Information Dieting Plans

Read not the Times; read the Eternities.
Henry David Thoreau

I’ve always struggled with how I process, manage and output information. I am basically an information junk food addict. I love consuming new and shiny bits of history, philosophy or modern commentary. A teaching company course catalogue is like a smorgasbord to a junk food junkie to me, so much to sample and enjoy — if I only could learn it all. Of course this worries me. I am concerned about the shallow way people interact with their information and I fear I’m doing the same shallow thing, albeit with an academic patina. And exactly why do I want knowledge? To what end am I aiming? This need for creative activity and contemplation is why I feel called to write and why you are reading these words. CS Lewis said we read to know we are not alone, I think he wrote to know he was not alone — and I’m doing the same. I want to flush out a set of personal information processing principles at some point resulting in a information processing manifesto. Here is my attempt to bootstrap that process. I’m sure wiser minds have figured this out and I would love to see this worked out much better.

I will season my information processing with a careful balance of new data, thinking/processing and passing on.

This means practically:

  • I will always write a review of each book
  • Just as I close my mouth when I’ve eaten too much of a food or am not hungry, I will develop the habit of listening to my mind tell me when I’ve had too much. I will therefore not motor through a bunch of pages just to finish the book or say I’ve read something.
  • Quality, not quantity. I will try to be more selective in what I read so that I’m better at stopping and thinking about content.

Also,

I want to select the material that I want to change me.

This means that I want to use the selectivity of history to filter down what I read, and:

  • I will chose classics over more recent literature
  • I will not be an early adopter, I want to let time/reviews select down information
  • I will quickly reject a book that doesn’t have the content I’m interested in. Life is too short to spend my time reading a crappy book.
  • There is very little reason to read or watch current news. Why be ‘ahead’ of the news cycle? I don’t live in a bubble, I can get the news I need from others (Tim Ferris’ low information diet.) and very, very little news is relevant to our lives. It is the trends that matter: the signal from the noise, and those are available from good periodicals like the economist or technology review — even better, a modern history course or good book that takes the long view.

One of the worst things to happen, is to let the internet malaise suck time out of your day — the little rss checking, the scan of the headlines, the re-entry into facebook to assuage your sense of loneliness — anything to convince you that you are relevant, informed and loved. All these are fake substitutes for the real things and the result of a global trade that is being made for novelty and convenience over substance and depth. Welcome to our ersatz information junk food world — it is here to match our current food distribution system. Some remaining questions:

  1. Counterpoint. Should we be reading other perspectives? Should we make efforts to build friendships and hear other points of view? Yeah, of course we should but how much? Since “Diversity” is a current virtue, how much should we try to read things we disagree with? What limits are there? For example, morally offensive or certain ‘spritualy dark’ material would be off limits for me.
  2. Impressing others. How do we avoid (or do we embrace?) the real fact that a set of books read are modern trophies. I take great pride in being ‘well read’ and am concerned that there is a tension between being both ‘well read’ and ‘well changed’ by what one is reading. However, can the desire to impress others be harnessed for good? For one, sharing what I’m reading is a great way to share and learn what the other good books are. Can this be done without the desire to impress others about the book you are reading? A personal litmus test for me is to catch myself reading books that I have no interest in, but I want to say I’ve read.
  3. At what level does noise become signal? CNN headline news might be pretty noisy, but I feel a one week economist article is more filtered. Is the Iliad then, much more profound because it distills a long period of wisdom, even though it missed a huge amount of history and technology? Should we concerned about being relevant? I am totally opposed to relevance as a goal, but not exactly sure why.
  4. Devotional. Does it really make sense to process other information than the Bible for the modern Christian? Given the very limited time any of us have, wouldn’t we be better off memorizing or diving deeper into scripture. Why is there so much extra-biblical Christian literature and is that a good thing?

I need to flush this out, but these are some initial thoughts. I would love to get some comments and develop this further. Please comment below and I promise a much more well thought out piece on this.

5 thoughts on “Information Dieting Plans

  1. Tim,

    It’s always about balance…and you have felt the pangs of reading a crappy book but have been unwilling to set it down, push back from the table and say, “No more jello for me mom”. Right? And that is the plague of the junk food junkie. It’s an addiction and like all addictions you’ve admitted you have a problem…that’s the first step. You have to get over the fear that by putting the book down you will miss something profound to come out of the text that you need to know. Trust your intuition and set it down. If you continue to eat a Hostess Twinkie after the first bite, the Twinkie doesn’t suddenly become more nutritous for you.

