Information. Omnipotent and omnipresent, the human species’ unquenchable thirst for it has propelled us beyond all limits of imagination – yet, it harbours an oft-overlooked potential for procrastination.
The perfect excuse
From the very moment we are bourne, the predominant task of the incomparable parallell computer which rests atop our spines is fixed: to execute a continuous acquisition of as much information as possible in order to increase the accuracy of our computed solutions for current and future situations where survival may depend upon the amount of knowledge available.
In essence, we are walking sponges – which works well in an environment where information is limited by nature, but less so when faced with the informational equivalent of a firehose.
Nowadays, our addiction to information may very well be causing us as much harm as benefit, in the sense that we spend time consuming and processing it, which impairs our ability to progress beyond our current state and towards our long-term goals.
Have you noticed how easy it is to slip into a little bit of light news reading, or perhaps extend the TV session a little longer than you intended, or even suddenly realize that it’s one o’clock in the morning and you really didn’t intend to be on Facebook that long – yet for some reason, you did?
If there ever was a true form of addiction, information would be it, and little evidence is required beyond the above mentioned. It is hammered into our DNA in such a way that it is crucial to our survival and as such serves as the perfect excuse for our behaviour – yet it is with information as it is with food: gluttony always comes with precarious side effects, which may not be immediately noticeable.
It’s all about the channels
How many hours would you say you spend every day consuming information of some sort? And, more importantly, how much of it holds true value to you? The problem we face today is the ease with which information can be obtained, which leads us to become distracted – and in many cases, enamored, with it. Regardless of type, information then consumes our time, attention and energy in such a manner as to leave these resources depleted for when we have meaningful things to do.
“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention” -Herbert Simon
Let’s take a quick look at how many ways we can have our information delivered, shall we? First up: audio. You can talk to people, but that’s rarely a source for information unless you work as a journalist. A radio, on the other hand, can be left on all day in one’s car and office – and contrary to popular belief, it is by no means just “background noise”. For some people, even music could be counted in.
Then we have the written word, which comes in the shape of e-mails, text messages, instant messages and various other delivery mechanisms such as project management systems. Plus, there’s books, newspapers, magazines and even old-fashioned letters. In the multimedia department, we find television, movies and, of course, the Internet. News sites. YouTube. Facebook. Flickr. Twitter. MySpace. LinkedIn. And the list just keeps going on.
From time to time when news are slow, I see the media tossing the term Internet addiction around. This is rubbish. Nonsense. Poppycock. Hooey. People are not addicted to the Internet, they are addicted to information. The Internet is simply a delivery system – a series of tubes, if you will.
Activities with benefits
Chances are you already spend quite some time lingering aimlessly in the various channels of information delivery. Are you certain that the time spent consuming information is valuable enough to sacrifice spending quality time with children or a spouse, making room for some quietude, handling a few chores, cooking a high-class meal, having fun with a hobby or perhaps getting some excercise?
Here’s a little challenge for you: stand in front of a mirror, and tell yourself out loud that checking Facebook for the third time today is better for you than some light excercise. Oh, and good luck with that.
What is gained, then, from a reducing the amount of information which you consume? Key to the answer is the fact that information itself consumes time, energy and attention. Consider, if you will, the following example: if you are on your feet all day long, how ready will you be for a bit of soccer or a quick jog when the evening comes? Think about it.
You gain time, energy and attention, which can suddenly be applied with greater force and improved focus upon the activities which matter to you.
Beware, however, of indiscriminate reduction; information is vital to us, and a sufficient consumption will allow us to discover a myriad possibilities which could otherwise have been unknowns. It’s all about the balance.Read More
When was the last time you wrote anything of substance by hand? Faced with the inability to reply to this question as posed by a friend a few months ago, I decided to make it a point to do so regularly – and found something I hadn’t quite expected.
The warm, fuzzy lens of nostalgia
As a child, I always thoroughly enjoyed writing. It wasn’t quite comparable to my insatiable appetite for reading, but I nonetheless found great pleasure in the ability to create something from nothing. Naturally, the memory may appear magnified through a lens tinted with nostalgia, yet the majority of people I discuss this matter with seem to have something of a soft spot for the way we used to write – with a worn pencil in hand, carefully and deliberately sculpturing letters, sentences and storylines.
Of course, there are also those who loathe it, much as they would the bubonic plague.
