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Book Review: The Information Diet

Book Review: The Information Diet

    According to Clay Johnson, the author of the newly published and released book The Information Diet, we as information workers and seekers are bloated on what our televisions and our mainstream media outlets give us as “news” and need to redefine our information consumption as badly as we need to redefine our food diets. We don’t consume information deliberately and the information that we do consume is usually biased towards what we already believe. This can not only misinform us but can also waste our time and help us engrain biases that we have built up in our lives.

    Clay Johnson is the founder of Blue State Digital which was the company that built and ran President Obama’s campaign for presidency in 2008. But, hold on you conservatives; Johnson does a decent job of keeping many of his political views out of this book.

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    Instead of following our information bias and catering to it, Johnson suggests that we challenge our ideas and also get to the bottom of the “information trophic pyramid.” A trophic pyramid is basically a way to describe an ecosystem with the primary producers at the base (where the most energy is stored) with smaller groups of consumers at the top. Johnson uses this model to describe how our “information diets” need to be shaped; we need to grab our information as close to the source as possible and synthesize it for ourselves.

    The poor diet analogy

    Johnson says that our information diets are made up of too much entertainment and information that affirms what we already believe (mass affirmation) and he compares this to your poor American diets. We consume whatever “tastes the best” and almost ignore everything else.

    It’s a good analogy, comparing and criticizing our standard American diet, one of too many bad fats, processed carbs, and not enough “real” ingredients, but after several chapters of building up the analogy I almost felt that I needed an information diet from The Information Diet. That may be harsh, but the historical information about how our food is processed is nothing new and I feel that Johnson could have written less about food and more about how we should process information as well as the best places to get it.

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    How to consume information

    In the second part of the book, Johnson goes on to explain how we should consume our information. He simplifies it the most saying that we should, “Consume deliberately. Take in information over affirmation.” This is a great quote to remember as we go through our day, but can be a bit simplistic for someone that wants to totally revamp the way that they consume and process information. That may be the point, but it feels that Johnson took this simplistic approach almost too far and left out a lot of information in this section of the book making it quite open-ended for the reader.

    The chapters that actually contained “The Information Diet” felt too short and gave a lot of tips and tricks about obtaining, consuming, and spending time with our information that have been old hat for many information workers and creators. Johnson suggests consuming information that is as close to the source as possible, lacks a strong bias, and that we consume this information deliberately throughout our day by following a a schedule. Johnson considers basically anything that we watch through a screen as a form of information and that we should try very hard to stick to around 6 hours to that type of consumption a day, leaving the rest for time to create and spend quality time with friends and family.

    Johnson also recommends some great tools for keeping track of your time like RescueTime and also tools for making your web reading better and less advertisement-prone like Instapaper and Readability.

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    Getting involved

    One of my favorite portions of the book is the “Dear Programmer” section (probably has nothing to do with me being a developer) where Johnson makes a call out to developers to try to get involved in creating tools that help citizens dicipher complex information and help out local governments with creating tools and services that make them more efficient. I believe that Johnson could have devoted even more time to this in the book, but it appears that his website is going to help with pushing local “Information Diet” meetup groups where developers and creatives can get involved.

    Johnson also recommends getting involved with the group Hacks/Hackers which is a group that tries to connect journalists (hacks) and developers (hackers) to work on joint ventures and ways to create better outlets for media.

    Conclusion

    The Information Diet is definitely the kind of book that we need to read going into 2012 with all of the junk information online and on our TVs trying to creep into our lives and not making us think critically. Johnson makes a good argument of why we need to get our information closer to the source and how to manage our time when it comes to consuming it, but I feel that there is too much discussion of food and how it relates to our information diet. I understand that Johnson is trying to make his point and view a stronger one, but more time could have been spent in the second and third sections of the book explaining how we need to critique the information that we consume.

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    Should you buy the book? For a measly $10 for the Kindle version, I think that the Information Diet has more good information in it than not, with the second and third sections of the book being the most practical.

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    CM Smith

    A technologist and writer who shares advice on personal productivity, creativity and how to use technology to get things done.

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    Last Updated on July 10, 2020

    The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

    The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

    Life is wasted in the in-between times. The time between when your alarm first rings and when you finally decide to get out of bed. The time between when you sit at your desk and when productive work begins. The time between making a decision and doing something about it.

