Healthy Mind

‘I Practiced Media Deprivation for a Week—Here’s How It Changed My Relationship With the Information I Consume’

Ben Kassoy

Photo: Getty Images/Casarsa Guru
After recently leaving my job of nine years at a media outlet and moving across the country, I found myself seeking wisdom, guidance, and a general reset to how I approach life. So I decided to read The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. The 1992 book by Julia Cameron functions as a 12-week self-guided course in “discovering and recovering your creative self.”

With more than four million copies sold and endorsements from the likes of Alicia Keys, productivity expert Tim Ferriss, and Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, I felt great about subscribing to its exercises that accompany each chapter. But, I found chapter four’s to be the most intensive, illuminating, and inspiring: “reading deprivation,” which, since the dawn of the internet, Cameron has updated to “media deprivation.” What it entails is no reading, movies, TV, podcasts, or social media. No content. Of any kind. For an entire week.

The idea is that practicing media deprivation will lead to a deeper understanding of why we consume what we do, along with a path towards creating a healthier, more balanced, and more fulfilling relationship with content and with the digital world in general. And in today's world of information overload, developing that awareness is valuable—no matter where you are in your personal journey of life.

Benefits to gain from media deprivation

“Reading deprivation casts us into our inner silence, a space some of us begin to immediately fill with new words—long, gossipy conversations, television bingeing, the radio as a constant, chatty companion,” Cameron writes. “We often cannot hear our own inner voice, the voice of our artist’s inspiration, above the static.”

"When we get quiet and go within, we can create from our own center so our life decisions are aligned with our truth.” —Paulette Sherman, PsyD

Mental health professionals agree there are benefits to quieting the outside world and listening to the voice inside ourselves. “Getting in touch with our inner silence is beneficial because our deeper self is our authentic voice and answers,” says Paulette Sherman, PsyD, a psychologist based in New York. “We can be programmed by the media or outside pressures. We often do things due to status, peer pressure, and expectations. When we get quiet and go within, we can create from our own center so our life decisions are aligned with our truth.”

How I prepared

While my previous job required me to engage with the news every day, now that I'm working as a freelance writer, I inherently have more autonomy over what I consume. This position may make media deprivation easier for me to practice than it may for others.

Also, I've had self-imposed boundaries on my social media consumption for quite some time, which I anticipated would make media deprivation less jarring for me than it may for others. It’s been months since I’ve had TikTok on my phone and years since I’ve had Twitter, and I’ve only been on Instagram a handful of times in the last few years. (Since I first jumped on Facebook back in high school, I've experienced varying levels of stress and anxiety as a result of using these platforms, so cultivating guardrails around how I interact with them is crucial for me.) To fully prepare for the week, I deleted Instagram from my phone, along with my most-frequented app, YouTube.

With fear (and a tinge of exhilaration!) I considered what I’d do in lieu of my general media-consumption habits: breakfast podcast listening, midday news check-ins, bathroom YouTube scrolling, evening NBA watching, movie nights with my roommate, and pre-bedtime reading. To help, Cameron offers a list of permitted activities during media deprivation, which includes “make curtains,” “rewire the lamp,” and “mend.” Mercifully, she also allows dancing, working out, and catching up with friends—aka, stuff I would actually do.

“The nasty bottom line is this: Sooner or later, if you are not reading, you will run out of work and be forced to play,” Cameron assures readers. “You’ll light some incense or put on an old jazz record or paint a shelf turquoise, and then you will feel not just better but actually a little excited.”

How it went

The majority of my content consumption, I realized, is podcasts, mainly NBA chitchat whenever I have some mindless moments while making a meal, folding laundry, or taking a walk. Cameron condones listening to music during the week, so I asked a musician friend to recommend some of his favorite albums. That helped me cut out podcasts and, instead of indulging in the Frankensteined Spotify playlists I usually listen to, I opted for incredible albums, in full, the way the artists intended. Turns out this Prince guy knew what he was doing.

Beyond that, I replaced bathroom YouTube scrolling with chipping away at a crossword puzzle. I traded books and magazines for writing and editing; no harm in reading my own work, I figured. One evening, instead of plodding away at The Circle, my partner and I ran errands and I bought a new pair of shorts I’d been needing for months. Another night, I called my sisters and my grandma. And another, instead of zoning out to SportsCenter, I just went to bed. And whadaya know? With an extra hour of sleep, I felt super refreshed the next morning.

It felt liberating to spend a week not having to catch up, not having to be fully in-the-know, not having to stay relevant.

I anticipated the hardest part of media deprivation would be be FOMO: missing the NBA Finals, the latest news, whatever movie was hot on Netflix that week. Well, pardon the inevitable air of hipstered pretension here, but I honestly didn’t end up missing them that much. In fact, it felt liberating to spend a week not having to catch up, not having to be fully in-the-know, not having to stay relevant.

