Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

One Week on the Low Information Diet

by Andre · 24 Comments

A week and a half ago, I unsubscribed from all of my feeds in Google Reader. Looking around at my other sources of information, I resolved to process my email only once a day, refused to pick up any newspapers, and resisted the temptation to read any nonfiction for a week. I feel like I’ve come back from a two-week vacation.

Information: a need that feeds on itself

Until I cancelled my RSS feeds, I had no idea just how frequently and reflexively I was typing “gr,” my keyword bookmark for Google Reader, into the Firefox address bar. For the first couple of days on the Low Information Diet, stopping myself from check my feeds was unsettling. Typing “gr” was like an autonomic response to boredom and anxiety. If I hadn’t unsubscribed from the feeds, I probably would’ve found an excuse to read them anyway. Fortunately, since I did, only an empty GReader came up.

By the middle of the week, I was completely over RSS, and wondered how many hours I had spent either reading feeds, or surfing through sites based on information I had come across in those feeds. I’ve gone back to reading nonfiction, but now I visit my favorite blogs directly, at what will probably wind up being two or three times per week.

RSS has convinced me that information is a need that feeds on itself. The more information you find, the more information you seek, and the more you seek, the more you find. That circularity, being “in the loop,” is unscalable. Increased awareness of what information is “out there” to be learned or miss out on induces loss aversion. The hunger for information increases while the number of hours in the day remains the same.

Getting back to zero base

I think everyone should renounce his or her intake of information for at least one week. The Low Information Diet should be familiar to anyone who’s read The 4-Hour Workweek. It consists of:

  • No web surfing
  • No excessive email checking
  • No RSS
  • No news (really, the world will still turn)
  • No non-entertainment television (ideally no television)
  • No nonfiction books

What’s allowed: a one-hour indulgence each day of any of the above. Music and fiction are also fair game. I didn’t do the one-hour indulgence myself, since it was too easy for me to relapse.

You can always go back to devouring information for information’s sake, but if you stick to a full week, you’ll almost certainly drop some information sources from your permanent diet. Now that I’m going to blogs on an as-needed basis instead of reading them just because they’re in my RSS reader, I enjoy reading them more, since there’s less sense of obligation.

Some of the information we consume is important, some of it was important, and some of it might be important. The best way to objectively determine what’s relevant is stopping the flow of information entirely for a finite period. As long as you’re trying to keep up with incoming information, there’s no way to have sufficient perspective to distinguish between the content with high relevance and the content that’s consumed out of habit.

The less frequently you keep up with new developments in a given field of interest, the more perspective you’ll have on them. You can join every social network du jour, or wait a few months to see which few have traction, then join those. Value investors make as much or more money with less work than day traders. You can read the news analysis columns of newspapers every day, or get more in-depth analyses from weekly news magazines. Bloggers who check traffic and subscription stats daily overreact to minor fluctuations.  Some issues and events need time to play out before any meaningful patterns or relationships can be detected.

The point of diminishing returns

Just as there’s a point of diminishing returns with too much information, the same holds for too little information. The best way to find out how little is too little is to get back to zero base. By taking in no information, the sources you genuinely miss will make themselves known, but they’ll probably be far fewer than you expect. I noticed that it was harder to brainstorm topics for the blog last week, since some of what I write is a reaction to what others in the bloggosphere are saying. So I read those blogs weekly and will check others occasionally.

Just before starting a Low Information Diet, everything you’re currently reading or listening to seems essential rather that habitual. It’s hard to imagine giving up even half of your daily reading. After a week, you’ll probably go back to reading between 10-20 percent of your original. You start becoming aware of the opportunity costs of consuming more information than you can act on. Try it for a week and see what content you allow back into your life.

(Photo credit: Super Ninja)

Technorati Tags: ,

Tags: Decluttering · Productivity

Comments

  • Vered - MomGrindNo Gravatar // Oct 22, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    I’m intrigued.

    I don’t see myself doing this anytime soon, but I’m saving this one for future reference and inspiration.

  • Ari KoinumaNo Gravatar // Oct 23, 2008 at 11:15 am

    Hi Andre,

    This reminded me of another blogger, Lori the SpaceAgeSage. Check this out:

    http://spaceagesage.com/2008/10/06/can-i-survive-a-week-long-media-fast/

    I think it’s great to set limits on our information intake. We can only take so much. I limit my RSS subs to 100 and my wife and I don’t watch TV nor read newspaper. Internet is our only connection to the outside world. That’s a place that’s worked for us — I still do minor tweaking in terms of how much I read on the ‘net — but we feel comfortable there.

    The point is to make a conscious decision and settle in a place where you feel comfortable.

    ari

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Oct 23, 2008 at 11:48 am

    @Vered: I always admire your ability to stay on top of blog commenting and social networking. You have a higher threshold for information overload than I do.

    @Ari: Like you, the internet is my only connection to the outside world — aside from personal interactions in the so-called real world. One of the benefits of selective ignorance is that it gives you more questions to start conversations with, like, “So, what’s new in the world?” It’s no fun having all the answers to everything.

  • christefanoNo Gravatar // Oct 25, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    Believing “information is a need that feeds on itself” is false absolution. Aside from being annoying quotable, it too easily leaves out the human component.

    Information overload doesn’t happen unless the aggregation and filtering tools you use don’t work. Clay Shirky nails it in his talk, It’s Not Information Overload, It’s Filter Failure.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Oct 26, 2008 at 11:11 pm

    @christefano: Believing “information is a need that feeds on itself” is false absolution. Aside from being annoying quotable, it too easily leaves out the human component.”

    If taken literally, true. I take it for granted that human readers don’t leave out the human component.

    Information overload doesn’t happen unless the aggregation and filtering tools you use don’t work.

