Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Curbing Info Porn with Batched Reading

by Andre · 21 Comments

Info Porn Something snapped. Somewhere around early 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 infostractions. After weeks of being unplugged, the sense of time recovered was so profound, that every time I decided to add some of my previous feeds back into Google Reader, a little voice inside my head would push back and ask “Why?”.

But I gradually added some back in anyway. Then, one day while reading yet another “Top N” post, that little voice amplified: “Is this really the best use of your time?”

I like information. And that’s the problem — I can consume it indefinitely. It’s not a case of information overload, but of information porn: gratuitous reading used to alleviate boredom or anxiety rather than enable positive change or solve a problem. In his recent Lifehack article on information overload, Dustin Wax astutely observes:

I’ve come to believe that when people talk about “information overload” they’re not really talking about identifying information they can act on, but something entirely different. They’re talking about recreational information – information as entertainment.

Instead of just categorically renouncing information. I decided a few weeks ago that I needed to modify my Low Info Diet.

Sunday reading

The new rule: No discretionary nonfiction reading during the week. Instead of reading a book for an hour or two each day during the week, I would read the entire book on Sunday, from start to finish, in one sitting. I would read and comment on blogs finishing the book. Instead of toggling to news sites between Monday and Saturday, trying to stay in the loop, I’d buy a copy of one weekly news magazine, The Economist, and read it in one fell swoop (minus the articles deemed unimportant), opting to catch up rather than keep up (I ordinarily would’ve spent dozens of hours following the Gaza incursion alone). If something occurred to me during the week that would be interesting to read up on, I’d look it up and bookmark it for Sunday.

That’s a lot of reading for one day, a least without some serious triage. Last Sunday I dumped more than half of the reading I accumulated during the week. Aside from the obvious benefit of eliminating task switching, having all of the reading visible in one block — rather than distributed throughout the week (10 minutes here, 15 minutes there) — makes your reading commitments extremely conscious.

Reading is no longer an involuntary response to casual stimulation. When you know how much reading you have to look forward to consuming, each item’s relevance gets evaluated much more deliberately. An interesting article you collect on Tuesday may not seem so interesting on Sunday, after it’s passed through a cooling period.

Exceptions:

  • Fiction, which is consciously recreational
  • Information needed to currently resolve an impasse on an active project (e.g. “What’s Error Code A73909?”)
  • Two-minute reads
  • Email and other messaging

Feel free to customize your own batching to suit your needs. For many people, email is their info porn. I’m an Inbox Zero kind of guy, so email isn’t a problem for me. But if you find yourself reflexively checking email, consider batching your email sessions. You don’t necessarily have to batch your entire week’s reading into one day — but I had to. After I made it a rule to stop myself every time I felt the urge to read to fill time, I became conscious of how much of my time was unconscious.

Notice that one of the exceptions is just-in-time information needed to unstick a current project. Just-in-case information doesn’t count — batch it. Compiling information to motivate action is a crap shoot at best, and is just as likely to provide new rabbit trails instead of closing current ones. Research, as Charlie Gilkey points out, is:

. . . a prop, folks. Yes, part of the creative process requires that we research whatever we’re thinking about, but if you find yourself nodding your head at what I’m saying, you know that there’s a point in which you have enough information to do something and there’s a point in which you’re using “research” as a way to get around creating. No amount of information or inspiration is going to solve the problem – for the problem has nothing to do with information.

I once attended an interview with screenwriter Mark Fergus (Children of Men, Iron Man) who claimed that he used to watch a dozen or so films as “research” before starting his screenplays. Suspecting that he was procrastinating, he decided to put off watching the reference films until after he completed a first draft. He pointed out that after getting first draft done, he usually had all of the information he needed in the draft to continue without the screenings.

