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Sunday, April 14, 2024

How to Stay Informed Without Getting Paralyzed by Bad News

One day Recently, I arrived at the Manhattan office where I work as a tutor. I hoped to tame my inbox before my first session. Instead, I clicked a news alert and succumbed to a media storm of Ukrainian refugees fleeing bombed homes and President Biden’s ominous warnings about Russian chemical warfare. This news cycle—more like cyclone—then submerged me in TikToks of teenagers tearfully mourning their country, families sheltering in subways, and footage of Ukrainians’ secure lives mere weeks earlier. Soon my chest was constricting uncomfortably. A donation to the International Rescue Committee couldn’t entirely comfort me before my client arrived.

I’m describing my morning, but I’m not the only one with this experience. Peculiarly, when updates about Ukraine make me feel powerless, I feel additional anxiety knowing I can’t sit and scroll forever. Despite life-changing events, I’m living in one of the world’s most expensive cities: I have to fulfill my job requirements.

On one hand, the significance of daily engagements diminishes while so many suffer. Yet, neglecting everything except the most recent global trauma would lead to unemployment and instability. This line between reckoning with terrible realities and wanting to be productive to support yourself is tenuous. “Media informs us, but there’s plenty of bleak news out there. And our brains have a negativity bias,” says psychiatrist Jess P. Shatkin. “We have an inborn mechanism in the amygdala and limbic system to pay attention to what can harm us. But engaging like that does impact our mood, sleep, and anxiety,” he says.

Shatkin, the director of NYU’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Studies department, emphasized that attending to professional and family matters can prevent feeling incapacitated by current events. “I can’t directly affect what’s happening in Ukraine,” he says, “but I can try to be good to my students, patients, and family.” Investing in your own commitments and relationships builds resilience.

Although technology can produce bad-news paralysis, online tools can also help you make productive contributions within your various roles. As an organization junkie who juggles four part-time jobs with college classes and a private life, here’s how I balance responsibilities.

Schedule and Acknowledge Time

To-do lists can feel like a record of failures when you can’t check things off your list. Google Calendar works better for me, because it promotes (A) designating time for every task so that I see what I can realistically complete each day and (B) easily documenting changes so that I recognize my efforts when a last-minute meeting pops up, my Wi-Fi quits on me, or a friend is in need.

I create events for most daily activities: addressing emails, running errands, making presentations, even eating lunch. This way, I assign a start and end for each enterprise instead of staring at a directionless list. The best part of GCal is its flexibility. When my time estimates are off, I edit the event to capture how long I spent on an obligation and shift subsequent duties to the next day, if needed. This week, for example, sending my coworkers a post-meeting email took 30 extra minutes because I was scouring our shared Google Drive for a spreadsheet. (That’s putting it politely—I was ready to throw my laptop against a wall.) To compensate, I adjusted my next task to start later and edited my “Send debrief email” event to reflect its true duration. When I opened GCal the next day, I understood why my plans were altered instead of thinking I just hadn’t been productive enough, and I knew to allot more time for drafting emails in the future.

Try also creating calendars for different aspects of your life and attaching documents into event descriptions so that you’re not me on Monday night, furiously hunting for missing materials. If scheduling daily labor becomes compulsive or tiring, you can use GCal’s reminders or tasks function instead, and there’s always the Reminders app for Apple users or Todoist for Android fans. I find allocating time more motivating, but do what you like best.

Embrace Accountability

Focusing on deadlines is hard when it feels like World War III is raging. Occasionally you just need to congratulate yourself on little wins, like attending all your meetings (or even smaller successes—I’m not above celebrating showering). Don’t beat yourself up, but do compassionately hold yourself accountable.

If quantitative data drives you, consider an app like Yeolpumta, available in English and Korean for Apple or Android devices. The app’s charts that track time spent on different ventures help me visualize daily, weekly, or monthly progress. Additionally, starting the in-app stopwatch locks non-approved apps from opening, which encourages concentration when willpower is waning.

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To hold yourself responsible without counting hours, identify an accountability partner. After my friend Lexi moved to Boston years ago, we started video calling when we both needed to focus. We’d quickly catch up, and then I’d minimize the FaceTime window on my laptop so that I could see her doing her work while focusing on mine. Shatkin praises this approach as “a great way to use media, because you know your friend has your back, so you’re enhancing your strength.” Often I called Lexi on my phone so that it was less available as a distraction. Plus, during Covid-19 quarantining, we found our productivity sessions functioned equally well on Zoom or FaceTime–both of which allow screen sharing to ask brief questions about our projects.

Set and Stick to Boundaries

Like sleeping for eight hours each night,  it’s difficult to maintain limits. Netflix’s autoplay whittled my eight hours into six last night, so I’m no paragon. However, I’ve developed ways to set boundaries with the news cycle that pay off. For instance, I now designate daily subway rides for reading New York Times breaking news emails so that clients don’t find me in an anxiety-ridden state when they arrive for tutoring sessions. After dinner, I contact my congresspeople to demand action on important issues. Selecting occasions for these emotionally charged activities gives you control over your day. You can strengthen this work-life separation by providing your personal email for those news alerts. I initially used my professional one and panicked when an onslaught of long Covid headlines kept me from finding a Zoom link to meet with my supervisor. Lesson learned: receive alerts in your non-business inbox.

To stick to those restrictions, Shatkin suggests changing your phone’s preferred display mode (light or dark) to the one you like least to make it less appealing. A more old-fashioned option is to turn off push notifications or set one-hour daily limits on news-saturated apps like Twitter. If a headline or video still grips you when you need to be productive, I recommend saving the link in your iPhone’s Notes app or OneNote for Android devices. That way, you can revisit it during your designated article-reading time. By upgrading Notes, you can even pin the page with all your links for easier access. If you have several categories of links, you can organize multiple notes within one comprehensive folder.

Lean on Your Social Circle

Often I’m at home transcribing a recording for my research position at NYU or doing other jobs, and my dog Asta decides it’s playtime. Her favorite tactic for extracting my attention? Dragging me toward her toys by tugging my clothes between her teeth. (For a foot-tall wire fox terrier, she’s surprisingly strong.) I’d rather be with her than my laptop, but attempting to balance stressful deadlines, pet care, and worrying about world peace quickly becomes overwhelming.

Google Groups helps free up time and supply support. NYU, for instance, has a childcare Google Group where families post about their needs. Students respond individually or to the entire group with their experience and availability to child-sit, pet-sit, or help out in general. Try starting a similar group at your company or institution for at-home assistance, if one isn’t already available. The fact that only NYU affiliates are approved to participate in my group provides credibility and a sense of community. I joined in January and now babysit a toddler. Her parents are grateful for uninterrupted productivity and self-care time, and I’m happy to make $200 a week playing with a great kiddo.

Google Group isn’t the only viable platform. Slack is great, too, since many workplaces already use it and could easily create a childcare channel. Slack allows for direct-messaging members and offers the additional benefit of creating specific channels for people seeking aid in different areas or boroughs. Discord is popular as well, and it’s growing thanks to the fact that it’s free and easy to use.

The hours you get back in your schedule from leaning on others could even provide an opportunity to engage with Ukraine and other current events. This way, you’ll have space to feel what you need to feel without being tugged (literally or figuratively) in so many directions.

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