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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

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    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    More on Building Habits

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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