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Go on a High-Information Diet

Go on a High-Information Diet
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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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