In January of 2011 I took a deliberate break from my high-information diet. No news, television or on-line, no blogs, no Facebook, no Twitter for a whole month. It was awesome, and highly effective at completely breaking my high-information diet habit.
I’ve been a voracious consumer of information since I was a kid. As part of the first home computing generation, I grew up with the assumption that I had access to information on-line without much effort. In the first few years it was just the traditional dial-up bulletin board model, but quickly that gave way to the predecessor of the Internet available through the local universities and proto-ISPs. The amount of information and news we had available then was simply amazing, and it has only continued to grow since then.
It wasn’t difficult to imagine that we’d have access to this much information back then - science fiction authors and nerds have been thinking along those lines for much longer than I’ve been around, but to actually witness coming to fruition was wonderful - and so easy to take for granted.
The bottom-line is that many of us, and especially me, are addicted to information. News is no longer fed to us in an hour long program on television very night; there are plenty of young adults now who never lived when there were no 24/7 news channels. We all have the expectation that news and information is freely available anytime, and all the time, wherever we are.
As technology continued to advance, so did our ease of accessing this wealth of information. We could get all of our news via the web, and could skip the cable networks if we wanted. Eventually, we could watch the cable networks live over the Internet at the office, or wherever we might be. A plethora of applications let us aggregate and present all of this information in one place for our consumption, in real-time. The upshot being that there is ample opportunity to be distracted by information at any time - there’s no waiting any more.
We certainly don’t need 24/7 news and the Internet to procrastinate, but they both sure make it easy for anyone who works with a computer. As mobile computing devices become more common place, I believe we’ll start to see procrastination in the hands of everyone. Just wait until the clerk at Taco Bell is too busy checking Facebook instead of taking your order! Oh wait, you mean that’s already happened?
When I decided to take a month off from information I did so deliberately with the intent to break the procrastination habit. I was taking several months off of work, and without the deadlines imposed by business needs, I knew I would have a tendency to slow down a bit and find ways to kill time. That was great, for a few weeks, but quickly I wanted to get back down to work and focus on some big personal projects. Stopping the information habit was one tool I had planned to use to make sure I’d focus on what I needed to, not just what was at hand.
Breaking the habit turned out to be surprisingly easy. There were a few days of the expected psychological addiction withdrawal symptoms to contend with, but they were blessedly minor. The bigger hurdle to overcome was the feeling that I was missing out on STUFF! THINGS were happening and I wasn’t keeping up! Naturally, none of it really mattered in the end.
In fact, looking back on what actually occurred in the news during January and early February, it is remarkable how little actually occurred that was worth paying attention to. The big stories during this time period? The shootings in Arizona, the crisis in Egypt, and if you enjoy sensationalized stories, the massive bird kill in Arkansas or wherever.
All of these stories were impossible not to hear about, even without the news. All I had to do was visit the local coffee shop or interact with another human and these invariably would come up in conversation, direct or overheard.
The shooting story seemed to cause the most emotional reaction from the people I saw discussing it, as is the tendency for that sort of tragedy.
The crisis in Egypt had the appeal of seeing something positive possibly occur, in a region of the world where it is so desperately needed, and it’s incredibly appealing to human nature to feel like you are a part of history as it happens.
The bird kill story, well, that’s just a classic example of sensationalism that’s exacerbated by the existence of the 24/7 news & information society. Would it have really had such a strong headline impact if there had been a day or two to gather more information before the panic-like headlines appeared? Perhaps…
The reality is that not one of these stories had any impact on my life - or on most of humanity’s life for that matter. The simple existence of quick and efficient information delivery creates an artificial feeling that this stuff is really important, and that it is important RIGHT NOW! But in reality, you could read a synopsis of world and local events once a month, or even once a year, and probably be better informed about the world than you are right now. You’d simply have less noise to sift through before getting to what really matters.
I didn’t miss world and local news one bit during my hiatus - in fact, I haven’t picked up the habit of checking it again. I’m finding it much more effective to discuss events with other people rather than constantly reading or watching about the latest events. If I need to dive into a story, I can do that after I determine if it’s worth spending time on.
I do have a bit of consternation on the news and happenings that are technology related, as it affects my career more directly than traditional world events. But here, too, I think I’m finding that a low-information diet is actually more efficient than trying to constantly keep up with the never-ending surge of what’s available. That sounds like a key to success to me - pay more attention to what really matters, and ignore what doesn’t. Life is ultimately an equation of time, and the more of that we can make use of, the more effective, productive, and happier our lives will be.
Now, if you excuse me, I have to go post a picture of the beer I’m drinking on Facebook.