Communication is a fascinating field of study. I know that by including a variation of the word “unsubscribe” in the title of this newsletter, a number of people may feel inclined to either immediately hit delete or unsubscribe from mine. The word could stir up an internal friction (or an eye roll) for some, which could have negative results for me. But in this example, I’m willing to take the risk. I’m not afraid of the unsubscribe button. In fact, this week I want to share some thoughts I’ve had about unsubscribing from things, and make a new case for why you (as both a consumer and a creator) might consider getting a little more comfortable with the idea.
Before we jump in, I should first define some of the common “things” you can subscribe to. On top of newsletters like this, you can subscribe to information via blogs, websites, podcasts, the news and magazines (both digital and physical). You can also subscribe to entertainment via streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, as well as physical goods like recurring deliveries of your favourite items or boxes of random things you may or may not end up using. For the case of this email, I’m mostly talking about information, but you could apply some points to the other things too.
When I had originally thought about writing this, I assumed I would include a few paragraphs about how technology has taken over our lives. I probably would’ve talked about how we receive too many notifications each day and have too many distractions. I might have made the point that there is simply too much to keep up with, and we should stop pressuring ourselves to try and do so. And to go along with that, I would have then likened unsubscribing to a form of digital decluttering, and told you that having less to keep up with feels easier and makes things more enjoyable.
While there is truth in each of those points, they’ve all been made before—and often miss the bigger (albeit far less visible) picture. Similar to sneezing and blowing your nose when you’re sick, being distracted and overwhelmed are just symptoms of information overload. You can turn off notifications and delete all the bookmarks/podcasts you’ve saved for “one day”. It will help, the same way taking cold medicine will temporarily clear your mind and help you get through the day. But what is the real problem? And is there a healthier, more long-term solution?
You might remember that I’ve been feeling as though we are close to reaching a critical mass. There is simply too much content now, and the overwhelming amount of choice tends to cause people to opt out altogether, or go back to what they already know. I see this happening all around me, including in myself. And I don’t necessarily like it, but am usually on the side of doing what feels right for you, so that’s the way it has been lately. You might think opting out would come pretty easily to me, at this point, and in a few cases that’s been true. But I’ve also hesitated with opting out of content. I’ve stopped before hitting the unsubscribe button and essentially asked myself the same question over and over again: are you sure? And then comes the real problem. Rolling around in my head is the bigger picture—or rather, the stories.
The reason we struggle with information overload isn’t just because of how much there is; it’s also because of the stories we tell ourselves about the information that is available. The stories we tell ourselves about why we should subscribe. The stories we tell ourselves about why we should consume the content. The stories about what we will do with the information. The stories about how it will improve our lives—or who it will help us become. When we hit the unsubscribe button, we aren’t just opting out of a list/person. We are unsubscribing from every story we’ve told ourselves about why we wanted to subscribe/follow them in the first place. And before we actually do it, we tell ourselves some more stories about why we are afraid to let go, then have to unsubscribe from those too.
It’s not easy: to choose not to consume some information that could potentially help you (or simply help you keep up with the people in your life). It feels the same as when we have a hard time decluttering/letting go of things we bought and never used. This is why we often hit delete—or simply ignore—a dozen emails from someone, before finally making the decision to hit unsubscribe. Deleting feels easier. In reality, hitting unsubscribe takes almost the same amount of time (maybe two clicks versus one, if you need to confirm it). But then, deleting or scrolling past them also takes time because it causes us to add to the stories we tell ourselves. So, do you want to live with the permanent frustration of constantly ignoring something or embrace the permanent act of letting it go? It’s not always an easy choice, I know.
If the problem is that we subscribe to things because of the stories we tell ourselves about it, the long-term solution to avoiding information overload isn’t to stop telling ourselves stories (which would be impossible). Instead, we have to change the stories, so that we ultimately subscribe to fewer things. It can be difficult, especially if you’ve been telling yourself some of the same stories for decades. But what could happen if you tried? I’m intentionally using the word “could” because we are all individuals and there are so many possibilities. :)
Personally, the new overarching story I’ve embraced is: if/when I need the information, I will be able to find it. This has helped me rewrite stories I had about needing to keep up with any one person or topic. It also helped me rewrite stories I had about needing to improve all areas of my life (and therefore needing to consume information about anything and everything under the sun). I do better work—on myself and in my actual work—when I only focus on one or two things at a time. If/when it’s time to shift gears, I trust I’ll be able to find the information I need.
How does this new story take shape in my real life? Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been unsubscribing from nearly everything, seeing if I miss any of it and creating new rules for what I will subscribe to. On the entertainment front, this means I unsubscribe from Netflix when I know it’s time for a season of work, and subscribe again when I know specific shows are back or I have more time to watch. And when it comes to things like newsletters and podcasts, I basically only subscribe to things I want to engage with. Things that will make me think or act differently. Things that really excite me. :)
That’s my current criteria, and it could change in the future, but it has created a real sense of empowerment. I feel like I’m getting more from the few things I subscribe to. I’m hitting reply to more newsletters, or taking notes during more podcasts. I’m engaged in just a few things, but it feels good. And oddly, as someone who has unsubscribed from a lot, it also feels good to miss people. I love visiting their websites or checking their podcasts again, and finding out what they’ve been up to. I’m really enjoying seeing where life has taken people—when I’m ready to see it.
To sum up these thoughts . . .
A note for consumers (all of us): consider unsubscribing from nearly everything and see what you miss. Whose emails do you genuinely want in your inbox? Whose podcasts do you most want to listen to? Subscribe again, or just visit them occasionally and see what they have to offer. If you really need the information, trust you’ll be able to find it. And in this stage of opting back in, be open to finding new things too. You won’t be the same person forever, so it makes sense that who you are today might want different content than who you were a year ago.
A note for creators: consider the language and tactics you use to get people to subscribe/follow you. Don’t make them feel bad/guilty or create a sense of scarcity. Go back to the golden rule, and trust that people will find you when they need you. Something I like to remind myself of is that people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. Imagine how much simpler this business of subscribing/unsubscribing might be, if we all embraced that statement. (Great examples of this: Josh Radnor and Austin Kleon.)
This was originally shared in my newsletter.