So What Do We *Do* With All This Information?

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.

Why?

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.

Ludicrous.

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.

Use it.

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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  • http://www.cookiesandjava.com Chris Walley

    I’ve suffered this information gorging problem, it started with working from home when it became easy to hit all those subscribe and follow buttons with good intentions.

    When I became swamped with information I started to look at the sources objectively for value. In some cases I’d made the mistake of thinking I cared about information that didn’t really matter to my well being, technology innovation for example. In other cases I realised the information sources were just low quality such as lots of link baiting by people desperately building personal brands.

    For me source culling has become rewarding and empowering. It actually feels really good to regularly scan through my RSS feeds, Facebook friends and Twitter follow list removing what doesn’t matter to me or provides value.

  • http://thejcconline.com Laura Cococcia | The Journal of Cultural Conversation

    This is the post I needed and completely right on. I’ve been feeling so overwhelmed with information flying at me – and they are all bits I want to read and absorb – but my head is spinning, mostly because I’m bummed I can’t get to all of it. I am saving your post, printing it out and putting it on the fridge. Thanks for helping me put this in perspective Justin!

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  • http://lundieslife.com Lundie

    #4 hit the spot. Thanks!

  • http://hallicious.com Chris Hall

    Upon reflection over the holidays, I realized that I have goals that I want to accomplish and a finite amount of time each night to accomplish them… I used to think, “who needs to sleep really, anyway,” but I’ve begun to reconsider.

    Information consumption should be a part of that time, but it’s bad form for my consumption to consume all of my time.

    Here’s to doing things in 2010. :)

  • http://ianmrountree.com Ian M Rountree

    Thankfully much of the permission we give for people to share with us is explicit. If I follow you on Twitter, I’m accepting ANYTHING you throw my way. If it gets useless, I unfollow. Simple. The drama, of course, comes when people don’t understand the reasons why you unfollow them.

    here’s something to be said for choosing your audience. But I agree, we do need to get better at choosing our presenters.

  • Mark Essel

    Heyo, enjoyed the topic of your post. Although I’ve written about this area before, I got a chance to see a different method of sharing it.

    Minor point: your post was a little too long for me, and linked to at least a half dozen other posts, to talk about limiting information uptake. Humor aside, I think there’s a conflict between the message you are conveying, and the length and linking needed to pass it along.

    Best of luck cutting down your input stream this year, I shrunk my Twitter follow stream and my RSS reader down to a more manageable size. The results has been a much deeper listening to fewer folks.

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  • http://broadcasting-brain.com Mark Dykeman

    I’m with what Ian says, but with one additional insight.

    Some of our sharing is for other people, some of it is for ourselves. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. I may share (or save) 1,000 things. I may only use 20 of them. However, I might only pick 10 of the 20 at some future date.

    On the other hand… the high volume of sharing is making the paradox of choice a reality on Twitter. With so many options, which do we chose? How do we keep up? Many of us just don’t even try. So I can see your side as well.

    I’d rather that people shared than not sharing at all.

  • http://mohanarun.com Mohan Arun L

    For RSS reading, you could ‘mark all as read’ and shrug and forget about it. But what about the constantly incoming barrage of emails? You really might miss something if you dont keep up with your email reading regularly!

  • http://theconsciouslife.com The Conscious Life

    Excellent piece. Though it’s never easy to balance the crave to know-all and desire to express ourselves, I’d say majority of us slant dangerous towards the first group. We absorb so much but never got the chance to express them, at least not right away. So it’s important to have a way to capture stuff that you find useful so that you can access them later down the road.

    But again, over-consumption of information can take up a lot of time and becomes a problem by itself as what Justin has said. So consume based on your needs as well as the time you’ve are the ways to go. In other words, get a life!

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  • http://correlationist.wordpress.com Prince

    Justin – Great thoughts. Enjoyed reading the comments as well.

    There are two principles which help me make sense of Social or civic or dynamic media, whatever you want to call it.

    Darwinism – survival of the fittest – only the relevant, only the truly useful information will survive. The owner of that information will become the influencer, and hence will have a real shot at monetizing his “influence”.

    Selective absorption & selective retention – We have been conditioned to use the least amount of energy to perform a required task. So, we will filter out stuff we dont think we need. Hence, disseminate information that is consistent with your strategy for being in the “statusphere”.

    Till next time,
    Keep sharing!
    Prince

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  • suzi w.

    the boing boing line made me laugh out loud. You win my “first laugh of the morning” award.

    Yes, this is so important. I seriously need to go look at my Google Reader, and yes, probably just mark all as read.

    (If you tell me, I forget. If you make me laugh, I remember.)

  • suzi w.

    the boing boing line made me laugh out loud. You win my “first laugh of the morning” award.nnYes, this is so important. I seriously need to go look at my Google Reader, and yes, probably just mark all as read. nn(If you tell me, I forget. If you make me laugh, I remember.)