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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.

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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!

    More About Goals Setting

    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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