Information is not knowledge.
– Albert Einstein
I have a confession to make: I’m a crack addict.
On the information black market, my drug of choice goes by the name of email. The good stuff is laced with social media and RSS. The better stuff also includes mailing lists, website statistics, IRC, and 500 TV channels. The best stuff adds both Facebook and MySpace accounts, instant messaging of every kind, and a pony made from Ajax.
My dealer calls himself Unread. I caught a glimpse of his driver’s license once though, when his wallet spilled all over the ground while we were shooting up in an airport lounge. Turns out his real name is Unimportant Bullshit. That’s a pretty funny name, when you think about it.
But I haven’t thought about it. I’m usually too strung out to notice. I just keep buying more product.
How much do I buy? Well, it’s available only by the truckload, even though you have to squeeze it into your veins with that measly little needle called your attention span. This is less than convenient. I’m stocked for at least the next three U.S. presidencies. Come to think of it, that might be a good thing.
Oh, and another oddity: My dealer won’t take cash. He demands that I pay him only in Yeses:
Do you want more email? Yes.
Need another hit of RSS? Yes.
It’s been 10 minutes since you last checked your visitor count for today. Aren’t you going to see if it’s been updated? Yes.
There’s poker on TV right now. Shouldn’t you be watching it? Yes.
How’s about checking if there’s anything interesting on the reddit front page? Yes…master.
But I haven’t even mentioned the worst part: version 2.0 of this drug is coming out soon, and apparently it must be administered anally.
I used to be the consumer. I’m now the consumed.
It Can Happen to You
This (mildly exaggerated) description of my own dependence on unimportant information is not uncommon. But why does it happen? When you drill down to the deepest layers of information addiction, what do you find?
You might have thought you hit bottom when you saw chunks of job disinterest, aversion to boring tasks, and a substance resembling Nothing Better To Do. But a few inches below that, you find the real crust wrapped around the core of an information junkie: Fear. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of rejection, fear of life itself.
The beauty of aimless internet reading, linguistically graceful internet flame wars, and social media popularity contests is that you can’t fail at them. Even if engaging in these activities causes you to fail at whatever you were supposed to be doing, you can just blame it on all that wandering around the Web 2.0 theme park. It certainly sounds a lot better than, “I tried everything I could to fix this bug, but I still can’t figure it out.” And it’s way easier to just drag your feet through the mud known as your Day Job (TM), than to risk giving your notice and heading off into the unknown in search of a better life.
Information is an analgesic. It not only dulls the pain involved in actually Getting Shit Done, but if you do it right, it actually feels like you’re doing something, instead of avoiding doing something.
My Story of Addiction
I’m exaggerating my information addiction slightly. After all, every man, woman, child, and fetus has a Facebook account, but I don’t. I’m not on MySpace either. I don’t do instant messaging at all, except to talk to paying clients on software consulting gigs. And while I’m usually found on IRC, I rarely pay attention to it.
But I’d be lying to pretend that I don’t throw a few balls down the gutter every now and then. My most recent slip-up came about a month ago, when I ordered Food Network as a way to help me learn cooking.
What started off as awe and admiration at Jamie Oliver’s ability to create amazing dishes from fresh ingredients grown right in his own backyard, morphed into an interest in Australian Open tennis and World Matchplay Darts. Oh, and what’s that? A documentary series on sex workers in California? And lookie here, it’s even running right after Poker After Dark on another channel. How convenient!
The distraction began with TV and, as my brain started getting accustomed to idleness, snowballed into other non-activities. Before I knew it, I was spending entire days swinging from one vine of useless information to another.
The irony of information overload and addiction is the sheer volume of information available on these topics. For example, when I Google for “information overload”, I see over 1.5 million matches.
My solution to dealing with this mess is what I call a 30-Day Information Fast.
You’ve probably already heard the term “Low-Information Diet”, popularized by Tim Ferriss. As the name implies, an Information Fast takes things a step further. The key behind this solution is to completely cut off all attention-draining inputs with no exceptions, but to do so for only a limited period of time. The point of total withdrawal is, obviously, to reclaim the time and attention lost to unnecessary diversions, but also to help you discover which of those things are actually important to you. You’ll know you gave up something important when you keep wanting to reach for it to help you solve a problem you’re working on, or when, even after a full 30 days without it, you’re eager to catch up on what you missed.
The rules during the 30-Day Information Fast are as follows:
- No blogs. No reading RSS feeds nor any direct visits to blog websites.
- No TV. Not one second of the boob tube is allowed.
- No social media sites. My only exception will be for submitting my articles, if applicable. Sometimes you guys beat me to it, which is always appreciated.
- Check email only twice per day. I’m not going to hardcode the times when I’ll be checking email, but it must be no more than twice, unless absolutely necessary.
- No Facebook, MySpace, or instant messaging. This is a non-issue for me, but I know a few people for whom this alone would add years to their life. Feel free to also include IRC here, if it eats up a lot of your time.
- Check web stats only once per day. I’ll bet almost every blogger has been bitten by the stats demon at some point. I’m no exception. I’ve had days where it seems like all I’m doing is following my stats.
- No internet forums. There’s currently only one forum I read regularly. Still, I’d like to see what happens when I pull the plug on it for a while.
- No mailing lists. Another non-issue for me, but it’s not hard to imagine that some people will benefit greatly from turning off this fire hose.
- Exceptions. DVDs, books, magazines, music, all social activities, conferences, seminars, user groups, and, in the interests of self-preservation, this blog. This 30-day trial takes aim at attention-draining inputs. I usually consider these exceptions to be a solid use of my time.
Feel free to tweak this list to suit your needs, in particular by adding things that I haven’t mentioned, but which affect you. If you want to remove things from this list because you “can’t live without them”, that’s a sign that you’re probably cheating. :)
Of course, I’m still going to publish new content during this time. In fact, this 30-day trial is intended to improve my chances of attaining my goals for expanding the quality and reach of my writing over the next month.
This challenge is not particularly meant to extend beyond the 30 days. It’s merely an attempt to create a space in which to think deeply about your life and your purpose, to replace distraction with action, and to let the truly meaningful uses of your time bubble up to the surface of your attention.
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