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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 April 19, 2021

    The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

    The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

    Think of yourself as a cup. Each day, you wake up full. But as you go about your day—getting tasks done and interacting with people—the amount in your cup gradually gets lower. And as such, you get less and less effective at whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. You’re running out of steam.

    The solution is obvious: if you don’t have anything left to pour out, then you need to find a way to fill yourself up again. In work terms, that means you should take a break—an essential form of revitalizing your motivation and focus.

    Taking a break may get a bad rap in hustle culture, but it’s an essential, science-based way to ensure you have the capacity to live your life the way you want to live it.

    In the 1980s, when scientists began researching burnout, they described this inner capacity as “resources.” We all need to replenish our resources to cope with stress, work effectively, and avoid burnout.[1]

    When the goal is to get things done, it may sound counterproductive to stop what you’re doing. But if you embrace the art of taking a break, you can be more efficient and effective at work.

    Here are five ways on how you can take a break and boost your productivity.

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    1. Break for the Right Amount of Time, at the Right Time

    When I started my first job out of college, I was bent on pleasing my boss as most entry-level employees do. So, every day, I punched in at 9 AM on the dot, took a 60-minute lunch break at noon, and left no earlier than 5 PM.

    As I’ve logged more hours in my career, I’ve realized the average, eight-hour workday with an hour lunch break simply isn’t realistic—especially if your goal is to put your best foot forward at work.

    That’s why popular productivity techniques like the Pomodoro advocate for the “sprint” principle. Basically, you work for a short burst, then stop for a short, five-minute break. While the Pomodoro technique is a step forward, more recent research shows a shorter burst of working followed by a longer pause from work might actually be a more effective way to get the most out of stepping away from your desk.

    The team at DeskTime analyzed more than 5 million records of how workers used their computers on the job. They found that the most productive people worked an average of 52 minutes, then took a 17-minute break afterward.[2]

    What’s so special about those numbers? Leave it to neuroscience. According to researchers, the human brain naturally works in spurts of activity that last an hour. Then, it toggles to “low-activity mode.”[3]

    Even so, keep in mind that whatever motivates you is the most effective method. It’s more about the premise—when you know you have a “finish line” approaching, you can stay focused on the task or project at hand.

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    There are many applications and tools that can help you block distracting websites and apps (such as social media) for specific periods of the day. Similarly, you can also use some mailing apps like Mailbrew to receive all the social media content or newsletters you don’t want to miss in your inbox at a time you decide.

    So, no matter how long you work, take a break when you sense you’re losing steam or getting bored with the task. Generally, a 10-15 minute break should reinvigorate you for whatever’s coming next.

    2. Get a Change of Scenery—Ideally, Outdoors

    When it comes to increasing a person’s overall mental health, there’s no better balm than nature. Research has found that simply being outside can restore a person’s mind from mental fatigue related to work or studying, ultimately contributing to improved work performance (and even improved work satisfaction).[4]

    No lush forest around? Urban nature can be just as effective to get the most out of your break-taking. Scientists Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson, in their book The Biophilia Hypothesis, claimed that even parks, outdoor paths, and building designs that embrace “urban nature” can lend a sense of calm and inspiration, encouraging learning and alertness for workers.

    3. Move Your Body

    A change of scenery can do wonders for your attention span and ability to focus, but it’s even more beneficial if you pair it with physical movement to pump up that adrenaline of yours. Simply put, your body wasn’t designed to be seated the entire day. In fact, scientists now believe that extended periods of sitting are just as dangerous to health as smoking.[5]

    It’s not always feasible to enjoy the benefits of a 30-minute brisk walk during your workday, especially since you’ll most likely have less energy during workdays. But the good news is, for productivity purposes, you don’t have to. Researchers found that just 10 minutes of exercise can boost your memory and attention span throughout the entire day.[6]

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    So, instead of using your break to sit and read the news or scroll your social media account, get out of your chair and move your body. Take a quick walk around the block. Do some jumping jacks in your home office. Whatever you choose, you’ll likely find yourself with a sharper focus—and more drive to get things done.

    4. Connect With Another Person

    Social connection is one of the most important factors for resilience. When we’re in a relationship with other people, it’s easier to cope with stress—and in my experience, getting social can also help to improve focus after a work break.

    One of my favorite ways to break after a 30-or-so minute sprint is to hang out with my family. And once a week, I carve out time to Skype my relatives back in Turkey. It’s amazing how a bit of levity and emotional connection can rev me up for the next work sprint.

    Now that most of us are working from home, getting some face-to-face time with a loved one isn’t as hard as it once was. So, take the time to chat with your partner. Take your kids outside to run around the backyard. If you live alone, call a friend or relative. Either way, coming up for air to chat with someone who knows and cares about you will leave you feeling invigorated and inspired.

    5. Use Your Imagination

    When you’re working with your head down, your brain has an ongoing agenda: get things done, and do it well. That can be an effective method for productivity, but it only lasts so long—especially because checking things off your to-do list isn’t the only ingredient to success at work. You also need innovation.

    That’s why I prioritize a “brain break” every day. When I feel my “cup” getting empty, I usually choose another creative activity to exercise my brain, like a Crossword puzzle, Sudoku, or an unrelated, creative project in my house.

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    And when I’m really struggling to focus, I don’t do anything at all. Instead, I let my brain roam free for a bit, following my thoughts down whatever trail they lead me. As it turns out, there’s a scientific benefit to daydreaming. It reinforces creativity and helps you feel more engaged with the world, which will only benefit you in your work.[7]

    Whether you help your kids with their distance learning homework, read an inspiring book, or just sit quietly to enjoy some fresh air, your brain will benefit from an opportunity to think and feel without an agenda. And, if you’re anything like me, you might just come up with your next great idea when you aren’t even trying.

    Final Thoughts

    Most of us have to work hard for our families and ourselves. And the current world we live in demands the highest level of productivity that we can offer. However, we also have to take a break once in a while. We are humans, after all.

    Learning the art of properly taking a break will not only give you the rest you need but also increase your productivity in the long run.

    More on the Importance of Taking a Break

    Featured photo credit: Helena Lopes via unsplash.com

    Reference

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