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Go on a High-Information Diet

Go on a High-Information Diet
Go on a High-Information Diet

Everywhere you turn these days people are complaining about too much information. The phrase “information overload” gets more than 1.5 million hits on Google. (This post makes it one more!) Everyone seems to think that if they could just reduce the flow of information into their lives, everything would be all better. They could finally relax and take a minute to catch up.

My advice is the opposite: you don’t need less information, you need more information. What you need less of is input — all the crap that flows at you masquerading as information.

Listen: in order to be information, an input must make you better informed. Frankly, inputs that meet that criteria are so comparatively rare next to the reality TV, junk mail, forwarded virus warnings, and local news programs that fill our lives, you’d be a fool to turn your back on them. By definition, you can’t have too much information; when an input, no matter how good, ceases to inform you, it is no longer information.

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Though his heart’s in the right place, Tim Ferriss’ idea of a “low-information diet” is a step entirely in the wrong direction (to be fair, the steps he advocates aren’t really a low-information diet; it’s the name that’s misleading). You don’t need less information — if anything, you need more. What you need less of are the multiple (and multiplying) inputs in your life that contain no information at all, the equivalent of a diet high in fat and high-fructose corn syrup without any protein or fiber.

Ferriss knows this. Despite the name “low-information diet”, he has selected a very controlled set of inputs to allow into his life, each carefully chosen to maximize the flow of information and minimize the crap.

A nation of the uninformed

You probably think you’re pretty well-informed. Within your very narrow field of specialization, you probably are. But outside of your own little niche, are you really very well-informed? Have you taken in any information about science, history, art, literature, economics, politics, world culture, geography, foreign languages, or any other aspect of the world around you since high school? Or do you shy away from real information, preferring the “infotainment” of 24-hour news networks, 4-color national newspapers, tabloids, afternoon talk shows, and movies of the week?

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You’d be in good company. Research shows that the vast majority of Americans didn’t read a single book last year — and most haven’t read a book by choice since graduating high school or college. Americans are painfully unaware of the details of even the largest events in our lives, with more Americans still believing Iraqis attacked the World Trade Center on 9/11 — and being unable to find Iraq on a world map. And forget about stories that affect us less directly, like the genocide in Darfur! We are a nation of people who constantly react to the various inputs in our lives in the absence of information.

Instead, we subsist on a low-information diet of “comfort food” — channels of communication that serve little purpose other than to reassure us that we are still connected. Let me give you an example: parents who choose not to allow their children to watch TV are often criticized by people who worry that, without the ability to watch TV, the kids will not be able to take part in discussions about pop culture with their peers. It’s not just kids, either — time was when grown-ups, too, made sure to see “Must-See TV” like Seinfeld so they wouldn’t feel left out around the water-cooler the next day.

There’s a place in a healthy culture for this, of course. Anthropologists even have a name for it: the “phatic function” of language. The archetype of phatic communication is when you’re walking down the hall and see someone you know coming in the other direction. As you pass, one of you says “How ya doing?” and the other replies “Good, you?” No actual information has been exchanged — neither of you actually knows anything about the other person’s mental, physical, or emotional condition — but you’ve “pinged” each other, assuring yourselves that the channel of communication remains open.

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This is important, since we humans are intensely social creatures. But when more and more of our input channels are this kind of “comfort food”, little real information can occur.

The Input Test

Just as you read the side of boxes to determine whether the food you buy is any good for you, I want to suggest you look at the “nutrition information” on your inputs and see if they contain any actual information. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is this input making me better informed? If yes, you’re good to go. If no, then;
  2. Is there any entertainment or social value I receive from this input? If no, delete the input. If yes, it may be worth keeping — we need to be entertained sometimes, and we need to stay in touch.
  3. Is the entertainment or social value worth the time and effort to maintain the input? Are you getting 30 minutes of good entertainment value from your 22 minutes plus commercials of sitcom watching? Is the email newsletter from your favorite charity worth the time to read and delete it? Weigh every input against the time it takes to process and see if, were it gone, your life wouldn’t be just as good or even better.

Apply the Input Test to your email newsletters, RSS feeds, TV selections, magazine subscriptions, podcasts, and so on. Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of keeping something around in case someday in the future something important comes down the tube! There’s no piece of information so important that it can only be found amid a heaping mountain of crap — and so rare that you won’t find out about it otherwise.

