- Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University
I didn't want to completely quit being in the know about current events—it's both important for my job and personal interests to stay abreast of what's happening. But introducing guardrails to make my consumption more palatable and less disruptive to my sleep seemed like a great idea. A former co-worker once advised me to read the news twice a day in 10- or 15-minute increments: once in the morning with breakfast and once at night. This allows for absorbing the information you need without it consuming you.
Sectioning information into more digestible pieces is called chunking, and it's a scientifically-backed method for retaining information better. “[Chunking] is a fantastic way to protect viewers from the harmful effects of the news while also facilitating their ability to process, comprehend, and recall it better,” says licensed psychologist Sabrina Romanoff, PhD.
Why I decided to practice the chunking method
By scrolling my feeds for news right before trying to go to sleep, I was undoing all the calming work of reading book for pleasure in bed and amping myself way back up. According to Dr. Romanoff, the habit was forcing my sympathetic nervous system into overdrive and going into fight or flight mode each night, activating stress hormones that don’t mesh with sleep. “When our sympathetic nervous system is chronically activated, we are more likely to experience anxiety, fatigue, and trouble sleeping,” she says.
“When our sympathetic nervous system is chronically activated, we are more likely to experience anxiety, fatigue, and trouble sleeping.” —licensed psychologist Sabrina Romanoff, PhD
In addition to making it tougher to fall asleep, my nightly fix was also compromising my waking hours, given that I was getting up unrested each day as a direct result and sitting with extra amounts of stress. Habitual exposure to stressful news stories, compounded by the stress of daily life, helped create an allostatic load, or the cumulative burden of chronic stress on the body. And this, in fact, compromised sleep quality even further.
“The experience of chronic protracted threats and stressors lead to difficulties with sleep functioning and will have a negative impact on cognitive functioning,” Dr. Romanoff says. “This creates a vicious cycle in which you become less equipped to manage stressful situations, and your ineffective response to them will lead to more problems…all of this contributes to the consumption of finite mental resources, leaving energy reserves on low for daily tasks.”
The lowest point for my nightly news-scrolling habit was 2020, a real banner year for distressing news. In addition to absorbing the endless stream of bad news on my phone at night, the TV turned into a constant hum of stress in the background of my days at home. But as pandemic restrictions eased and the world seemed a little more familiar, so too did my news-scrolling habit. I only found myself falling into these reading and watching holes during big news events.
But just after the midterm elections in fall 2021, after finding myself wandering into rabbit holes about each state’s specific election precinct data in the wee hours of the morning, I vowed to take back control of my news consumption and to stop it from preventing my sleep. But I needed a plan. Enter: the chunking method.
How the chunking method can help make you a less stressed (and better rested) news consumer
Applying the chunking method to my news consumption would mean limiting my access to two small windows per day. It made sense to me that being selective about what I read and blocking off time to engage and absorb the material would help me with my sleeping issues. So, decided to try it for at least a month by only reading news during my “commute” times. (I work remotely, so this means when I’m making and eating breakfast and later after dinner, after I put my work materials away and get ready for the evening.)
I also established some other ground rules, like unsubscribing from non-emergency push notifications and deleting the Twitter app from my phone. To stop tumbling down news rabbit holes, I starting bookmarking tabs and links to return to during another chunk of news time.
What I ultimately found was that this method did improve my sleep. But, for a more detailed breakdown, keep reading for how each week went for me.
How the chunking method improved my relationship with reading the news and improved my sleep
I started in the middle of the first week of the year. Waking up early and kicking off the day with a hot girl walk is another habit I'm dedicated to in 2023; I found listening to The Daily a nice addition.
But, the news cycle did ultimately test me this week. The once-in-100 years chaos in the House of Representatives when the body repeatedly failed to elect a Speaker (Representative Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., won in the 12th round) captivated me. I had seen some basic headlines that piqued my interest, but I didn’t allow myself to fall into any reading holes outside my designated windows. Over the weekend, though, I found myself back to my old habits, trying to catch up on what I missed.
I found myself on Twitter, which was full of the news, gossip, analysis, and memes I’d been looking for. But even after learning all about what happened and the implications of the delay, I felt a familiar pang of dissatisfaction about my lost time when I spied the time of 2:30 a.m of my clock. Upon waking up feeling groggy the next day, and I vowed to do better next week.
This week presented a test of a different sort: Instead of overloading on stressful hard news, I felt consumed by revelations from Prince Harry's book, Spare. I'm no anglophile, but the discourse surrounding the book release led me astray once again from my goal to spend minimal time reading the news.
I caught myself up late one night watching YouTube compilations of roundtable panels from U.K. daytime TV programs discussing the book, which pushed bedtime back later and which I paid for in sleepiness throughout the next day. But I didn't feel particularly stressed when I did eventually go to bed, and found myself sleeping pretty quickly after shutting off my phone. Once all the Prince Harry gossip was stale and all the tea had been spilled, I closed out the week without breaking from my chunking method and actually ended up asleep earlier.
Because of how overwhelming the news this week was, with multiple shootings happening including one close to my hometown, I kept my reading chunks even shorter, to about five minutes each, because I knew what I was reading would make me sad and angry. I got to bed earlier but found it harder to actually fall asleep because my mind was still racing and disturbed from the small chunks I did read.
My sleep felt fine but also felt more restless this week; I was stressed for other personal reasons, too. After a couple of days of forgoing reading at all to watch comforting reruns of New Girl and Game of Thrones (which pushed my bedtime back), I tried to do better by returning to my chunking method and facing my racing thoughts head on.
For my last week of this exercise, I stuck diligently to my original method to read news in both the morning and night. I also leaned into reading fiction before bed—no scrolling—and found myself falling asleep faster.
I was ultimately able to get to bed on time and fall asleep pretty soon after, too. I felt informed but well-rested, and like my new habit was sticking.
After a month of following these guidelines, I felt more in control of my news consumption and my bedtime routine. Taking the time to realign my relationship with the news set me up to be an even better consumer and creator of it because I'm better able to recall and analyze what I've read.
I'm a much better sleeper, too, with a new goal; I'm going to apply the lessons I learned about phone use to cut all screen time (rather than just news-scrolling) from my pre-sleep ritual.
In general, I felt I slept better the less I read the news around bedtime. It was a nice setup to the day to read in the morning, so moving forward, I'm going to keep listening to news podcasts and doing a brief "chunk" while I prepare breakfast and make my coffee. But, I think I'm finally ready to jettison my nighttime habit and remove the news from my bedtime routine completely. I'm hoping I can reclaim what made me love reading and writing in the first place—the opportunity to feel consumed by a story and learn something new. But this time, without interfering with my shut-eye.
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