Your information diet

MOST OF US only have ourselves to blame as we complain about information overload, and then go on information binging. The explosion of media platforms and communication channels is, by no means, an unsolvable problem. Consuming information in more discriminating, purposive ways must start with each one of us clarifying what, after all, is this information’s purpose. What kind of input is necessary to do my job, really? What do I find truly interesting in what comes my way? Which forms of knowledge do I actually put to practical use, and in what ways? By contrast, what feeds am I plugged into that do not add much to my work routine or overall intellectual life?

It is likewise useful to question how, practically, we consume information. During what parts of the day, and through which mediums—digital, paper-based or interpersonal—do I acquire and retain meaningful knowledge? And when do I catch myself absorbing information in ways that distract more than they enlighten?

Indeed, our dominant reflexes often form part of the problem. On one side, we devote excessive energy to the wrong kind of internal communication: bureaucratic processes, countless email chains and group meetings, and the consequent decisions-made-by-committee. On the other, we increasingly turn to social media to track current events, thereby relying on others to curate what might be important to us—a task for which they are not, by default, naturally inclined or well-positioned.

The sum of these two tendencies is ironic. Having consumed our bandwidth sifting through noise, we are left with ever less space for the edifying exchanges that require us to slow down and focus—whether reading more long-form material, doing proper fieldwork, or making the most of the rich human resources represented in our friends and colleagues.

Now, if we stop treating the idea of “finding time” as some elusive holy grail, what can we do concretely? Several basic rules will go a long way to making time for what information we need.

Insulating internal communication

An essential first step is to rationalize our conversations with colleagues. More often than not, they are either mixed up with everything else (in our email feed) or moved to the wrong place (in an overused meeting room or a digital equivalent like a WhatsApp group, where everyone is forced to read everything or simply tune out). One set of alternatives resides in virtual workplaces that bring together multiple coordination functions, from instant messaging to file-sharing: Slack, Microsoft Teams or SamePage come to mind, among many others.

While it would be naïve to imagine doing away with email communications entirely, these can nonetheless be significantly streamlined. Notably Gmail—which can serve as an interface for virtually any other email server—sports functionalities that are well worth the initial investment of 30 minutes. You may, for example, apply “labels” and “filters” to channel all emails from colleagues into a specific thread, offset from all other correspondence. With a little patience, you can even create a “dashboard” layout that highlights messages you want to prioritize—say, by pointing you toward messages from specific partners or clients.

Funnelling open-source content

Email evokes widespread fatigue primarily because most organizations use it inefficiently and excessively. It remains, nevertheless, a useful vehicle for quality information, provided the latter is carefully chosen. Subscriptions to newsletters and distribution lists, for example, are far more beneficial the more systematic our approach: pared down to minimize noise while highlighting the most relevant content, and again directed via filters into a dedicated folder. Three types bear considering: quality general information (say, from a major newspaper); very specific expertise; and digests aggregating what is available on the web generally, in a deliberate form of curation.

You may also generate your own, tailored updates, using such tools as RSS feeds, which collate mainstream sources of your choosing, delivered to your inbox. Relatedly, Google Alerts offers a powerful service: it automatically scans the internet for content based on predefined criteria, and sends the results daily, weekly, or in real-time. In the long run, experimenting with various settings will prove another fruitful investment of your time.

Making social media work

Social media algorithms are not designed to enhance our information diet, any more than the people we follow are devoted to catering to our personal interests. The quality of our feed will depend on what “editorial” decisions we make as we build our network—how many people to include, of what kind, on which platforms, and to what ends. The result, however, will always include far more “noise” than “signal,” a balance we can adjust through various hacks.

Facebook is generally ill-suited to doing more than taking the temperature within relatively closed sub-communities of users. It helps to add them to separate “lists” to avoid the usual muddle of personal friends, professional contacts and random associations. To follow a specific topic, the only tools available consist in liking Pages, which you can then view in Pages Feed and Shortcuts, and joining Groups, for which you can adjust notifications.

Twitter is both louder and more easily manipulated to achieve specific informational objectives. You can easily bundle the voices you want to hear on any given topic into “lists.” These are best constructed around a small number of individual accounts that consistently circulate content relevant to you, with minimal distractions in the form of boasting and bickering. Another useful function is to “mute” people you can’t diplomatically unfollow. Finally, Twitter offers advanced search capabilities, like Google (and in contrast with Facebook). These make it a very navigable database, which you can scan in a systematic way.

Reserving a time and space

None of the above will resolve our information overdose without a measure of self-discipline. It doesn’t have to be dramatic: but we do have to be honest with ourselves. A taxi ride is an apt moment for trivial digital stimuli—flipping through tweets, say. Reading a thought-provoking article or dealing with a substantive email exchange demands time of its own, when we can focus and be truly productive.

Most people have, consciously or not, reserved parts of their daily routine for such concentrated management of information. Fully recognizing and rationalizing those moments will increase their efficiency far more than the charade of trying to get rid of all our bad habits as the necessary precondition to “finding time.” In addition to the hacks already mentioned, use tools like browser bookmarks—or more sophisticated digital repositories such as the Pocket app—to collect and organize must-reads ahead of the quality time you want to use better.

Recognising and rewarding value

A last consideration is of the civic kind, which may be best argued for via a metaphor. Eating healthier food is not merely an individual undertaking—unless you turn to farming, and happen to be particularly good at it. Affordable, organic products only become broadly available when consumer behaviors and demands shift in that direction on a sufficient scale. Improving our information diet is no different. Our current practices—notably social media binging and unbridled paperwork and electronic bureaucracy—create ever more incentives for precisely the kind of content we complain about.

Collectively, then, we must work toward more purposeful and considerate communication, if only out of self-interest. Quality information should be rewarded in some way, which is not always strictly transactional. Investing adequate time to streamline our consumption, to curate and circulate good content, or merely to share thoughtful feedback with authors and publishers will upgrade our intake, incrementally. To this day, good information is almost always about people talking to each other. We set the rules of the market; technology can’t take that from us, unless we let it.

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Illustration credit: Pieter Brueghel the Elder The Harvesters by Wikipedia; Sebastiano Lazzari Nature morte with a cat by Flickr / licensed by CC. 

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