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Does Your Mind Need to Go on an Information Diet?

By Linda Gabriel

“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
~ Herbert Simon

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“Consciousness consists of information no more than a person who consumes large amounts of food can be said to consist of food.”
~ Tor Norrestranders, The User Illusion

Norrestranders adds, “Consciousness is nourished by information the same way the body is nourished by food.”  However we all know that too much food, especially junk food, is not nourishing but harmful.

Information overload takes it’s toll.
There’s a reason they call it “paying” attention.

With the advent of the web and wireless technology, the  amount of information instantly available at any one moment has increased exponentially. Never before has the human brain had such immediate access to so much “news.”

It wasn’t so long ago that a person only knew about events in her village and perhaps what went on in a limited geographical radius beyond. It’s been said that the amount of information contained on the front page of the New York Times is more news than people 100 years ago consumed in a lifetime.

The Truth about Too Much Information:

  • Information doesn’t necessarily increase knowledge.
  • Information is not the source of wisdom.
  • More information can make decisions more difficult.
  • Information does not expand consciousness.

Information Overload or Filter Failure?

At the September 2008 Web 2.0 Expo, Clay Shirky said in his talk It’s Not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure, “We’ve had information overload in some form or other since the 1500’s.  What’s changing now is the filters we used for most of that 500 year period are breaking and designing new filters doesn’t mean simply updating the old filters…”

“… when you feel yourself getting too much information I think the discipline is not to say to yourself, ‘What’s happened to the information?’ but rather, ‘What filter just broke? What was I relying on before that stopped functioning?'”

How Can You Filter Information?

Filter by Quality

Key Question: “Does this information serve me, my purpose, or the task at hand?”
How much do you really need to know about celebrity divorces, details of murders, or the sex lives of politicians? Is the information you consume nourishing you? Or is it adding “empty calories”?

Filter by Quantity

Key Question: “How much more information do I actually need?”
If you keep looking, you will find more and more information. Research can go on forever. It’s important to balance input and output.  At a certain point you must face the fact that you can’t know everything about everything. In fact, you can’t know everything about any one thing!  And when it comes to choosing, studies show that increasing the amount of information can actually cloud your decisions.

Filter by Time

Key Question: “How much time am I going to devote to processing information?”
Become more conscious of the time you spend on gathering and processing information. Resist the temptation to check email more than once or twice a day.  Go on a news diet. Limit television to an hour or two a day. Set a time limit for research and stick to it.

Filter by Timing

Key Question: “Do I really need this information right now?”
Make a commitment to gather information on a “need-to-know” basis.  Use the instantaneous availability of the internet to your advantage.  The information you need is out there waiting for you and will be there when (and if) you ever need it.  Keep your mental clutter to a minimum.

Filter by Focus

Key Behavior: Meditation
It’s possible to reboot your mind and spirit by taking a rest from any input.  Focus within. There’s information inside of you too. Simply closing your eyes and noticing nothing but your breath for a few minutes allows your entire being an opportunity to settle down and for clarity to emerge.

Attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit.

“Attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit. We can enhance or augment our attention with practices like meditation and exercise, diffuse it with technologies like email and Blackberries, or alter it with pharmaceuticals. In the end, though, we are fully responsible for how we choose to use this extraordinary tool.”
~ Linda Stone, The Attention Project

How do you deal with information overload? Please share your comments.

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{ 15 comments… add one }

  • I’m glad I found your blog from Think Traffic because I wouldn’t have read this brilliant post.

    Twitter has driven me to the point where its time to unplug and re-think my “Information Consumption”

    I didn’t have a way of defining it until reading this post. Perhaps an Information Fast would be more appropriate for extreme cases like mine.

    I’m grateful for this post, as it clearly defines strategies for when, how and why to enter the echo chamber of the Internet in all its social, news and gossip forms that exists :-)
    .-= Michael Corley´s last blog ..How Google Can Help You Find Your New Townhouse Apartment in Brooklyn =-.

  • So True! I love the concept of having better filters. Usually I think of filtering what comes out, but it is even more important to filter what comes in. I canceled my cable this week and had my first day of being dairy free for at least 40 days, and I am so energized just from applying the filters!

  • Love this post Linda. I learned a lot from reading Dr. Hallowell’s Crazy Busy (http://www.drhallowell.com/crazy-busy/). Two strategies in particular I try to apply (the first is from him):

    1. gemmelsmerch (sp?): his word for things that try and grab our attention that are meaningless like ads on parking space lines, blurbs on take out coffee cups etc. My take away: just because I can read something, doesn’t mean I have to

    2. quitting has a bad rap: my personal DNA inherently likes to finish things once I’ve started, but I’m trying to reform it (and me). If I start reading a book or watching a video and it’s not grabbing me / meeting my needs, I try to (gasp!) quit. Finishing isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, especially when I can turn to something that is much better suited to what I’m trying to learn in the moment.
    .-= Lee-Anne Ragan´s last blog ..3 simple lessons in public speaking – heavy breathing made easy =-.

