Calorie-Counting on an Information Diet

by Frost on February 16, 2011

I’ve decided to go on a diet.

No, not that kind of diet. I already have one of those. An information diet is something else entirely.

Like the food type, an information diet isn’t just about arbitrarily limiting the amount you take in. It’s about being smart and systematic in your reading habits.

So what’s in the information diet of the typical contemporary glutton? Here’s a short caricature:

– Checks multiple email accounts and facebook 10+ times per day.
– Checks RSS feed 10+ times per day looking for new updates
– Browses multiple online newspapers, forums and news aggregators
– Reads multiple “time-waster” sites (Texts From Last Night, Failblog, Comics, The Onion)
– Checks blog page view stats, number of subscribers and comments multiple times per day

So how did I create this info-glutton profile? Easy: It’s me on a bad day. Prior to starting this post, I wasted an entire morning flitting between my work email, personal email, secret-identity blogger email, RSS feed, and whatever other random shite I felt like clicking on. Now it’s 1:00 pm, and I am pissed at myself for having done (maybe) one hour’s worth of actual WORK in the four-hour block between 8am and noon.

If this situation sounds familiar, perhaps you need to go on an information diet.

The goal of an optimal information diet is to get all of the information you need, when you need it, with a minimal investment of time and energy.

If I check my personal email ten times a day, it costs me ten times as many minutes than if I checked it once. It might even cost more than that, because frequent email-checking leads to long and unproductive email chains.

There is nothing in my RSS feed that is so important it can’t wait until tomorrow. Or next week. Have you ever come back from a vacation and burned through a month’s worth of old blog posts and news items in a few hours? Sure you have. So what’s the point in checking your RSS feed every thirty minutes when you’re at your desk?

And don’t even get me started on facebook and twitter.

Most insidious of all, if you work while constantly alt-tabbing over to your favourite online addictions, you’ll never escape the constant, buzzing, low-level distraction that these little reward-pellets of information so easily provide. You’ll never enter a state of hard focus and your ability to create will reflect that.

The solution is to create a set of habits and systems that deliver the info you want in batches. Figure out how often you really need to check your sources of information, and limit yourself to a schedule based on that.

Here’s my information diet, custom-tailored to match my own needs and lifestyle:

08:30ish – Check work email, personal email, secret-identity email, and Facebook. Scan major news media headlines and editorial pages. Check blog for yesterday’s stats and incoming links.

0:900-11:30 – No news, no blogs, no email. Hard focus time on most important task(s) of the day.

11:30 – Work and personal email, review my lists of administrivia to clear up, confirm lunch meetings.

1:00-2:00 PM – Heavy reading. Work-related research, PDF books and essays or churn through the archives of a new blog I’d previously found and bookmarked

2:00-4:00 PM – Hard focus time on slightly less important, less demanding tasks of the day.

4:00 -5:00ish PM – RSS Feed, work and personal emails, check blog stats for comments and incoming links, final review of day’s tasks and work shutdown ritual.

After 5pm, I avoid all email, news, blogs and other sources of information. I only use the internet if I have to for a blog post, side business, or other project.

Without a specified routine and workflow, I could easily let my 10-hour weekly workload swell into 20-30 hours with pointless make-work tasks and meetings, and spend the rest of that time refreshing Fail Blog every five seconds. I would have to choose between pursuing my literary passions (reading old books, blogs, writing Freedom-Twenty Five and Trig) and the activities I currently fill my evening and weekend hours with (friends, family, entrepreneurship, sports, sex, booze).

Have you optimized your information diet? If not, spend a week checking all your bullshit once a day. If you want to get serious about productivity and information management, check out Tim Ferriss, Cal Newport, and David Allen.

Questions, suggestions, personal experiences to share? Comments are open.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

uh December 13, 2011 at 8:07 am

If you are serious about managing your time away from information …. check out this information about how to do it.

Dapper Daisy February 18, 2011 at 1:01 pm

YES, everything you described in that first schedule is so me!! Thanks for this post–I totally needed it!

Susan Walsh February 16, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Thanks for introducing me to Cal Newport – great stuff there. I’m kind of a productivity addict – I start my day with Lifehacker and try just about every productivity software or gimmick they recommend. I’m a GTD type – I use Things. I like the Seinfeld method of monitoring goals – which has been turned into Joe’s Goals by someone online.

I’m terrible at batching, and I’m bad at single tasking too. I’m working on it, though, getting a bit better. Oddly, taking on more projects has helped, as I am forced to become efficient.

I give you credit for keeping your evenings free – if you start getting a ton of comments that may be a real challenge! Whenever I take a couple of days off, mostly people have been having a fine time without me, but there are still a slew of questions and comments directed at me, and digging out of that hole is very time consuming, as it requires studying the thread.

I’ve been thinking of experimenting with a timer/stopwatch online to force myself to hold to the kind of timelines you’ve described in your post.

Great post on a favorite topic of mine!

P.S. Have you read the 4 Hour Body yet? That guy is insaaaaaane.

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