Go on a High-Information Diet

Everywhere you turn these days people are complaining about too much information. The phrase “information overload” gets more than 1.5 million hits on Google. (This post makes it one more!) Everyone seems to think that if they could just reduce the flow of information into their lives, everything would be all better. They could finally relax and take a minute to catch up.

My advice is the opposite: you don’t need less information, you need more information. What you need less of is input — all the crap that flows at you masquerading as information.

Listen: in order to be information, an input must make you better informed. Frankly, inputs that meet that criteria are so comparatively rare next to the reality TV, junk mail, forwarded virus warnings, and local news programs that fill our lives, you’d be a fool to turn your back on them. By definition, you can’t have too much information; when an input, no matter how good, ceases to inform you, it is no longer information.

Though his heart’s in the right place, Tim Ferriss’ idea of a “low-information diet” is a step entirely in the wrong direction (to be fair, the steps he advocates aren’t really a low-information diet; it’s the name that’s misleading). You don’t need less information — if anything, you need more. What you need less of are the multiple (and multiplying) inputs in your life that contain no information at all, the equivalent of a diet high in fat and high-fructose corn syrup without any protein or fiber.

Ferriss knows this. Despite the name “low-information diet”, he has selected a very controlled set of inputs to allow into his life, each carefully chosen to maximize the flow of information and minimize the crap.

A nation of the uninformed

You probably think you’re pretty well-informed. Within your very narrow field of specialization, you probably are. But outside of your own little niche, are you really very well-informed? Have you taken in any information about science, history, art, literature, economics, politics, world culture, geography, foreign languages, or any other aspect of the world around you since high school? Or do you shy away from real information, preferring the “infotainment” of 24-hour news networks, 4-color national newspapers, tabloids, afternoon talk shows, and movies of the week?

You’d be in good company. Research shows that the vast majority of Americans didn’t read a single book last year — and most haven’t read a book by choice since graduating high school or college. Americans are painfully unaware of the details of even the largest events in our lives, with more Americans still believing Iraqis attacked the World Trade Center on 9/11 — and being unable to find Iraq on a world map. And forget about stories that affect us less directly, like the genocide in Darfur! We are a nation of people who constantly react to the various inputs in our lives in the absence of information.

Instead, we subsist on a low-information diet of “comfort food” — channels of communication that serve little purpose other than to reassure us that we are still connected. Let me give you an example: parents who choose not to allow their children to watch TV are often criticized by people who worry that, without the ability to watch TV, the kids will not be able to take part in discussions about pop culture with their peers. It’s not just kids, either — time was when grown-ups, too, made sure to see “Must-See TV” like Seinfeld so they wouldn’t feel left out around the water-cooler the next day.

There’s a place in a healthy culture for this, of course. Anthropologists even have a name for it: the “phatic function” of language. The archetype of phatic communication is when you’re walking down the hall and see someone you know coming in the other direction. As you pass, one of you says “How ya doing?” and the other replies “Good, you?” No actual information has been exchanged — neither of you actually knows anything about the other person’s mental, physical, or emotional condition — but you’ve “pinged” each other, assuring yourselves that the channel of communication remains open.

This is important, since we humans are intensely social creatures. But when more and more of our input channels are this kind of “comfort food”, little real information can occur.

The Input Test

Just as you read the side of boxes to determine whether the food you buy is any good for you, I want to suggest you look at the “nutrition information” on your inputs and see if they contain any actual information. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is this input making me better informed? If yes, you’re good to go. If no, then;
  2. Is there any entertainment or social value I receive from this input? If no, delete the input. If yes, it may be worth keeping — we need to be entertained sometimes, and we need to stay in touch.
  3. Is the entertainment or social value worth the time and effort to maintain the input? Are you getting 30 minutes of good entertainment value from your 22 minutes plus commercials of sitcom watching? Is the email newsletter from your favorite charity worth the time to read and delete it? Weigh every input against the time it takes to process and see if, were it gone, your life wouldn’t be just as good or even better.

Apply the Input Test to your email newsletters, RSS feeds, TV selections, magazine subscriptions, podcasts, and so on. Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of keeping something around in case someday in the future something important comes down the tube! There’s no piece of information so important that it can only be found amid a heaping mountain of crap — and so rare that you won’t find out about it otherwise.

Here are a few more tips in closing:

  • Avoid anything billed as “infotainment”. Infotainment, that bastard child of the mass media’s onanistic self-importance, is supposed to be information combined with entertainment; far more often, it’s neither.
  • If you find yourself nodding enthusiastically in agreement with everything someone says — even me! — chances are you are not being informed.
  • Turn off your TV. (Yeah, like that’s going to happen…)
  • Shoot your TV. 550,000 Elvises can’t be wrong.
  • One in, two out. Don’t add another RSS feed without deleting two. (But not this one!) Don’t subscribe to an email list unless you first unsubscribe from two. And so on.
  • Have goals. Make sure every input in your life has a purpose — and delete it when it no longer serves that purpose. You might subscribe to a magazine to get a free book bag — fine. If the goal has been met, go ahead and throw out the magazine — don’t feel obligated to maintain an input once it’s achieved its purpose.

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