Now that the holidays are over, I’ve been catching up on all the emails, tweets and other online detritus that’s built up during my escape to the real world. When I finally checked on all the blogs I subscribe to (yes, I’ve amended one of the 5 “mistakes” I make online), I had over 1,000 unread items clamoring for my attention.
So I did what I’m sure most of you would do in this situation:
1. Mark all as read.
2. Immediately feel guilty that I “might have missed something.”
3. Shrug it off and get back to work.
How Dare You Demand My Time?
Each day, millions of people use Twitter, Flickr, Facebook and YouTube. On each of these platforms (and others), more information is produced and uploaded every day than any human being could ever possibly absorb. Add in the hundreds of TV shows on cable, the thousands of books at Barnes & Noble and the millions of songs available from iTunes and you have more white noise than anyone could be expected to process.
So why are we adding to it?
The promise of internet fame and fortune has led many of us to believe that what we have to say matters, even if only to some small subculture (whom we hope will someday pay us for our insights and charm). That the world is already full of media created by people who also think what they have to say matters is irrelevant; we are cultural forces unto ourselves, and we cannot be stopped from sharing what we want you to know we know.
And yet, we also want to assimilate EVERYTHING we find.
We want to read every blog post. We want to watch every video. We want to meticulously comb through our tweets, sifting through them for meaning, and clicking on Every. Last. Link.
Because we know there’s genius out there. And if we blink, we’re afraid we’ll miss it.
Now that we constantly have easy access to the sum (and growing) total of the world’s information, we want to experience as much of it as possible — or at least we lead ourselves to believe we should. Knowledge is power, and since knowledge — and even facts — are constantly changing, we need to absorb new information regularly in order to keep up.
But power must be used in order to have value. So…
Q: What are any of us actually doing with all the information we manage to absorb?
A: Who has time to do anything when we have so much more information to get through?
Balancing Information Intake vs. Actionability
Ages ago, when man lived in caves (or even hamlets), he was lucky to have knowledge occasionally bestowed upon him. And when he received new information, he also had the luxury of time to digest it — mostly because the means of distributing new information was so cumbersome. (Which was a good thing, because building the infrastructure of the modern world would have taken forever if every sheepherder and blacksmith had to stop and check Boing Boing 20 times a day.)
These days, we don’t even have to make time for our information intake. A steady supply of new stimuli is a given. What we’re lacking is the time to process the ideas we encounter, consider them against our own values and goals, and then (when appropriate or necessary) convert these ideas into actions.
Yet, even mentioning this seems pointless, because the resulting “to-do” list looks like:
1. Make time to take action, but first…
2. Make time to figure out what actions to take, but first…
3. Make time to make time.
You don’t need a guru to remind you that you only have 24 hours in a day, and you don’t need a checklist of New Year’s resolutions to remind you of your basic needs and your lifelong dreams.
What you need is a mental machete to cut through the bullshit.
1. Come to grips with the fact that you’ll never know everything.
Just because everything ever thought, written or created is just a Google search away, that doesn’t mean you need to see it all. You have bills to pay, loved ones to hug and a life to live. Stop feeling obliged to pay attention to things that aren’t furthering your own goals. (You do have goals, don’t you?)
2. Stop oversharing. The world does not need your next bit.ly link.
It probably seems noble to endlessly shit out retweets to links you’re too busy to fully absorb yourself, but which you hope someone can make use of. (Translation: “I’m drowning, but the world is so amazing! SAVE YOURSELVES!!!”)
What you forget is that we’re all busy and bereft of attention, so all you’re doing is distracting us from our own goals while simultaneously clogging the tubes — both the digital ones and the mental ones I’m trying to keep clean. Trust me, I love new information as much as the next guy. And the day I find myself unable to find any, I’ll let you know.
3. Be content with learning in chapters, rather than volumes.
Some blog posts are so well-written, so dense with ideas and so richly embedded with quality links, that to fully experience and appreciate them would take a day at least, or possibly a full semester. And since so many of those links lead to other posts of equal merit, the opportunity (and the burden) of learning is infinite. As rare as it is to find something that captivates us, it’s the fear of missing something life-changing that’s even more crippling… and so we keep reading on, and on, and on…
So how do you convince yourself to turn off the spigot of neverending knowledge? How do you know when enough is enough?
You don’t. But you do know when you’ve hit upon something you can actually use. So do yourself a favor: when that happens, pause the knowledge stream and switch gears.
4. Knowledge without application serves no one.
Maybe you’ve stumbled across a new accounting program that looks promising,
Maybe you’ve been made aware of atrocities you feel compelled to repair.
Maybe two disparate concepts you read about last month just collided in your brain while you were taking a shower, and suddenly the whole world (and your place in it) seems to make sense.
Whether you’ve found new information that motivates you to take action or you’re just now wrapping your head around a concept that’s revealing itself to be applicable in your life, you owe it to yourself to incorporate this new input by way of action. If that means testing out a program, doing additional research, making phone calls or asking questions, do it. If it means taking something apart, moving something around or smashing two things together, do it.
If you don’t do it now, you won’t do it later, because something else will have your attention. And insight doesn’t wait for optimal conditions.
5. Make your show & tell count.
It’s inevitable: no matter how much we try to cut down on the volume of information we share, we’ll still be creating and curating something. There will always be another video that your friends just have to see, or another blog post that your followers just have to read (and comment on).
So at least make sure you’re not adding to the problem.
Am I just creating more white noise in your life, or am I giving you information that can be applied / acted on / experienced?
Do I even know what you want? Have I stopped to ask? Have you bothered to take time out of your day of information consumption to tell me what you want? Do you even know?
Our perspective needs to be restructured. What’s important? How do we gauge success? What actions are accomplishable, given our dwindling “free time”?
The better we understand our own goals, the better we’ll become at producing media that meets our own needs — and the easier it will be to block out the white noise that doesn’t.
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