As I sit down to draft today’s article, I’m in a perfectly apt setting for the topic I am going to discuss. It wasn’t planned this way (I’ve had today’s topic in mind for quite some time); I take it as a pleasant coincidence.
I’m sitting in a small 400 square foot cabin on a remote corner of Martha’s Vineyard. All I can see are sand dunes covered with green shrubbery, all I can hear is the sound of crashing waves just over the dunes and the persistent hum of some nearby crickets. I can see the neighboring cabin over a hill only if I stand up and stand in a specific corner, on my tiptoes.
While there is wifi at the cabin, I have forgotten the password and I’m alone for the time being. My cell phone is on airplane mode, as there is very weak reception here and my phone will continue searching for a tower as long as it’s enabled to, thus quickly draining the battery.
In short, the setting I’m in is completely serene and optimal for some focused writing. I’m gladly embracing this forced disconnection from the world at large.
This setting has also allowed me time to reflect even more on what I’ve been thinking about for quite awhile. How can we adopt a healthy approach to dealing with the constant availability of information in our world today?
Handling Abundant Connectivity Responsibly
In typical day-to-day settings you find yourself in (i.e., not a cabin that is more or less off-the-grid), the biggest obstacles to productivity remain in front of you and/or in your pocket at all times: your computer and your cell phone.
These are two items which are getting thinner and lighter as technology evolves, yet the digital world they connect you to is only growing larger at an exponential pace.
When all the information in the world is accessible in a matter of seconds through a hand-held device in your pocket, it’s a bit of an overwhelming proposition to willingly control the perpetual desire to be seeking out something.
Be it news, insignificant Facebook and Reddit posts, or fact-checking your own thoughts through Google or Wikipedia (I can’t be the only person that does this).
Failing to acknowledge and establish a healthy relationship with this constant connectivity can be a very dangerous thing. It’s a less-than-ideal byproduct of the world we live in: the very technology enabling productivity has the power to shut it down just as easily.
There’s a Diet For That
When there is an overabundance of a resource and it’s up to individuals to control consumption of it, words such as “diet” start getting thrown around.
Suffice it to say, “information diet” is a very real term in today’s world.
There’s even a book about it (full disclosure: as of this writing, I am yet to read this book. In fact, I wasn’t even aware of its existence until doing research for this article).
In its typical context, the term infers that there is simply too much information being consumed, which can lead to overwhelm or burnout. The solution, then, is to go on an information diet and simply consume less of it. Pretty straightforward concept, right?
Today, I’d like to focus on a specific interpretation of the term which leads to a much more productive way of addressing the problem.
With any food-related diet, equally important to how much you eat is what you eat. Lots of diet programs focus heavier on the latter.
Simply eating less may help achieve the stated goal of losing weight, but it isn’t a sustainable solution. The root habits of food consumption – the types of foods you are willing to routinely put in your body – need to be addressed to make real sweeping changes which will stick.
Similarly, keeping a strict regimen with respect to the types and amounts of information you choose to consume can lead to a sustained progression towards your own growth and development.
Have you ever told yourself you want to get something done, only to find that you procrastinate and wallow around, doing anything but the task at hand?
In situations like this, how do you find yourself spending your time? Maybe you spend a few hours watching TV or a movie. Maybe you browse Facebook or check Twitter and Instagram feeds.
The danger with services like these is that they offer endless streams of information.
Therefore, the onus is on you to decide a stopping point, or when to sign off. This isn’t an easy thing to do when you are using these sources as a distraction from something else.
Do you trust your will-power to quickly turn it off or put it away? I don’t trust mine, without some intentional decision-making ability put into place.
Another dangerous aspect of these services is how significantly habit-forming they are.
It’s a double-edged sword: information that is perpetually available for consumption coupled with a perpetual desire to consume it.
Why do you think the average American watches nearly five hours of TV each day?
The Information Diet Roller Coaster
Choosing to outright stop these habits might present a temporary respite, but it’s more likely than not that the changes won’t stick. We’ve all heard of the diet roller coaster. Choosing to suddenly and completely cut out addicting information consumption habits and services will lead to the information diet roller coaster.
Do you know anyone who cancelled their Facebook account, only to show up again within a matter of weeks? That’s the information diet roller coaster working right in front of you.
I’ll tell you a secret: I was one of those people who brashly decided to eliminate social media from my life. I managed to stay off Facebook for a few weeks, but ultimately crawled back to it.
