Too much media can make mindfulness hard, but how much space can you get before you’re disconnected? I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they don’t read the news anymore because it makes them feel stressed and anxious, and then go on to tell me about the hours of media they’ve consumed. Where’s the balancing point?

I spent this morning shoveling and listening to public radio. As I’ve written articles and emailed with clients, I’ve had it in the background for almost the entire day. I’ve heard stories about diseases, court cases, police violence, and underfunded schools. I’ve listened to statistics on homelessness and snow removal, rent and daily commutes, and education and gun violence. There hasn’t been much coverage of positive things today.

Am I keeping myself from mindfulness by surrounding myself with this noise? Am I distracting myself from my own happiness? Is all background noise negative? How much media can I consume and still be mindful?

Your Brain on Media

Media effects the way we see the world. Ads influence consumerism, TV shows influence our understanding of crime, social media changes our understanding of politics. We don’t entirely understand how media influences us or what degree it affects people individually, but we know that our media diet does something to us.

Mindfulness requires mental flexibility. You have to be able to challenge your reflexive thoughts, positive or negative, in order to stay in sync with what you’re perceiving and doing. Surrounding yourself with the same noise and the same message every day can stifle that flexibility. You get used to hearing one thing, and soon everything else is warped by that message.

Some people can’t sleep well after watching a scary movie (guilty as charged, right here), while others find their opinions are swayed when all of their news comes from a single source. When you only hang out with a small group of people, it’s easy to find yourself adapting their mannerisms. Now look at the shows you watch every day. What are they like?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that violent shows produce violent people, or that videogames are responsible for violent kids. Our brains aren’t that simple. What I am suggesting, however, is that it’s easy to develop unconscious biases when everything you consume comes from the same source and makes the same assumptions. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The Multitasking Myth

You can’t multitask. You can either do one thing well, or two things horribly. What we actually do, when we try to multi-task with media, is fill in the gaps of our workflow with noise. Rather than breaking down the task and tackling it fully, we give ourselves a digital window to stare out of -- minus the day dreams.

Right this moment, I’m sitting in a restaurant borrowing the wifi and enjoying the free tea refills. There’s music playing, conversation going, and a huge window next to me. There are a hundred things that could grab my attention, but none of it is as demanding on my time and mental capacity as Netflix would be, were I to have a show playing next to me.

Why?

Multitasking with media can feel productive, but that’s because it fills the gaps in your productivity with noise. Rather than getting bored or frustrated, you’re putting your brain on hold until you feel like thinking again. It’s one thing to throw a show on while you’re doing something mindless like folding laundry or doing the dishes, but it’s something else to flip on your favorite podcast when you need to bring your full faculties to bare.

What does this have to do with media and mindfulness? If you’re using media to occupy yourself when you don’t feel like thinking, and that media you’re turning to is all coming from the same source and has the same perspective, you’re accomplishing very little. You can’t pay attention to your work, you can’t pay attention to what you’re watching - how can you be mindful when you’re doing that?

Good Media

If something doesn’t help me focus, it should teach me something new. Occasionally shoveling the driveway and listening to NPR might expose me to ‘negative signals,’ but it doesn’t put me in an echo chamber or keep me from concentrating on the job at hand. Listening to an audiobook while I do yoga might keep me from meditating, but it helps me flow and focus more so than absolute silence does. Listening to music while I work keeps me from jumping at every creek the house makes.

I could give you a list a mile long of my favorite books, movies, and albums. I could talk for hours about why I love reading Chekhov or why I’m so into the Malazan series. I’ve probably watched more Netflix than I have a right to. I spend too much time on Instagram. To be totally clear here, I know I’m not the poster-child of a low-media life.

The point I’m trying to make isn’t that you should cut media out of your life entirely, it’s that you should make sure we consume it in a conscious and mindful way. Don’t use it as a mental security blanket, don’t consume it without considering its source and message, and don’t consume it to the exclusion of all else. By all means, watch TV, listen to the radio, and go to the movie theater. But make sure that you’re learning new things instead of listening to the same message over and over.

Mindfulness is about presence and awareness, right? Media can dull that, but it doesn’t have to. The way we consume media often runs contrary to our goals, but with the right choices and the right approach, that media can enrich and reward. We just need to replace binging and marathoning with a healthier media diet.

The Mindful Media Diet

Try looking at the way you consume media the same way you consume food. Set an overall daily limit (calories), make sure you get the right amounts of educational, informational, and entertaining media (macros), and eat your damn vegetables (no metaphor here; eat your veggies). If you can find it fresh and local, that’s even better. Sometimes it’s worth driving to the other side of town for the sake of something cool or new.

Some people do better with strict diets that control what they can or can’t eat, while others do better with diets that allow flexibility. The point isn’t to arbitrarily limit your media consumption, of course; the point is to give it enough thought that you know it’s healthy.

Right now, Jana and I are trying out a new media diet. We’re trying to get more news and information into our days (it’s an election year), while reducing the amount of entertainment we watch and our overall media diet. We’ve cut out Netflix almost entirely, and we’re limiting what we watch on Youtube to new or educational content. Social media is for work and family (not endless scrolling), and sites like Reddit are limited.

I have no idea how well we’ll stick to this diet long-term, but it’s been pretty good so far. We’ve been turning to books and movies more than binging and endless scrolling, to fairly good results. With a library just down the road, TED talks to watch, podcasts to catch up on, and the occasional movie to watch, we have enough healthy choices to hand that we shouldn’t default to old habits any time soon.

So how would you build your mindful media diet?