I still very much enjoy the act of writing, even though for many years now I have been reliant upon a variety of computing devices to solidify the trappings of my imagination into prose. However, as much as I enjoy the speed and agility of electronics, it occurred to me upon receiving the aforementioned question from my friend that I had always enjoyed writing the old-fashioned way. Thus, I descended upon a small experiment: to write regularly by hand to see if there was something other than nostalgia which made me remember it with such fondness.
As it turns out, there was indeed.
Handwriting: Twitter of yore?
Fret not – what I am referring to is not the inane oversharing of personal details with which Twitter is oft associated, but rather Twitter at its best: the ability to – due to a constraint of a mere 140 characters – transform what may otherwise be literary lumps of coal into diamonds through compression. Purportedly, Ernest Hemingway once wrote the following: “Baby shoes for sale, never worn”. If written today, Twitter could have been the perfect delivery medium.
When it comes to handwriting, a similar effect takes place: output by keyboard is an order of magnitude faster than output by handwriting. Unable to keep up with the wild torrent of thoughts and associations allowed by digital paper – which may stream onto the screen in varying degrees of coherence only later to be reigned in, the analog counterpart promotes the bare essentials; the very crux of points; the refinement and the distillation to the purest form possible.
This appeals to me on many levels, but mostly so in the fact that a constant process of refinement is innate to the proceedings of handwriting, and that it allows for an environment mercifully devoid of distractions. It’s simple – yet, elegant in its execution.
To see whether you agree, ask yourself the following: would you rather approach someone you find attractive in a bar with only the right things to say – or the right things to say interspersed with sufficient superfluousness to render you ordinary as opposed to outstanding? And, were you able to choose, would you prefer a noisy environment or one which allows for a certain level of seclusion?
An unexpected degree of usefulness
Although I cannot say I write enough by hand to have experienced a particular difference between analog and digital input, I recently came across an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal that claims cognitive, learning and even fine motor skill benefits for handwriters of all ages. I find this part to be of particular interest:
“And one recent study of [Virginia Berninger]‘s demonstrated that in grades two, four and six, children wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus with a keyboard.”
That’s certainly something to think about in an age where most parents – albeit with the very best of intentions – expose their children to the wondrous world of computing at an early age. Perchance, as with most things in life, taking balance into consideration could prove wise.Read More
Do you find yourself constantly thinking about work at home – or vice versa? If you experience this sort of situational overlap, it most likely stems from an attempt to utilize your brain as a storage facility – which it most certainly is not.
Your brain, the world’s most amazing factory
As capable as our brains may be, they simply weren’t built to handle the amounts of information presented to us by a culture in which it has become a source of abundance and omnipresence. Certainly, we are capable of storing a staggering amount of information (and some people seem to have a special knack for it) if one considers our heritage as tree-dwelling primates, but the true purpose of the brain is to serve as a factory.
And not just any factory.
Arguably the most complicated machinery on the planet, our brain excels at gathering and combining information in an attempt to wrest meaning; to solve problems; and to reason; comprehend abstract problems; communicate; and so much more. This is what we are good at. Memorizing a phone book; not so much.
Still, without a simple, readily accessible and trustworthy system for storing and recalling information when required, our brains will attempt to retain information it considers valuable. As a person who possesses absolutely no credentials in the field of biology, I nonetheless venture that this seemingly innate reflex arose at a time where survival depended on the ability to recall crucial information – from a very scarce selection of it.
The simple solution
Processing information consumes attention; storing it consumes energy and focus. Borrowing from David Allen’s analogy of open loops, anything which hasn’t been resolved will occupy part of what is often perceived as unlimited storage space – although the truth is far from it. The amount of information you attempt to store internally correlates not only directly to your stress levels, but also the frequency with which you will experience situational overlaps.
If you’re having trouble sleeping at night due to not being able to stop thinking about certain pressing matters, this is a highly likely culprit.
But if something is amiss in such a highly delicate machinery as the brain, how can you possibly fix it? The answer is easy: write things down. This is one of the main reasons as to why David Allen‘s well-known concept of Getting Things Done has such a broad appeal; it places a great emphasis on allowing the placement of information of all sorts in a trusted, categorized system which preferably also should be easy accessible to its owner.
Lastly; a dirty little secret
Guess what? You don’t need to purchase an advanced productivity system to improve upon your status quo. A simple notebook and a pen will suffice, as switching information from internal to external storage will automatically engage the brain’s wondrous capability of creating order out of chaos. This, subsequently, will cause a system to emerge in the proper time and fashion – at which point you will be ready to make the switch from reactive to proactive information management.Read More