It was not all for nothing, though. When I came back I had a better understanding of how to limit my personal usage so that it wasn’t a hindrance. I was able to make some crucial mental adjustments around how it was integrated into my life.
The lesson to be learned here is that in order to make sustained changes, there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way you define the information that you are willing to consume.
Establishing A Healthy Relationship With Information Consumption
If you have ambitious personal goals for yourself, in many ways you are your own source of accountability. You could run into a situation where a self-imposed deadline or milestone is constantly pushed forward, stuck in a perpetual cycle of Parkinson’s Law.
Ever signed up to run a race and then ultimately decided not to go through with it? I’ve been there (although I’m proud to say I’ve completed far more races than I’ve bailed on).
It’s easy to let things slip and introduce habitual cycles of procrastination, especially when working on personal projects. I’m not immune to it myself; it is a constant battle to be fought. But it must be acknowledged for there to be improvement.
The Creation/Consumption Ratio
I get much more satisfaction out of life when I spend more time creating and working to improve my life.
Therefore, I find that using the resources and information available to better myself and push forward on my goals is much better than mindlessly scrolling a feed of insignificant information or watching hours of television programming.
To apply this logic on a day-to-day basis, I observe my own patterns of information consumption. Am I spending more time consuming information which will help me create, or am I spending more time on fluff that isn’t helping to better my life in some fashion?
I think of this as the creation/consumption ratio.
It isn’t an exact science; I’m constantly optimizing the idea of it for my own life. But it serves as a good overall barometer for how I am progressing on my goals at any given point in time.
Note that the creation side of this equation can be interpreted loosely. I don’t need to be explicitly creating to consider myself productive. I think of it more in terms of creating a better life for myself.
For example, let’s say you are trying to teach yourself personal finance basics. A morning spent reading personal finance blogs and learning more about the subject would be considered a productive use of time. Even though you are consuming information in a literal sense, it is being used to create a better life for yourself.
We live in an age with an unprecedented amount of information available. As a result of this, we are presented with more opportunity than ever before. This opportunity can be seized and used to improve quality of life, or it can be used to do the exact opposite.
How you choose to use the wealth of information readily available can have powerful impacts on your life.
The internet is evolving the world in front of us; it is evolving commerce and evolving the way in which we work. It is evolving the way we learn and the way we connect.
The most exciting part of this is that we are only at the beginning.
More and more people are working independently, breaking the old model of showing up to an office every day. This way of living and working isn’t quite the norm yet, but it will certainly become more and more prevalent over the decades to come.
We are lucky to be at the forefront of such an evolution; we are lucky to live in a time in which opportunity for personal improvement and advancement is so abundant.
Are you using the connectivity of today’s world to your advantage? Are you embracing the opportunity to be extraordinary?
Great reflections Andrew!
I identify with a lot of this. Last year I went on an ‘information holiday’ in which I consciously paused all consumption for a week. The number of times I observed myself mindlessly reaching for the phone.. I did it as a response to seeing how much I produce and create, but never finish. My folders are brimming with ideas and writing that have never been shared or explored further. It gave me a much more conscious relationship with information. That said, I could currently use more focus again.
The notion of a diet is not a sustainable solution in any part of life, I agree. A conscious break – yes. Working with constraint and will power as a regular strategy – no. That demands precious energy and costs us joy on a daily basis. We need to create patterns of flow that works -for- us. I find that routines and conscious habit forming is key for me here 🙂
Where are you at with that?
I really enjoy both your reflections and writing style – keep sharing! I see a book in there 🙂
Thanks for the comment Mari! I remember when I “gave up” Facebook by de-activating my account, how many times I caught myself with my phone in my hands and the app open. It was actually really startling.
Information…no matter how trivial or useless…really is addicting.
We all go through ebbs/flows with creativity and productivity, I have my days where I feel like I couldn’t write down a worthy thought if someone threw money in my face to do it. But I find that learning how to get un-stuck from those ruts is actually pretty easy and you can turn around the mindset pretty quickly. In fact, I think I just got an idea for a future article.
So where am I with it? It’s a constant battle, just as with the ebb and flow, my ability to have healthy boundaries and enable productivity goes up and down on any given day.
But similar to how I feel after eating a large meal of junk food (awful and sluggish), that’s also how my mind feels after consuming a bunch of fluff just to cram into my head because I’m bored or uneasy.
It’s funny how our emotional states are so intertwined.
And thanks as always for the words of encouragement, it really helps push me to keep going!
Glad to hear you’re practicing – I am too. Takes a while to find your flow on this, and it’s not a constant either.