    So you’ve captured the approach correctly. I could not have said it better. Always write a book review…live by the words of Admiral James Stavridis, read, think, write… Let the classics in…they have been vetted over time. On the current stuff, that too can be vetted over time…but let it go six months. The good stuff is filtered by the early adopters. And reject early. I would pay attention to the news though…but focus on the images from Mars, vs the reporting of Wes Mantooth and the Channel 9 news team.

    Now onto your questions. Yes, you have to read other perspectives. Absolutely. But there to, apply your first three rules. As you know I keep my trophies in my office…the value those books have in starting conversations and opening people up to new thoughts and ideas has always outweighed the stigma that I’m pretending to be an academic, which, I freely admit I am not. I use my books, I share my books, and the most frustrating thing of all, I lose my books, some of them never come back. Which is ultimately a good thing. Third, relevance is not relevance. The Great Gastby is not a relevant story. The Great Gastby is the greatest novel you will ever read. The relevance is how the prose will turn you into a great writer. Reading great writing is essentially programming you brain with great writing construct, the content is not relevant…the programming is more important then the content. If you read crappy writing you will become a crappy writer.

    I’ll close with the lyrics of a Larry Groce song…my favorite when I was 9 years old.

    You know I love that organic cooking
    I always ask for more
    And they call me Mr Natural
    On down to the health food store
    I only eat good sea salt
    White sugar don’t touch my lips
    And my friends is always begging me
    To take them on macrobiotic trips
    Yes, they are
    Oh, but at night I stake out my strong box
    That I keep under lock and key
    And I take it off to my closet
    Where nobody else can see
    I open that door so slowly
    Take a peek up north and south
    Then I pull out a Hostess Twinkie
    And I pop it in my mouth
    Yeah, in the daytime I’m Mr Natural
    Just as healthy as I can be
    But at night I’m a junk food junkie
    Good lord have pity on me
    Well, at lunchtime you can always find me
    At the Whole Earth Vitamin Bar
    Just sucking on my plain white yogurt
    From my hand thrown pottery jar
    And sippin’ a little hand pressed cider
    With a carrot stick for dessert
    And wiping my face in a natural way
    On the sleeve of my peasant shirt
    Oh, yeah
    Ah, but when that clock strikes midnight
    And I’m all by myself
    I work that combination on my secret hideaway shelf
    And I pull out some Fritos corn chips
    Dr Pepper and an ole Moon Pie
    Then I sit back in glorious expectation
    Of a genuine junk food high
    Oh yeah, in the daytime I’m Mr Natural
    Just as healthy as I can be
    Oh, but at night I’m a junk food junkie
    Good lord have pity on me
    My friends down at the commune
    They think I’m pretty neat
    Oh, I don’t know nothing about arts and crafts
    But I give ’em all something to eat
    I’m a friend to old Euell Gibbons
    And I only eat home grown spice
    I got a John Keats autographed Grecian urn
    Filled up with my brown rice
    Yes, I do
    Oh, folks but lately I hae been spotted
    With a Big Mac on my breath
    Stumbling into a Colonel Sanders
    With a face as white as death
    I’m aftraid someday they’ll find me
    Just stretched out on my bed
    With a handful of Pringles potato chips
    And a Ding Dong by my head
    In the daytime I’m Mr Natural
    Just as healthy as I can be
    But at night I’m a junk food junkie
    Good lord have pity on me