    Slowly, your day is whittled away from all the unused in-between moments. Eventually, time wasters, laziness, and procrastination get the better of you.

    The solution to reclaim these lost middle moments is by creating rituals. Every culture on earth uses rituals to transfer information and encode behaviors that are deemed important. Personal rituals can help you build a better pattern for handling everything from how you wake up to how you work.

    Unfortunately, when most people see rituals, they see pointless superstitions. Indeed, many rituals are based on a primitive understanding of the world. But by building personal rituals, you get to encode the behaviors you feel are important and cut out the wasted middle moments.

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    Program Your Own Algorithms

    Another way of viewing rituals is by seeing them as computer algorithms. An algorithm is a set of instructions that is repeated to get a result.

    Some algorithms are highly efficient, sorting or searching millions of pieces of data in a few seconds. Other algorithms are bulky and awkward, taking hours to do the same task.

    By forming rituals, you are building algorithms for your behavior. Take the delayed and painful pattern of waking up, debating whether to sleep in for another two minutes, hitting the snooze button, repeat until almost late for work. This could be reprogrammed to get out of bed immediately, without debating your decision.

    How to Form a Ritual

    I’ve set up personal rituals for myself for handling e-mail, waking up each morning, writing articles, and reading books. Far from making me inflexible, these rituals give me a useful default pattern that works best 99% of the time. Whenever my current ritual won’t work, I’m always free to stop using it.

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    Forming a ritual isn’t too difficult, and the same principles for changing habits apply:

    1. Write out your sequence of behavior. I suggest starting with a simple ritual of only 3-4 steps maximum. Wait until you’ve established a ritual before you try to add new steps.
    2. Commit to following your ritual for thirty days. This step will take the idea and condition it into your nervous system as a habit.
    3. Define a clear trigger. When does your ritual start? A ritual to wake up is easy—the sound of your alarm clock will work. As for what triggers you to go to the gym, read a book or answer e-mail—you’ll have to decide.
    4. Tweak the Pattern. Your algorithm probably won’t be perfectly efficient the first time. Making a few tweaks after the first 30-day trial can make your ritual more useful.

    Ways to Use a Ritual

    Based on the above ideas, here are some ways you could implement your own rituals:

    1. Waking Up

    Set up a morning ritual for when you wake up and the next few things you do immediately afterward. To combat the grogginess after immediately waking up, my solution is to do a few pushups right after getting out of bed. After that, I sneak in ninety minutes of reading before getting ready for morning classes.

    2. Web Usage

    How often do you answer e-mail, look at Google Reader, or check Facebook each day? I found by taking all my daily internet needs and compressing them into one, highly-efficient ritual, I was able to cut off 75% of my web time without losing any communication.

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    3. Reading

    How much time do you get to read books? If your library isn’t as large as you’d like, you might want to consider the rituals you use for reading. Programming a few steps to trigger yourself to read instead of watching television or during a break in your day can chew through dozens of books each year.

    4. Friendliness

    Rituals can also help with communication. Set up a ritual of starting a conversation when you have opportunities to meet people.

    5. Working

    One of the hardest barriers when overcoming procrastination is building up a concentrated flow. Building those steps into a ritual can allow you to quickly start working or continue working after an interruption.

    6. Going to the gym

    If exercising is a struggle, encoding a ritual can remove a lot of the difficulty. Set up a quick ritual for going to exercise right after work or when you wake up.

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    7. Exercise

    Even within your workouts, you can have rituals. Spacing the time between runs or reps with a certain number of breaths can remove the guesswork. Forming a ritual of doing certain exercises in a particular order can save time.

    8. Sleeping

    Form a calming ritual in the last 30-60 minutes of your day before you go to bed. This will help slow yourself down and make falling asleep much easier. Especially if you plan to get up full of energy in the morning, it will help if you remove insomnia.

    8. Weekly Reviews

    The weekly review is a big part of the GTD system. By making a simple ritual checklist for my weekly review, I can get the most out of this exercise in less time. Originally, I did holistic reviews where I wrote my thoughts on the week and progress as a whole. Now, I narrow my focus toward specific plans, ideas, and measurements.

    Final Thoughts

    We all want to be productive. But time wasters, procrastination, and laziness sometimes get the better of us. If you’re facing such difficulties, don’t be afraid to make use of these rituals to help you conquer them.

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    Featured photo credit: RODOLFO BARRETO via unsplash.com

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