Instead, the biggest challenge was resisting the temptation of seven- to 10-minute stints of YouTube scrolling or Wikipedia rabbitholing during the day. Sometimes I filled the void with a stroll, texting an old friend, or scrolling through my camera roll. Cameron might have said that's against the rules, but I told myself that excavating my memory and experience was in service of personal growth and creative inspiration.

Then, for much of the rest of time, I just felt… bored. Like, viscerally, profoundly bored. Sometimes I paced around in silence or laid down and closed my eyes for an unexpected pseudo-meditation. Sometimes I felt relaxed; other times I was struck with restlessness and low-frequency anxiety. But the boredom didn’t break me, and neither did the silence. Even if I wasn’t always feeling entertained or informed or distracted, I enjoyed feeling something and not having to immediately change or fix it. I was just being.

And sure, I did actually cheat a few times. I checked an NBA Finals score here and there; I scanned a coffee-table book a friend had recklessly left ajar; I watched a clip or two from Grease. Each time I slipped up, though, instead of throwing in the towel, I strengthened my resolve. The deprivation was just a week, and I knew I could do it—and also, I could feel it was working, though maybe not in the ways I had expected.

After the deprivation

The benefits I took from the media deprivation exercise came after I finished it and resumed normal life. As I added material back into my media-consumption diet, I found myself more aware of and intentional about what content I found fulfilling, stimulating, and inspiring—or even relaxing and refreshing—versus what kept my mind, heart, and spirit merely idling. For example, I realized that all those sports podcasts, while comfortable, were mostly mind-numbing, so I’ve since replaced them with This American Life, Still Processing, and Off Book (an improvised musical podcast!), each of which lights me up in a different, and significant, way.

“Going cold turkey for a week can help people create better boundaries for when media consumption is reintroduced,” says Dr. Sherman. “When you get distance from something, you can re-engage in a more conscious way.”

But don’t get me wrong: I haven’t become—and don’t recommend becoming—a digital ascetic, and I know there’s real value in watching, reading, and listening to something that’s perfect for zoning out or that offers an escape from our daily stressors. For example, a COVID-19 scare recently forced my partner and me into quarantine, and season five of Love Island was ultimately what got us through.

In the days following media deprivation week, I also reintroduced nighttime reading, partially as a replacement for inconsequential sporting events or pre-bed SportsCenter watching. I’m still plugging away at those crosswords on the toilet; sure, my bathroom breaks are longer than they should be, but I honestly feel like I get three percent smarter every time I sit down. And weekly movie nights with my roommate are back on because that consistent intentional time together is something that really serves us both.

For sure, I’m still adjusting and, in some ways, regressing. Despite my discipline for the sake of The Artist’s Way, the mindless, distracted YouTube scrolling is largely back. I’d also still rather pump podcasts or music directly into my brain for the sake of filling silence and, therefore, distracting myself from many of my own fears and insecurities. I’m still working on giving space to my inner voice.

I’m still seeking a more sustainable relationship with the news to strike a delicate balance of staying engaged while supporting my mental and emotional health.

And I’m still seeking a more sustainable relationship with the news to strike a delicate balance of staying engaged while supporting my mental and emotional health. It’s a tricky boundary to cultivate: Keeping up with current events is crucial to being informed, building empathy, and advocating for justice and equity in our world, but “doomscrolling” and overexposure to bad news adds unnecessary worry to our lives. Fortunately, it's possible to mindfully limit your intake and protect your peace.

Another complicated space is social media, which has shown to offer serious benefits including increasing access to social support, democratizing health-care knowledge, and cultivating a sense of community, especially for historically marginalized groups. At the same time, though, popular platforms are responsible for aggravating mental-health issues, and professionals say a social media fast can minimize the effects of “toxic comparison,” enable us to dedicate more time to personal growth, and decrease feelings of anxiety and depression.

With all of this in mind, perhaps my biggest takeaway from my week of media deprivation has to do with control and how much of it we have. Sometimes it feels like the constant deluge of content is inevitable. But, I learned, that's only because I have allowed that to be the case. “The underlying causes of overconsumption of media include habit, the appearance of urgency to follow the news, the societal expectation of answering everyone’s email and text immediately, and the idea that if we disconnect things will fall apart—our job, relationships, or structures,” Dr. Sherman says. “Thus we don’t ever test these limiting beliefs out of fear. If we do, we will see it is normally fine.”

Work and entertainment and news and relationships demand us to consume a lot, but we each have more power than we realize over how, what, and when we allow media into our lives. By eliminating all content for a week, I realized I could eliminate at least some of it, whenever doing so serves me.

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