I’ve noticed that if I am mindful with reaching for the phone (and stay logged out of Facebook on the phone), I’m on a very good path.
I think the overload happens because we don’t allow those quiet pockets in our day. When we go get coffee / a walk / even to the toilet, we bring information consumption with us on the phone.
It’s in those quiet spaces reflection + connection of new ideas happen.
Your article served as a new reminder for me to leave the phone and keep those small breaks info-consumption free 🙂
I think the concept of an information “diet” is a very interesting idea. For me I have trouble with getting to my email account on yahoo because on the yahoo homepage I get stuck looking at all the headlines and news stories. Finally after like 30 minutes I go to my inbox. To fix the problem, I removed yahoo from my bookmark bar and replaced it with “yahoo mail”. Now I click on yahoo mail and go straight to my inbox instead of arriving at the yahoo homepage. Another thing that robs me of valuable time is fantasy football. To fix this problem, I removed the fantasy football app from my phone. Now I can only access it from my computer. Problem not totally fixed, but at least now I don’t use my phone for fantasy football anymore. I agree that it is not sustainable to practice total elimination of bad habits. Of course you can try, and if it works then great. But I think there are little things anyone can do to drastically alter their habits without the requirement of total elimination. I think it helps a lot to make access to certain information more difficult than it normally would be. It doesn’t necessarily mean total elimination of that access, just a greater hassle to overcome in order to access it.
Sounds like some smart moves on your part to eliminate some of the less desirable things that end up consuming lots of your time! Good job. You are on the right track. Awareness is really the main thing you need. No one is perfect, but having an awareness of your patterns and knowing how you feel about them is enough to make some adjustments that will help.
The most productive and happy days I have is when I don’t turn on any technology. However with a iPad being so excessible and easy to use, checking for emails and facebook comments are hard to ignore. But knowing my day is happier and more productive is a incentive to avoid it and put it out of sight and therefore, out of mind. But I’m writing on your blog so I haven’t totally abandoned its use. Ha! A lot of things in life are good as long as they are respected and not used to the extreme but when they are over used, they become bad for you, and can control you. Technology most definitely can become a addiction. I prefer to turn it off and do the things in life I really enjoy doing and that’s being productive instead of looking at some screen. Take a breath of fresh air and enjoy. There is no end to the discussion of this topic.
Thanks for reading! One thing I’ve found that helps prevent constant checking of various applications is to disable the notifications/alerts. That way you won’t get a pop-up or an icon on your screen every time there is something to check. It really helps a lot, when there is a notification to check it’s almost automatic that you will want to check it right away. Not having the alerts removes the urgency.
A great post, Andrew! I think about this all the time, actually–the endless and consuming battle between man and information-machine, that is.
The pros of it all–as you thoughtfully and, in my opinion, accurately–pointed out are that we have a constant wealth of information at our finger tips….Wow. Wow. Wow! Anything we want to know we can know at the swipe of a finger. That’s pretty incredible, if you ask me. I imagine if you explained this to history’s greatest thinkers from the pre-internet days they would envy us. They would think we held the equivalent of a philosopher’s stone in our very palms. But they weren’t expected to know the way that we know. Their ceiling of knowledge in many ways, was much lower. Where as ours is seemingly infinite.
The constant influx of information via modern technology that we paradoxically have come to love and dread, in my opinion, has set a standard of knowledge and knowledge-seeking initiative that, perhaps, generations and well-developed societies before us did not know. Are we expected to know simply because we can know? Are we expected to seek answers simply because we can seek answers, because we have the means to do so? If so, how does this affect our need to constantly be “on”?
I cannot help but wonder if our mindless and increasingly robotic tendencies to check social media and scroll through endless .coms, is fueled by a subconscious desire to “know” because that’s what the rest of the first-world is doing–they’re knowing. They’re “knowing” who got married. They’re knowing who travelled to Paris last week. They’re knowing what TV show that meme was taken from.They’re “knowing” how to cook a London broil. You get the point.
I am guilty of “dieting” from social media. The diets don’t last long and I usually return to the internet with a ravaging and satiating hunger for news-feeds and information about what the rest of the world has been doing since I left. I come back because I want to know and my world has taught me that that is what I should be doing.
Anyways, just some thoughts. You gave me a lot to think about.
Very well put! I like what you said about the motivation to “know” because everyone else is doing it. Very similar to the “fear of missing out” which is so rampant these days. Almost like a meta version of that. Fear of not knowing what you are missing out on!