How I Made Information Consumption Into A Conscious Choice

I recently realized that I just don't have enough time in the day. Having just moved to New York City a few months back, there are a ton of things that I would like to do and see, but I never seem to have time for them. For example, I've been here six months, and haven't been to the theater, and I've only been to one museum. Now working on a startup is a compromise - it's next to impossible to make a startup successful while leading a balanced lifestyle. However, if all you are doing is working, then something is probably out of balance. While you can work 14 or 16-hour days for a short period of time, this isn't sustainable over any significant duration.

In my case, I found that I would arrive home (from work) at around 10PM most nights, and then I would spend an hour or two lying on the couch surfing the web, mostly because I was too exhausted to get up and go to bed. At 11 or 12, I would stumble into bed, only to repeat this cycle the next evening. Maybe I would do something fun on Sunday, but it is likely that I would actually be too burned out to accomplish anything other than vegging out.

I was recently hanging out with a friend, and told him that I was feeling tired and burned out. His response was that I should do yoga. He told me that monks practice yoga 24/7, and never get burned out or tired. This advice seemed almost right, but I felt like there was more to it than just that. I wasn't looking for a band aid, but wanted to get to the core of the problem. I thought for a while about what exactly it is that makes monks able to work day after day without getting tired. And then it hit me - conscious consumption of information.

The Root of the Problem
A monk in a monastery is making a conscious choice to practice yoga and meditation. He is always focused on the present, and never has to focus on more than one thing at once. He doesn't get distracted from his tasks or meditation by email or by his cell phone - he does just one task at a time, and is fully focused on only that. This led me to form a new hypothesis - the fatigue that we experience is caused not by working, but by fighting to stay focused and on task. Every time you have to fight your attention span, you fatigue yourself. I have admitted for quite a while that I am a poor multitasker, and get distracted pretty easily. When I have three things on my plate at once and work on them simultaneously, it takes longer to get them done that if I did them sequentially. I do best when I can make a list of the things I have to do, and then work down that list one item at a time, focusing all my attention on the task at hand.

The problem we have in our society is that there are too many distractions in daily life. Most of us go through the day with our email open, and some people even receive a popup whenever a new email comes in (I have no idea how they manage to handle this). The web allows us constant access to any information we could possibly want - it's as simple as popping open a new browser tab and doing a Google search. And, since the advent of smartphones, we have access to this information pretty much anywhere in the world. You can't ever get away from this continuous data feed, which only widens over time. And the amount of information we have access to keeps increasing. In the past several years, we have seen the emergence of Facebook, and Twitter, and Foursquare, and aggregators such as Reddit and Hacker News. With all of this stuff, it has become possible to fill an entire day with the consumption of empty information calories.

I thought a lot about how I consume information, and noticed some disturbing patterns. A lot of times, I would begin my day by popping open Hacker News or one of my favorite new sites, and clicking a few links. These would have links to other articles, which I mindlessly clicked on. Before I knew it, I had wasted an hour or two, and actually hadn't learned all that much useful information (yes, reading some news is good, but the returns diminish over time). This would often repeat several times over the course of the day, often starting when I woke up and continuing until I was actually lying in bed.

Another scenario is that I would be working on something productive, and would notice that I had a message or two in my email inbox (thanks to the unread message count showing on the tab). I flippped over to my email inbox, and the message was inevitably bulk mail of some sort. This lead to me being both annoyed and distracted from whatever I was working on. At this point (since I was already off task), I typically found an article that I previously opened in a browser tab, but hadn't yet read. Half an hour later, I realized that I should be working on something else, and that I hadn't gotten as much done that day as I would have liked.