  • Great post! Information overload can be a problem for many – I love learning new things and always have to set a limit to the amount of time I dedicate to research, otherwise I get nothing done :) Quality of information is vital – my husband and I don’t have a TV, gave it up 2 years ago and don’t miss it. There’s a lot of “fluff” on the net too, though, so we absolutely need a filtre. Meditation works – I was going to write Meditation rocks :)
    Thanks for the great post.
    .-= Cristina´s last blog ..Seven days in the Cotswolds =-.

    • Linda Gabriel

      Cristina,
      I gave up tv for many years and during that time I was amazed that people had time to watch hours and hours. Now that I’m watching tv again, I see how easy it is to let the next program suck you in, or to just check to see what’s on other channels. It seems that Tivo helps in this regard as people can filter by quality and then schedule specific time to view programs they find enjoyable and/or edifying.

      As I was writing this post it occurred to me that the times I am most tempted to gorge on information is when I’m trying to make a decision about something important – say around a large purchase or a health issue. So I may need to do another related post about how to filter information specifically for decision making.

      Thanks for your comment!

  • A bit of starvation wouldn’t go amiss Linda! We are overwait i.e. can’t wait to take in more and more and information is the new king. Everyone is doing it; there are informnations across the globe hooked up and hooked in all the time. How much can a brain take? It’s a muscle and a working system so surely overload and crashing is likely? I prefer to take in a bit but ration myself to an hour at most a day. After all that’s the equivalent of 46 working days a year!! So one hour less per day would give everyone a month and a half of more life to live, enjoy, love etc. each and every year. That’s the only info and stat I need!!!
    .-= John Sherry´s last blog ..Where’s Your Holiday Spirit =-.

    • Linda Gabriel

      Wow John… an hour a day = 46 working days! The math is compelling. This is truly a bit of information worth noting. Thanks for your comment.

  • Thanks for this post, Linda. I struggle with “balancing the input and the output.” There are so many great resources out there for everything under the sun, it’s hard to know when to stop!

    Regular meditation has helped me, as well as my “meditation” of learning to play the piano. Of course, I just ordered a bunch of books about that, too! It’s an ongoing process of learning what’s important.
    .-= Melanie Grove´s last blog ..More Noise- Please- =-.

  • Thanks for a great post, Linda. Information overload is something I have to be careful of. I physically can feel it stressing me out, so I have to stop, organize, toss and begin with what I can. Great advice on filtering and paying attention to what matters.
    .-= Katie´s last blog ..Soul Searching- Week 6 of the 7-Week Life Cleanse =-.

  • Linda, this is truly a great post, really well done starting with the title. The concept of “not too much info. but not enough filtering” is a terrific way to frame the issue. Finally, the discussion of specific ways to filter is quite helpful.

    Filtering by quality is essential. I saw a link on the internet today or yesterday about some reality show celebrity getting a new tatoo. Do we need to know about this? It’s hard to imagine anything less important. (I feel the same way about most TV, so there’s a big time-saver right there.
    .-= Madeleine Kolb´s last blog ..Choosing Change as Long as You Live =-.

    • Linda Gabriel

      Thanks Madeleine! As humans we are wired with a strong interest in other humans but our tribes used to be much smaller. While it’s tempting to read about the latest celebrity tatoo, it’s not worth the “brain space.”

  • I’ve felt suffocation-like symptoms from information overload. ‘Filtering by timing,’ has worked out really well for me, and the information I read/use has made me more effective. I limit my informative reading time these days and also spend a lot of time unplugged, which is a huge boost.
    .-= Jean Sarauer´s last blog ..What Lil’ Wayne Can Teach You About Marketing Your Blog =-.

    • Linda Gabriel

      Jean,
      Thanks for the reminder to spend time unplugged! Especially important for us bloggers.

  • “Information overload takes it’s toll. There’s a reason they call it “paying” attention.” “Information doesn’t necessarily increase knowledge.”

    Such a great post. It can become an addiction all too easily. I get caught up in information gathering sometimes and I get frustrated with myself because I know I don’t necessarily retain and apply it, which makes me feel that it’s a waist of time. It can feel productive and it’s not unless we use it.

    Thank you for this post!
    .-= Aileen´s last blog ..Today I’m Visiting Goodlife Zen with a Basket of Friends =-.

    • Linda Gabriel

      Aileen,
      As a recovering “infomaniac” I fully appreciate the dangers of information addiction! It’s seductive because we feel if we just know one more thing we’ll be “better informed” when we’re actually adding to our mental clutter. That’s why I like the food metaphor – more isn’t necessarily better.

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