Stay Sane! Avoid News Anxiety with Self Bets

I recently told a friend that I’ve mostly managed to avoid the news and social media. He commented that this habit must take incredible fortitude. I wouldn’t say it’s fortitude that I’ve used to avoid news and social media – rather, it hinges on a technique I learned for removing bad habits “self bets”. This technique has not only helped me avoid social media – it also helped me lose 40 pounds. Here’s an excerpt of my email to my friend:

I read about this technique called “self betting.” I can’t find the original article, but it’s a technique for changing habits. Instead of trying to quit cold turkey, I choose a short time frame. I have no doubt I could avoid the news for an hour, for example. But all day tommorrow? That feels like a stretch to me, tonight. But it still seems doable! The uncertainty of whether I can pull it off makes it interesting, and the pride I feel when I do is GREAT. I couldn’t bet myself I can avoid it all week, for example, because I’d likely fail and then reinforce the mental story of “I can’t control myself.”

The key is to choose a time frame that’s long enough to be a challenge, but not long enough that you think you can’t pull it off.  I started all this in 2017 when I was refreshing the bitcoin price every frigging hour. I knew it wasn’t helpful, so i started just doing it every other day. Soon I extended this to other social media as well. Then it was just Mondays and Fridays. Then just Fridays. I kept it that way for about a year, and it was awesome.   Then this dang ol’ virus came along and blew my system up. I’ll have to claw it back one day at a time.

The cool thing about this is that our brains construct Bayesian models. It is a bit easier for me, because I have managed to get a bunch of historical evidence that I can modify my behavior. This evidence is held against the recent evidence that I haven’t been in control lately, which is why I need to be gradual about making the change.

I hope this helps! Even starting small, like a few hours, can help you accumulate evidence of your ability to make these changes, with makes future changes easier because you’re more confident you’ll succeed. Noticing how much calmer I feel after a no-news day encourages me to try again.

So I’ll make the bet with myself tonight, that I can avoid looking at the news or social media tomorrow. I’ll let you know how it goes 🙂 

I wrote that email a few weeks ago. I successfully avoided the news that day, felt better, and then went back to my bad habit for a few days, and then tried the self betting technique again. The second time I did this, i noticed how much better I felt after avoiding the news for a few days.

Noticing that good choices make you feel better is also important for making them stick. Whenever I make a positive change, if I don’t take time to focus on of the benefits of the change, I’m likely to regress. Mentally savoring the benefits of a positive choice creates more of the sense of reward that helps make learning stick.

If anything characterizes “good choices that are hard to make”, it’s those which have subtle payouts over long periods of time. In my experience, the bad choices I struggle with most are those with a front-loaded positive payout, and then a long tail of subtle cost. Reflecting on these subtle costs and benefits makes it easier for my mental hardware to promote good choices without it feeling like a chore.

There are millions of machines all over the world, measuring your actions and trying to get you to act in ways that perhaps aren’t so great for you. At this very moment, there are records in many database, in many companies, all over the world, all keeping track of choices you’ve made: what to click on, what to read, and where to spend your time and attention.

These systems all depend on using certain cognitive gimmicks, like uncertain payoffs being valued higher than certain ones. “Making a bet” about changing my behavior uses these gimmicks for my benefit. If you’re not actively trying to use these same tricks to make yourself happier, is it any wonder that you feel anxious or stressed most of the time?

It’s now Thursday. The last day I read news or checked social media was last Tuesday. I initially made a ‘two day’ bet with myself, and when Thursday night came around, I decided to extend the bet to Monday. Sunday night, I felt so pleased with having avoided the news for close to a week, that I decided I’d try to shoot for the end of April.

This plan to avoid the news for the rest of April works out nicely because I created a spreadsheet with predictions for the month of april, where I made guesses about where certain key metrics will end up at the end of the month. I plan to check back with the rest of the world at the start of May, and see what things look like in the outside world. I expect it’ll be chaotic, wild, and far beyond my ability to control or do anything about. I’ll see how accurate my metrics were, then make new predictions, and return to focusing on my work and family, both of which are more than sufficient to take all my time and then some.

Over the course of a few weeks, I went from being unsure if I could avoid the news for an entire day, to feeling confident I can avoid it for the rest of the month. This is the power of accumulated evidence in your ability to change your own behavior, coupled with some exploits that take advantage of quirks in your mental hardware. I hope this helps!

Stay safe, and stay sane 🙂

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