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Here are a few more tips in closing:

  • Avoid anything billed as “infotainment”. Infotainment, that bastard child of the mass media’s onanistic self-importance, is supposed to be information combined with entertainment; far more often, it’s neither.
  • If you find yourself nodding enthusiastically in agreement with everything someone says — even me! — chances are you are not being informed.
  • Turn off your TV. (Yeah, like that’s going to happen…)
  • Shoot your TV. 550,000 Elvises can’t be wrong.
  • One in, two out. Don’t add another RSS feed without deleting two. (But not this one!) Don’t subscribe to an email list unless you first unsubscribe from two. And so on.
  • Have goals. Make sure every input in your life has a purpose — and delete it when it no longer serves that purpose. You might subscribe to a magazine to get a free book bag — fine. If the goal has been met, go ahead and throw out the magazine — don’t feel obligated to maintain an input once it’s achieved its purpose.

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Last Updated on April 8, 2019

22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

Unless you’re infinitely rich or prepared to rack up major debt, you need to budget your income. Setting limits on how much you are willing to spend helps control expenses. But what about your time? Do you budget your time or spend it carelessly?

Deadlines are the chronological equivalent of a budget. By setting aside a portion of time to complete a task, goal or project in advance you avoid over-spending. Deadlines can be helpful but they can also be a source of frustration if set improperly. Here are some tips for making deadlines work:

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  1. Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.
  2. Timebox – Set small deadlines of 60-90 minutes to work on a specific task. After the time is up you finish. This cuts procrastinating and forces you to use your time wisely.
  3. 80/20 – The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the value is contained in 20% of the input. Apply this rule to projects to focus on that critical 20% first and fill out the other 80% if you still have time.
  4. Project VS Deadline – The more flexible your project, the stricter your deadline. If a task has relatively little flexibility in completion a softer deadline will keep you sane. If the task can grow easily, keep a tight deadline to prevent waste.
  5. Break it Down – Any deadline over one day should be broken down into smaller units. Long deadlines fail to motivate if they aren’t applied to manageable units.
  6. Hofstadter’s Law – Basically this law states that it always takes longer than you think. A rule I’ve heard in software development is to double the time you think you need. Then add six months. Be patient and give yourself ample time for complex projects.
  7. Backwards Planning – Set the deadline first and then decide how you will achieve it. This approach is great when choices are abundant and projects could go on indefinitely.
  8. Prototype – If you are attempting something new, test out smaller versions of a project to help you decide on a final deadline. Write a 10 page e-book before your 300 page novel or try to increase your income by 10% before aiming to double it.
  9. Find the Weak Link – Figure out what could ruin your plans and accomplish it first. Knowing the unknown can help you format your deadlines.
  10. No Robot Deadlines – Robots can work without sleep, relaxation or distractions. You aren’t a robot. Don’t schedule your deadline with the expectation you can work sixteen hour days to complete it. Deathmarches aren’t healthy.
  11. Get Feedback – Get a realistic picture from people working with you. Giving impossible deadlines to contractors or employees will only build resentment.
  12. Continuous Planning – If you use a backwards planning model, you need to constantly be updating plans to fit your deadline. This means making cuts, additions or refinements so the project will fit into the expected timeframe.
  13. Mark Excess Baggage – Identify areas of a task or project that will be ignored if time grows short. What e-mails will you have to delete if it takes too long to empty your inbox? What features will your product lack if you need a rapid finish?
  14. Review – For deadlines over a month long take a weekly review to track your progress. This will help you identify methods you can use to speed up work and help you plan more efficiently for the future.
  15. Find Shortcuts – Almost any task or project has shortcuts you can use to save time. Is there a premade library you can use instead of building your own functions? An autoresponder to answer similar e-mails? An expert you can call to help solve a problem?
  16. Churn then Polish – Set a strict deadline for basic completion and then set a more comfortable deadline to enhance and polish afterwards. Often churning out the basics of a task quickly will require no more polishing afterwards than doing it slowly.
  17. Reminders – Post reminders of your deadlines everywhere. Creating a sense of urgency with your deadlines is necessary to keep them from getting pushed aside by distractions.
  18. Forward Planning – Not mutually exclusive with backwards planning, this involves planning the details of a project out before setting a deadline. Great for achieving clarity about what you are trying to accomplish before making arbitrary time limits.
  19. Set a Timer – Get one that beeps. Somehow the countdown of a timer appears more realistic for a ninety minute timebox than just glancing at your clock.
  20. Write them Down – Any deadline over a few hours needs to be written down. Otherwise it is an inclination not a goal. Having written deadlines makes them more tangible than internal decisions alone.
  21. Cheap/Fast/Good – Ben Casnocha in My Start Up Life mentions that you can have only have two of the three. Pick two of the cheap/fast/good dimensions before starting a project to help you prioritize.
  22. Be Patient – Using a deadline may seem to be the complete opposite of patience. But being patient with inflexible tasks is necessary to focus on their completion. The paradox is that the more patient you are, the more you can focus. The more you can focus the quicker the results will come!

Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

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