    A tautology in the absence of better tools to recommend, hence the low information diet.

  • Charlie GilkeyNo Gravatar // Oct 27, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    I was wondering how you were doing on this and was awaiting your post – as one of the things I love about what you do is try stuff and then report back to the rest of us. It’s why this blog is one of my favorites and is one of those blogs that will remain visited, RSS or not.

    I’ll give this a try, as I noticed that my productivity is inversely related to how much information I try to intake. Having tried and culled once already, I’m ready to do it again. I just have a better game plan for what to read to keep my creative juices going – again, I’ll be reading here.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Oct 28, 2008 at 10:40 am

    @Charlie: I’ll give this a try, as I noticed that my productivity is inversely related to how much information I try to intake.

    The mind can only process a finite amount of information, so output is necessarily reciprocal to input. You can optimize one side or both, but all things being equal, you have to consume less to produce more.

    Thanks for sticking around, despite my advice to readers to unsubscribe ;)

  • Blog Comments | // Oct 28, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    [...] Kibbe’s article One Week On The Low Information Diet starts with this paragraph: “A week and a half ago, I unsubscribed from all of my feeds in [...]

  • ff-webdesignerNo Gravatar // Oct 29, 2008 at 5:31 am

    I like your arcticle, it is really like an addiction with all the information. And it is absolutely common that people disconnect to their addiction. It is very interesting what happens after that!

  • Going on a Low Information Diet « Tape Noise Diary // Oct 30, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    [...] leave a comment » One Week On the Low Information Diet [...]

  • Freeing up Mental RAM with Segmented Reading | Tools for Thought // Nov 5, 2008 at 10:52 am

    [...] a book takes much longer — four or five times as long, it seems. Having just gone through a low information diet, I’m not sure that this is a bad thing. Both segmented reading and the low information diet [...]

  • Leaving Space for Thinking | Tools for Thought // Nov 7, 2008 at 12:20 pm

    [...] it in? There’s no way I know of to avoid this conundrum entirely, but spending a week on the low information diet can help reset your standards for what content is and isn’t relevant. At the end of the week [...]

  • Timely Snow » Blog Archive » Time for an information diet // Nov 8, 2008 at 5:56 am

    [...] You can download a summary of the idea here, although I thought that this provides a better description. [...]

  • DuffNo Gravatar // Nov 8, 2008 at 10:56 am

    I recently deleted my Twitter account for similar reasons.

    The first few days were painful. Then I had some of the most productive days in the last year at work.

    I may rejoin Twitter at some point, but for now, I’m focusing on reading difficult books and starting some new projects of depth.

  • Curbing Info Porn with Batched Reading | Tools for Thought // Jan 5, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    [...] November, I’d been on a Low Information Diet for nearly a month. The first thing I did was dump all of my RSS feeds. Then I prohibited myself from reading books or visiting blogs, forums, podcasts or other [...]

  • 7 Ways Being Unbalanced Can Make You More Productive | Zen Habits // Jan 11, 2009 at 6:30 am

    [...] Turn off the TV and the internet. Cancel your cable subscription. Go on an information fast. Do whatever you need to do to disconnect from distractions. Create a minimalist workspace that [...]

  • The Power of being Unbalanced « Matt Hutchins // Jan 12, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    [...] Turn off the TV and the internet. Cancel your cable subscription. Go on an information fast. Do whatever you need to do to disconnect from distractions. Create a minimalist workspace that [...]

  • 7 Ways Being Unbalanced Can Make You More Productive | TheHappySelf.com // Jan 14, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    [...] Turn off the TV and the internet. Cancel your cable subscription. Go on an information fast. Do whatever you need to do to disconnect from distractions. Create a minimalist workspace that [...]

  • Relja DeretaNo Gravatar // Jan 15, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    I did a similiar thing a few months ago, when I was out of country on a familly visit, though my isolation was a bit more… severe. No contact of any kind (cell-phone, email etc.) with anyone from back home etc. It was amazing how much my productivity and general enjoyment of anything I did (from working to walking) increased.

    Here’s the link to my blog about it (I don’t know if linking to your own blog is a faux pas, so feel free to delete the links if it is :)

    http://beatingtolstoy.wordpress.com/2008/11/02/isolation-experiment-pt-1/
    http://beatingtolstoy.wordpress.com/2008/11/10/isolation-experiment-the-aftermath/

  • Elsewhere, on 2009-01-18 - Once a nomad, always a nomad // Jan 18, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    [...] Bookmarked a link on Delicious. One Week on the Low Information Diet | Tools for Thought [...]

  • 7 ways being unbalanced can make your more productive « Journal of Eddie G // Jan 21, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    [...] Turn off the TV and the internet. Cancel your cable subscription. Go on an information fast. Do whatever you need to do to disconnect from distractions. Create a minimalist workspace that [...]

  • Team Taskmaster mobile edition // Feb 9, 2009 at 10:01 am

    [...] I tip him very well at the holidays.) So I read with interest about Andre’s experiences with a low-information diet and approach to “batching” his information to keep it in check. Andre decided to make Sunday his [...]

  • 7 ways being unbalanced can make your more productive « My reads on life,productivity & happiness // Feb 13, 2009 at 8:19 am

    [...] Turn off the TV and the internet. Cancel your cable subscription. Go on an information fast. Do whatever you need to do to disconnect from distractions. Create a minimalist workspace that [...]

  • The Hurrier I Go, The Behinder I Get | Kunbre Life Coaching // Jan 10, 2011 at 7:20 am

    [...] are things like automation, outsourcing, prioritizing, eliminating, low information diets, and many other tricks and life hacks found in numerous books, blogs, and videos. A lot of this [...]