell off. And there are no changes I can make right now to how I do business if I know that a company raised a bunch of money.

By rule then, this information is entertainment. It is fine to consume entertainment. It is not fine to consume it thinking it informs.

There is a lot I can do if I learn those things in the context of a larger picture. My actions in this election can be informed. I can rebalance my investment portfolio. I can coach my portfolio companies on the state of venture capital.

I need time for the story to settle and for its sister stories to settle. I need analysis to make decisions. I need to understand how this isolated piece of information fits. Analysis is only possible when it’s possible to understand the broader context of information.

So I quit real-time. I essentially stopped reading Tweets which eliminated most of the real-time noise. I dropped all of the tech blog newsletters. I stopped watching CNBC.

I sought out thoughtful writers and news collectors (newsletter people) who had a deep interest in the businesses I’m actually interested in. These are often people for whom the love of the topic is greater than the pressures of developing a large audience.

I invest in companies that produce and sell things and technologies that bridge physical and digital commerce. So I’ve started reading more deep analysis work in areas like manufacturing and logistics. And I’ve kept that news contained to daily or weekly wrapups that I can consume in chunks. Nothing gets a “breaking news” alert.

I invest in venture capital, yes, but I don’t invest in the venture capital fundraising business. News from that world that is actually relevant to my work will make it to me after it’s had time to settle and develop context.

I read more books. My attention span is increasing. I’m working more deeply and less frantically. Changing how I receive information is having an impact on my brain.

My Sunday NY Times/Economist ritual started it all. I felt informed at the start of a week. It was the new habit I inserted to put pressure on the old. And it gave my license to think about the value of the rest.

The rest were purely entertainment masquerading as informative. Their value was zero. So they are, now, gone.

I’m missing some perspectives. Over time, I’ll find them. But opening a firehose of undistilled information with no sense of context isn’t the answer.

First published on March 7, 2016