From consuming to producing

Resisting the urge to consume information can be unsettling, especially when there’s no substitute activity to fill the void. In times like these, your task list is your friend. Don’t sit around wondering what you could be doing in the absence of a crutch activity. Either do something productive, do something genuinely recreational, or review what needs to get done. Trust me, there’s never a shortage of more worthwhile activities. The trick is to keep them conscious.

(Photo credit: jwyg)

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Tags: Lifestyle Design · Productivity

Comments

  • Jarrod - Warrior DevelopmentNo Gravatar // Jan 6, 2009 at 2:04 am

    The combination of batching and removing distractions is incredibly powerful for getting things done and gaining time seemingly out of nowhere.

  • LL&LNo Gravatar // Jan 6, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    Wow! I think I’m in love with your blog and the way your mind works. I wish that I was able to articulate my thoughts in an interesting and intelligent way. I can write about relationship and spiritual matter with some skill (I just started writing about 6 months ago so I am still improving). But I have never been able to engage others in my love of behavioral sciences. This is only the second post I have read but I already added you to my blog roll.

  • GeorgeNo Gravatar // Jan 14, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    You write about exactly the problem I struggle with: too much unproductive but entertaining reading. I can’t ignore the newspapers all week, but I can restrict more the times of the day that I let myself read them and read blogs online.

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  • CoreyNo Gravatar // Jan 23, 2009 at 11:04 am

    But what if I miss something?!?! My half hearted attempt to cut out some unnecessary reading was to put my rss feeds into A, B, C and D lists according to priority. I skip C and D most days. Gonna need more work.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Jan 23, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    @Corey: For me it’s a matter of establishing criteria for what gets read during the week, not emotional barometers. In other words, what I read during the week fall into very specific criteria:

    1. Fiction (i.e. literature, not information)
    2. Answers for a specific problem I’m trying to solve on an active project
    3. Two-minute reads
    4. Not RSS

    I avoid priority codes, which I consider too subjective, since everything seems urgent on initial exposure. The criteria listed above bypass any emotional dilemmas. For instance, I have no RSS feeds that could ever be considered an “A” priority, so the “Not RSS” filter dictates that RSS is Sunday reading by definition. If something takes less than two minutes to read (except for RSS feeds in my feed reader that I don’t open until Sunday), then it’s faster to read it on the spot than deliberate about when I should read it.

  • Nathalie LussierNo Gravatar // Jan 24, 2009 at 1:56 am

    I think your method is genius. I usually batch my email, and I recently got rid of my feed reader. But I still find myself surfing randomly, either from twitter links, or god knows where.

    I agree that reading fiction should be separate, since it is a lot more relaxing or at least a way to break from the computer.

    Research really robs us of our initial motivation, if you ask me. ;) Great ideas!

  • dispatches from TJICistan » Blog Archive » links // Jan 24, 2009 at 9:34 am

    [...] Curbing info-pron. I’m giving this some very serious thought – I’m becoming more and more convinced that I’m wasting a large chunk of my life with “information” that, while not celebrity gossip, is useless (is it making me a better or more effective person to know that Caroline Kennedy nominated herself for Senator, then withdrew because of general uselessness combined with tax cheating ? No. That’s time I could spend reading business books, or writing ad copy, or programming, or reading Shakespeare, or going on dates, or lifting, or making bowls, or playing with godkids, or assasinating government officials, or praying the rosary, or writing a book. [...]

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  • research or info porn? « // Jan 28, 2009 at 5:43 pm

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  • Info Porn - Information as Entertainment « Endless Curiosity // Feb 9, 2009 at 8:56 pm

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  • MneiaeNo Gravatar // Oct 25, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    I’m an addict, I really can’t lie. That is a very interesting thing to think about though. I read a lot on my Kindle, but I spend quite a bit of free time with my Google Reader, only discovered in June. I have no idea what my life was like without it.

    Reading blogs does make me happy and is thought provoking, so I will continue. If they added absolutely no value to my life, then I would stop. I do unsubscribe when I realize that a) they have no value and/or b) I don’t read any of the articles…ever.

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