    v/r

    Mooch

  2. Tim,

    I too have a similar tendency to take on more than I should at the cost of other aspects of life, though, I’m not sure I’d call it a problem. A couple of questions and thoughts have stired from your post. First and foremost the search for how to better spend ones time is a noble search and your friend who focused you onto the ones close to you is wise…I think reading with a friend or Chrissy is a great way to keep the metaphors and discussion points evolving although I think reading for oneself is absolutely fine too. I very much like Mooch’s post, but think that is more at the aims of being a writer…which may be a skill you choose to hone, but also one you may also choose not to given that I know you are prone to develop more and more skills. Are you trying to spend less time in the process of engaging other information? Are you trying to spend more time with your brain in a less passive state? or something else? It seems your aim with an information diet the idea of increasing the cost by requiring a review, but still this keeps you involved in the process of “reading and attainment” albeit moved into the realm then of writing and sharing. Free or low cost information is a major part of the problem, so I say keep the idea of upping the costs of reading/listening, but perhaps from a future focused technological point of view as more interesting and better material is being digitized and media formats are ever becoming more “intelligent” rather than a need to memorize or attain another skill you will almost surely have better access at the end of your diet. You are not going to miss out on all the information…the costs are coming down too rapidly, the deluge is upon us, so now we are faced with an inverse problem: how to safely sanely survive with too much attention grabbing high quality information. My bias is to say to embrace the capacity and intelligence of your non-conscious processing and learn how to have real down time, which might be your largest struggle. Perhaps anti-American ways of spending time such as on simple breathing exercises or other types of meditative practices would be helpful here. To that aim I would suggest a radical cold turkey information diet — cut all other voices out for some period say 6 months, and for that time just focus on relaxation, gratitude, prayer (perhaps emotion or mantra vs speech/ration focused), and if you want to be more American about all this add focused breathing/biofeedback tools (See HRV in the app store or Heartmath) If you have to drive for a commute allow silence or lyric-less music. This is my approach (and struggle) to trying to figure out what to do with the new information and technological landscape, perhaps it will be helpful.

    Cheers,

    Tom

  3. Very nice! I suffer from the same affliction, though likely on a much smaller scale than you in that my little brain gets filled up much more quickly. But it is a problem these days and for the most part, much of what I read/digest is a total waste of time. Rick Warren asked on Twitter when he returned from grieving over his son, “Did I miss anything on TV of eternal significance?” The answer, of course, is no. Don Draper said, “Happiness is just the moment before you need to be happy again.” Perhaps that applies to reading and indulging in superficial information as well. We’re content, like with junk food, but then hungry a moment later. It’s a mind jack basically.

    First, I would recommend fasting from this stuff. It will clear your head. I find when I go on vacation and am not reading my RSS feed or blogs that I’m so much happier. 🙂 It’s like picking up the rock of Sisyphus for me, like some strange burden that gives me no joy but I continue to do. And I do it voluntarily! It’s like a little vignette out of the Great Divorce.

    So, sounds awesome that you’ve identified the problem. Be careful that your solution doesn’t create just a different type of problem as well. I mean, when I read junk, I know it’s junk. If I start to read what I think are important things that I kind of take pride in knowing (like a bio on Churchill or something), and it’s not gospel, that may be problematic as well. So really, it’s perhaps about putting all nongospel information into the appropriate box and giving it the significance level it deserves.

    I dunno. Your friends’ responses above are much more lucid.

  4. I see that Tim posted an excerpt of my email above. Here is a modified version of the email that I sent last night:

    Not only am I on board with the need to be more deliberate with media, I am also being more deliberate in those I spend time with. Of course, primarily, my time belongs to my family. But, I learned in college that you can form very superficial relationships with people that revolve around drinking, goofing off, a hobby, etc. What I’m trying to do is surround myself with people that I want to learn from and emulate. And, of course, I don’t want to be selfish. So, if there is someone I can mentor — especially the cadets I work with — I make time for that as well.

    Anyway, I’m probably one of the worst people to ask about how to pare down consumption. I am way oversubscribed to RSS and twitter. One thing that helps me consume more deliberately is Instapaper. If I see something in my feed or on twitter that I want to read, I put it in Instapaper and let it marinate. I usually come back to it in a day or two and find it isn’t worth reading. I also rely on an Audible subscription to listen to books and the WSJ every day. The Economist app on the iPhone lets you download the audio version of that as well. Since I spend about an hour in commute, I get through a lot of content that way.

    Thanks for starting this discussion, and I appreciate the insights posted by the commenters.

  5. You’re doing good…in that you’re being thoughtful…and seeking input…two habits that are uncommon.

    When it comes to books (and articles) I read a lot of introductions and chapter 1’s…occasionally a couple more chapters, and extremely rarely a whole book. My literary life is 99% incomplete reads. I used to feel badly about that. Then I concluded I was intelligent and an early adopter/connector, which means I get the ideas quicker than average. If published material is written for the average consumer ( or worse, the lowest common denominator), then it fits one of the standard writing models:
    1. Tell me what you’re going to tell me, tell me, then tell me what you told me.
    2. Hypothesis, support, conclusion.

    Either way all the ideas are typically in the intro and chapter one. Unless I disagree and want to hear more or am fascinated and want to know more, I’m wasting my time to read further.

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