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The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption


Most of the time when I read a book that I have problems with – or that I don’t like most of it – I simply don’t write a review of it. I generally think that there’s little value in telling people what not to buy – it’s a habit I picked up from my days of writing magazine reviews.  However, the book The Information Diet is a bit different – because there’s some things that I agree with strongly and a few things that I vehemently disagree with.

I’m going to let you in on a secret that many of my closest friends know. I’m quirky. Yep. I admit it. I do things that make little sense from the surface. One of my quirks is that I almost never turn on a TV at a hotel while I’m traveling. If I’m in the breakfast room I won’t go over and turn it off – I’m not rude. However, I don’t turn the TV on in my room. This has led to some interesting conversations about how great the TV or the channel selection is where I have to respond with “Um, yea. Sure.” The heart of this quirk is the heart of The Information Diet book. That is, you should be choosy about your information diet just like you should be with your physical diet.

The precept is that we’re consuming highly processed information that has embedded biases that we won’t be able to detect. Advertising sections with editorial content in a magazine is a really good example. Those Amish heaters which are purportedly Amish-made is another good example. The heat source isn’t Amish made… of course that makes sense if you spend time tearing apart the idea that they’re electrically driven heat sources – but who thinks that much about a space heater? (By the way, the Amish heater is my example, not the authors)

A key message is that you don’t have to consume information, any more than you have to consume a slice of pie placed in front of you. However, how many of us have the will power to resist a delicious slice of grandma’s apple pie that’s placed in front of us? We’re leading our elephant down the wrong path – and the rider is simply not strong enough to steer him back in place – for long. (See Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis) So it’s true that you don’t have to consume information but it’s also true that you’re wise to influence the information that you put in front of you. Unfortunately, the forces of commercialism are driving news outlets to seek to entertain and affirm us – because those are the things that keep us coming back. It’s sort of like the high fructose corn sugar and other sweeteners silently added to our foods to make them more appealing to us.

Before I talk about what bothers me about the book, I need to talk about another really important distinction that’s touched on lightly in the book. We tend to wire ourselves in one of two basic operating modes. Mode 1 is constantly connected, constantly distracted, and constantly confused as to what we’re doing. (I might be editorializing a bit.) In other words, we’re always looking for the next email popup, the next tweet, the next IM. We spend all day chasing one shiny object then the next. There are some jobs where these skills are absolutely essential. If you’re monitoring a chemical plant – I want you trying to take in every piece of information. So to be clear this isn’t a bad way of operating. It’s the way that our ancestors used to operate. They were constantly vigilant about the threat of a lion. However, they dealt with substantially less interruptions.

Mode 2 is completely focused. This is the cone of silence – although I actually find that having a cone of music is instantly more helpful. This is Flow. This is focused concentration leading to the ability to move a single thing forward. Peopleware talked about how it might take 15 minutes for a developer to regain the productivity they had after an interruption. (This is consistent w/ Csikszentmihalyi’s research.) Today we’re overwhelmed with interruptions. It’s not just email or twitter but a desk phone and a mobile phone. Text messages and knocks at the door.

The biggest issue I have with the book is that it advocates a 5 minute working, 1 minute break approach for helping folks deal with distractions. The concept is you have to focus for five minutes and then you can take a break and getup and stretch for a minute. Um. Wait. If it takes 15 minutes to get into flow … you’ll never get there. So the approach to the day that is recommended is awful from a productivity standpoint. The author admits that he extended these windows once he got discipline about staying focused. I appreciate the need to program yourself to be focused – to block out distractions – however, in this case I believe the medicine is worse than the disease.

I need a final word of criticism for the book before I encourage you to buy it. The author has some serious biases relative to his political background and spends an inordinate amount of time talking about political situations and information in that context. This was just annoying to me. This is coupled with the real undertone that the author was attempting to lose weight immediately before or during the writing of the book. As a result some of the analogies and ties are a bit too much for me. (Even as I’m trying to lose a few extra pounds myself.)

Still, understanding how the information you consume leads you to think differently, and how those thoughts can be a serious issue over time is an important thing. (We’ve all met the closed minded person.) If you’re interested in learning more about how your information forms you – you should read The Information Diet.