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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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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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