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)