My Solution (Yours May Vary)
As a result, I started thinking about how I could tune my life to reduce distractions. I don't believe in self control - studies have shown that exerting self-control today makes us more likely to cheat later on. The only way to effect long-term change is to modify your behaviors such that your old habits are no longer possible. I realized that the main problem was mindless information consumption - reading a web page is fine, but you should be conscious about the decision to visit that page, and that should be all you read (unless you consciously decide to consume a different page). Likewise, doing email is fine, but there is no need to do it constantly. Despite spam filters, there is still a lot of semi-spam to deal with every time you open your inbox (for example, newsletters that you want to receive but that show up at some random point during the week). If you only check mail a couple times a day, you can reduce the inpact of that semi-spam to an hour or two a day.

The final problem is smartphones, which make information consumption continuous. I actually held out a lot longer than many of my friends before making the plunge into the smartphone world. I remember being slightly sad when I got my first smartphone, because I knew that I was an Internet addict, and know that this would make the addiction continuous and complete. And this prophecy was true - my smartphone consumed me. Whenever I had a free moment, I would check my email. It actually felt like a real addiction - I would start to go through withdrawal if I went for more than a few hours without email. Every time that I wanted more information about something, I would pop open a browser and look it up on the web. If I was ever bored, I would just pop open my favorite browser and start reading (even if there were other people around).

So I made three resolutions.

The first was that if I wanted to look something up on the web, I had to write it down on paper first. I can look up anything that I want - I just need to think about it consciously beforehand, and to decide that it makes sense to interrupt my work flow. This helps to keep me honest, because  lot of times I realize that whatever I'm curious about isn't all that important.

The second was that I would only do email twice a day. The first time would be when I get to work, and the second would be right before I head out of the office. If people need to get ahold of me faster than that, they can call or send an SMS. I may eventually setup some sort of system for dealing with urgent emails, which are a lot rarer than one would expect. It's pretty uncommon that someone NEEDS to hear back from you in less than 8 hours, and can't get ahold of you via some other method of communication.

And the third was that I would get rid of my smartphone, at least for a few months. I ordered an LG phone from circa 2009 off of eBay. It does phone calls, and text messages, and that's about it. It actually does have some sort of crappy web browser, but it is slow and inconvenient enough that I won't be tempted to use it unless necessary. Interestingly, it is now impossible to activate a phone on Verizon without at least a minimal data plan - I had to select 75MB for $10, meaning that I only save about $20 per month by ditching my smartphone.

At this point, it has been just over a week, and I'm already feeling better. My head is clearer, and I'm feeling slightly happier. When I wake up in the morning, I have time to make a good breakfast and meditate for half an hour before heading in to work (since I don't check email before heading in, it's a lot easier to do this). I can focus better at work, and I get more done (even though I leave the office earlier). And, when I get home, I have an hour or two to read before going to bed (about halfway through A People's History of The United States). Sunday is reserved for doing something interesting that involves zero technology. Sure, I do worry about getting lost since I don't have Google Maps at my immediate call, but that's actually part of the fun. There is actually research showing that overreliance on navigation software is turning our brains into mush...

2 responses
One way I found to not check email as often is to set up push notifications for emails coming from important people. If I get an email from them, I hear about it on my iPhone, otherwise I can leave email closed. But I guess if you're losing the smartphone that might not help much :)
Great post. Thanks. I have been toying with only replying to email every two days, with the aim of moving that out to a week. I still push stuff to people that bother to listen on twitter, linkedin and facebook (for community, work and family respectively). I have found I've been having deeper conversations with people on the projects I care about (rather than just responding out of courtesy). Other stuff drifts away. I do need to skim emails still once a day during transition period, especially when business deals are in mid play and time is crucial. This has helped me avoid email 'bankruptcy' and reduced stress materially.

It means emails are reducing too, 150 per day down to 100. I am using coinr (beta, still very rough) to manage todos and track other nice stuff that saves time later like #expenses and #todo and #toread (different to #book cause sometimes you want the paper to enjoy/meditate) and #towatch (different to #movie for same reason youbtube vs dvd/netflix lean forward vs lean back).

Anyway, thanks this was really useful.