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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 January 21, 2020

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

How to Self-Taught Effectively

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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