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Book Review: The Information Diet

Book Review: The Information Diet
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    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 21, 2021

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

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

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    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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