Toward a New Vision of Productivity

This is the fifth part of a 12-part series I will be posting into January 2009, examining the current understanding of productivity and where the concept might be heading in the future. I invite Lifehack’s readers to be an active part of this conversation, both in comments here and on your own sites (if you have one). I will also soon announce some other venues where I and several others will be discussing some of the issues raised in this series. Stay tuned…

One of the oft-repeated pieces of modern-day wisdom is that there is simply too much information. We are barraged by email, RSS feeds, websites, 500 cable TV channels, satellite radio, terrestrial radio, billboards, magazines, books, direct mail, white papers, tweets, and more – and we simply aren’t equipped to handle the flow.

The phrase “information overload” gets almost 1.7 million results of Google. Dealing with this overload is at the core of Tim Ferriss’ best-selling 4-Hour Workweek. Obviously people feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information they feel they need to cope with.

Stop and think about that for a moment. We live in an information economy. In virtually every field, the difference between success and failure, between profit and loss, between growth and decline is determined by the availability of information. In most cases, it’s fair to say that information is productivity.

Clearly the inability to cope adequately with information is a major source of stress and unhappiness, and it can also seriously hamper us in our motion towards our goals, whatever those goals may be. Which means that our productivity systems need to take into account the identification, storage, processing, retrieval, and use of information. More importantly, though, our systems – or what I’m coming to think of as our “meta-system”, of which productivity habits are only a part – need to make those flows of information meaningful.

The High Information Diet

Some time ago, I suggested that Lifehack readers go on a high information diet, winnowing their pool of sources down to a manageable level using “The Input Test”. Basically, the Input Test asks you to evaluate just what you’re gaining from any source of information and whether you can gain the same thing in some other way.

The idea behind the high-information diet is similar to its nutritional analogue, the high-fiber diet. Fiber is an essential part of our diets – while a person on a diet will want to eat less food, they might want to eat more foods that are high in fiber, to take advantage of the nutritional benefits. Likewise with a high-information diet – you might need to limit your intake of data (which is what we’re really talking about; data only becomes information if it informs you somehow, and data consumed indiscriminately does not inform) but you don’t want to limit your intake of quality information. In fact, ideally you want more actionable information, and less irrelevant or non-actionable data.

The Infovore’s Dilemma

A high-information diet is only relevant, though, if the point of information is to lend us a competitive advantage of to lead us closer to achieving our goals. The reality is that, while this is often the case, it is not only the case. In fact, I’ve come to believe that when people talk about “information overload” they’re not really talking about identifying information they can act on, but something entirely different. They’re talking about recreational information – information as entertainment.

Here’s the thing: the average Westerner (along with huge numbers of non-Western elites) is trained primarily as an information processor. It’s what we do, and it’s what we’ve become good at – processing data and transforming it into actionable information. We have become “infovores”, consumers of information in the raw – grazing our way through blogs, news portals, and social media sites the way we graze snacks at the office, working our way from candy dish to vending machine to break room donuts through the course of our day.

Like the Willy Lomans of the past, the salesmen of yore who couldn’t stop selling even when they came home off the road, we never stop consuming information – it’s what makes us feel human. Information has become more than just the “stuff” we know; it has become the environment we breathe, the social context in which we live our lives.

And that’s not the whole of it. Because recreational information-seeking often helps to fill in the gaps left by jobs in which we manipulate information without meaning. So we invest ourselves in more and more obscure topics in search of the meaning that’s missing from our working lives. We don’t have too much information, we have too many interests! We crave stimulation we aren’t getting from our work.

Information Mastery

To tame information overload, then, is not simply a matter of restricting ourselves to sources that advance our immediate goals in some way. To do that, we would have to be less than human – we’d have to be working machines, and while that might sound great to employers (hopefully not the ones you and I work for, though!) it’s not at all what real personal productivity is about.

Instead, we need to rethink our relationship with information and with work. Because information is, in the end, the building material that meaning is made of. When there’s a gap between our passion and our work, we scatter our attention in search of some glimmer of meaning, and therein lies the problem not in the information itself.

When I interviewed Liz Strauss a year ago, she made a statement that has stuck with me: “If you align your head and your heart and your purpose… you’re fully self-expressed.” For Strauss, being “fully self-expressed” is akin to finding your calling. We are overwhelmed by information not because our heads are lacking, but because for most of us, our head is at odds with our heart and our purpose. Without fixing that, we are stuck in the empty pursuit of information for its own sake.

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