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Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 5: Drowning in Information

Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 5: Drowning in Information

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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

    More by this author

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Building Relationships: 11 Rules for Self-Promotion

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    Last Updated on September 10, 2019

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    Do you know that prioritization is an art? It is an art that will lead you to success in whatever area that matters to you.

    By prioritization, I’m not talking so much about assigning tasks, but deciding which will take chronological priority in your day—figuring out which tasks you’ll do first, and which you’ll leave to last.

    Effective Prioritization

    There are two approaches to “prioritizing” the tasks in your to-do list that I see fairly often:

    Approach #1 Tackling the Biggest Tasks First and Getting Them out of the Way

    The idea is that by tackling them first, you deal with the pressure and anxiety that builds up and prevents you from getting anything done—whether we’re talking about big or small tasks. Leo Babauta is a proponent of this Big Rocks method.[1]

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    Approach #2 Tackling the Tasks You Can Get Done Quickly and Easily, with Minimal Effort

    Proponents of this method believe that by tackling the small fries first, you’ll have less noise distracting you from the periphery of your consciousness.

    If you believe in getting your email read and responded to, making phone calls and getting Google Reader zeroed before you dive into the high-yield work, you’re a proponent of this method. I suppose you could say Getting Things Done (GTD) encourages this sort of method, since the methodology advises followers to tackle tasks that can be completed within two minutes, right there and then.

    Figure out Your Approach for Prioritization

    My own approach is perhaps a mixture of the two.

    I’ll write out my daily task list and draw little priority stars next to the three items I need to get done that day. They don’t need to be big tasks, but nine times out of ten, they are.

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    Smaller tasks are rarely important enough to warrant a star in the first place; I can always get away without even checking my inbox until the next day if I’m swamped, and the people who need to get in touch with me super quickly know how.

    But I’m not recommending my system of prioritization to you. I’m also not saying that mine is better than Leo’s Big Rocks method, and I’m not saying it’s better than the “if it can be done quickly, do it first” method either.

    The thing with prioritization is that knowing when to do what relies very much on you and the way you work. Some people need to get some small work done to find a sense of accomplishment and clarity that allows them to focus on and tackle bigger items. Others need to deal with the big tasks or they’ll get caught up in the busywork of the day and never move on, especially when that Google Reader count just refuses to get zeroed (personally, I recommend the Mark All As Read button—I use it most days!).

    I’m in between, because my own patterns can be all over the place. Some days I will be ready to rip into massive projects at 7AM. Other times I’ll feel the need to zero every inbox I have and clean up the papers on my desk before I can focus on anything serious. I also know that my peak, efficient working time doesn’t come at 11AM or 3PM or some specific time like it does for many people, but I have several peaks divided by a few troughs. I can feel what’s coming on when and try to keep my schedule liquid enough that I can adapt.

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    That’s why I use a starred task list system rather than a scheduled task list. It allows me to trust myself (something that I suppose takes a certain amount of discipline) and achieve peak efficiency by blowing with the winds. If I fight the peaks and troughs, I’ll get less done; but if I do certain kinds of work in each period of the day as they come, I’ll get more done than most others in a similar line of work.

    You may not be able to trust yourself to that extent without falling into the busywork trap. You may not be able to tackle big tasks first thing in the morning without feeling like you’re pushing against an invisible brick wall that won’t budge. You might not be able to deal with small tasks before the big tasks without feeling pangs of guilt and urgency.

    My point is:

    The prioritization systems themselves don’t matter. They’re all pretty good for a group of people, not least of all to the people who espouse them because they use them and find them effective.

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    What matters is that you don’t fall for one set of dogma (and I’m not saying Leo Babauta or David Allen preach these things as dogma, but sometimes their proponents do) until you’ve tried the systems extensively, and found which method of chronological prioritization works for you.

    And if the system you already use works great, then there’s no need to bother trying others—in the world of personal productivity, it’s too easy to mess with something that works and find yourself unable to get back into your former groove.

    “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

    In truth, this principle applies to all sorts of personal productivity issues, though it’s important to know which issues it applies to.

    If you thought multitasking worked well for you each day and I’d have to contend that you are wrong—multitasking is a universal myth in my books! But if you find yourself prioritizing tasks that never get done, you might need to reconsider which of the above approaches you’re using and change to a system that is more personally effective.

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    Featured photo credit: Sabri Tuzcu via unsplash.com

    Reference

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