Late every night on Twitter, the journalist Karen K. Ho posts a tweet asking people: “Are you doomscrolling right now?,” encouraging them to put down their phones and channel their attention somewhere else, or go to sleep.
The term “doomscrolling” has been everywhere lately, but I first heard it from Karen’s nightly tweets. “I started the doomscrolling reminders the first week of April,” Karen told me. “I started doing them because I saw the term, realized I had been doing it for *years*, and figured telling myself out loud to stop might help other people too. Then I kept doing it every night. Within a week I had enough encouragement to decide it was worth doing regularly.” Each day, Karen’s “stop doomscrolling” reminders get hundreds or even thousands of retweets and likes, so they’ve clearly resonated with a lot of people — myself included.
The last four-plus months have just felt like one long constant barrage of doom and gloom: more infections, more deaths, more shutdowns, more layoffs, rising unemployment, struggling small businesses, police brutality everywhere you turned. There was — and still is — always more bad news to take in, and I couldn’t stop reading it all, like a train wreck you can’t look away from. I found myself going to bed each night and scrolling through Twitter on my phone until I feel asleep, then waking up and immediately picking up my phone and compulsively checking Twitter again, scrolling endlessly to find out what the latest terrible development was.
I checked Twitter so frequently that sometimes I wasn’t even consciously aware that I was doing it; it just happened mindlessly and reflexively, like I was on autopilot. “Mindfulness” might feel like an overused buzzword these days, but I realized what I was doing was the exact opposite of mindfulness. While working or writing, if I got restless, I would switch over to TweetDeck and immediately get sucked into the rabbit hole and be stuck there for 20 minutes before I realized it. It was an obsession I couldn’t break, trying to consume the increasingly mind-decaying stream of terrible news updates and people’s anger at whatever 24-hour Twitter outrage cycle was happening that day.
There’s no way around how terrible everything in the world feels right now, but I realized in the last couple months that my doomscrolling habit certainly wasn’t making me feel any better about it. It was only making me feel worse than I already felt. I also felt like my attention span was shorter than ever, fragmented into a thousand tiny shards flying in different directions. I reached a point where it felt like Twitter was basically melting my brain, and I had to break the compulsive habit of getting stuck in the infinite loop of the holy trinity of time-wasters: toggling between Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Last month I read the book Make Time, which offered a ton of simple tips and strategies for being intentional about focusing your attention on things that matter to you. Inspired by the book and by Karen’s nightly Twitter reminders, I decided to start taking some steps to fix my rapidly deteriorating attention span:
I deleted the Twitter app from my phone, and have mostly successfully kept it that way (I caved and re-downloaded it once or twice but then deleted it again)
Stopped using TweetDeck on my computer and switched to checking Twitter via Twitter.com instead (I used to keep TweetDeck open in a tab all day while I worked)
Deleted Facebook and Gmail from my phone, and set a screen time limit of 30 minutes on Instagram (I decided to keep Instagram because it’s happier and less “doom-y” but still wanted to break my habit of endless scrolling there too)
Started using a real alarm clock again instead of depending entirely on my phone alarm
Attempted to build a habit of charging my phone overnight in the living room instead of my bedside table (which, so far, hasn’t quite stuck)
Started using the Freedom app to block Twitter and a few other sites when I need to write or do other focused work
What this has effectively meant is that on weekdays, once I close my laptop at the end of the workday, I don’t have access to much social media anymore until I open my laptop again the next morning. When I do sign on the next morning, I have rediscovered the pleasures of catching up on the news, email, and tweets that I missed overnight, since I actually gave myself the time to “miss” things instead of seeing them all the instant they happened. It’s surprisingly nice!
It’s a nice feeling to intentionally think about how I want to direct my time and attention, instead of letting my phone control my attention with notifications and tweets and alerts all day. It’s nice to know that instead of letting my evenings passively become consumed by television and doomscrolling, I can actively choose to carve out an hour to work on some writing.
I also asked Karen how her habits have changed since she started her nightly doomscrolling reminders. She wrote back:
1. I often log out of Twitter on my computer during work hours.
2. Deleted the app from my phone.
3. Try to limit how often I check Twitter on the mobile website during weekdays by leaving my phone away from my desk.
4. Weekends are for offline activities like minor home renovations, errands, or walking the dog with my mom (when I was living with my family) and leaving my phone inside the house.
5. Going to sleep earlier (once by 10pm!) and scheduling the doomscrolling tweets slightly in advance.
6. I often remind myself a lot of information on Twitter is not useful or necessary to know, especially for my job or my mental health.
These are all great strategies I second! And that last bit is an especially important reminder to anyone who, like me, has a compulsive Twitter habit: very little of it is necessary or useful. Nothing will happen if you step away from Twitter for a few hours, nights, days, or forever. There are lots of other ways to get the news, and you probably won’t miss anything of much consequence.
I won’t lie: I still feel that instinctual pull to to grab my phone and scroll through apps whenever I hit a minute of boredom, that familiar twitchy feeling that I just need to check social media because I might be missing out on something. (A decade of conditioning by tech companies is pretty hard to shake!) But I already feel a little better thanks to some of the small changes I have made.
So I encourage you: take Karen’s advice and stop doomscrolling every night. Maybe delete Twitter from your phone. The doom will still be there tomorrow.
Things I made this week: this very quick turmeric chicken and asparagus stir fry and this even quicker gochujang shrimp and green beans. Cumin-chicken meatballs with green chile sauce from Melissa Clark’s “Dinner” (can’t find it online, it’s only in the cookbook!). And Superiority Burger’s crispy fried tofu sandwich, which was definitely not quick, but a fun and delicious project (even meat-eaters will love this one honestly).
What I’m reading
The poison of male incivility, The Cut. A very good piece from Rebecca Traister on AOC, Ted Yoho, and how we think about power.
Life after sourdough, Grubstreet. A very relatable meditation on how baking bread was a great distraction in the beginning of the pandemic, but it’s lost its luster.
The class of RBG, Slate. A really remarkable read about the 10 women in Harvard Law School’s class of 1959. One of them became a Supreme Court justice; this is the story of the other nine women.
The pandemic is changing work friendships, The Atlantic. There are so many little things I miss about going to the office but I especially miss my coworkers!
And for the cooks among us, this is delightful: Marcella Hazan’s trio of tomato sauces, illustrated!
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