I have a confession. For the better part of the last several months, I have suffered from intense information overload that has affected my broader ability to simply focus and retain any valuable amount of information. Scientists have called this attention fragmentation. I believe, for me, this was caused directly by the amount of material I have attempted to read/analyze/absorb each and every day without a meaningful break. Part of this was due to my job. More of it was an attempt to keep up with my wide interests and hobbies in addition to a near-24/7 responsibility to follow the political news cycle.
McKinsey Quarterly had a fairly comprehensive article on information overload and its effect on business executives from November 2011. I was astonished at how much of the article described spot on my own experience:
“The widespread availability of powerful communications technologies means employees now share many of the time- and attention-management challenges of their leaders. The whole organization’s productivity can now be affected by information overload, and no single person or group can address it in isolation. Resetting the culture to healthier norms is a critical new responsibility for 21st-century executives.”
If it were humanly possible, I would have the intellectual capacity to know everything about everything. Similarly, if someone wants to pay me solely to read and absorb information in books–I am most willingly for hire. Walking into a library or book store, for me, is overwhelming. Nearly every aisle/section offers something interesting or entertaining to learn. I find myself easily engrossed by most subjects. I never leave the library with less than three books at a time. Yes, I also have a Kindle and yet continue to check out actual books from the actual brick-and-mortar library down the street. In addition to regular e-book downloads.
The power of the internet for curious people like me absolutely astounds me. I can learn, watch and read just about anything with the click of a button. Some cost money, most are free or can be procured with ease–if you are so inclined. But videos lead to more videos. Podcasts to more podcasts. Inevitably, blogs lead to more links of interesting content to read…which leads…
…to more things to urgently want to read and know. To this point, I’m done in even further, as I love to know what others are reading. I’m subscribed to Ryan Holiday’s Reading List via email. I solicit friends, family, and my wider network for fresh material regularly. Articles, blogs, books, podcasts, come one, come all. My reading backlog is long and grows longer basically every day-if not every hour.
I could spend an entire day just keeping up with Twitter. Not necessarily clicking through to any links.
In turn, I absolutely had information fatigue at the end of the summer. I wasn’t always focused like I know I should have been. I found myself reading online at a snails pace, because I needed to reread sentences, I would juggle more than article/email/text at a time or I was trying to figure out which quote I’d tweet or Facebook. The entire summer flew by and somehow, despite living less than 5 minute’s walk to the beach, I got down there less than 5 times. As a result of all this and more, this past month I have cut back drastically on information consumption and it has been a welcome reprise.
I stopped using my Google Reader and went back to (archaic?) browser bookmarks where my truly favorite blogs are stored if I have the desire to check up on them. I lightly use Flipboard and Twitter. As a long reads enthusiast, I’m half-ashamed, half-proud of how few I’ve limited myself to–basically my physical copy of The Economist delivered each week.
The most enjoyable thing I’ve read this past month or so has been the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin. It’s a fantasy series completely detached from any real world current events and the inspiration for the HBO series The Game of Thrones. Reading the set has been a welcome change after over a year of gorging on mostly non-fiction topical books on politics, the financial crisis, history, and various biographies.
Going forward, I’d like to reevaluate where I spend my time gathering day-to-day information. Limits of time and sanity mean I can’t actually read and/or know everything. Surprising, I know.
First thing I need to pare down and reorganize is my Google Reader, currently a depository of information I essentially hoarded into one place. Yet, every time I now try to dig in I’m racked with guilt from everything I’ve missed. Those pesky counts of (1000+) in every single folder do no good. My NetNewsWire freezes trying to load it all (at least I think that’s what causes it) and instead I end up schizophrenically reading a useless 1 or 2 items, or gorging on 100′s–while losing massive amounts of valuable time.
I’d love to know how others manage their readers into a more realistic and efficient manner!
The second thing I would like to work on being more comfortable with: accepting and allowing others to inform me. I’m a journalist and clearly have personality attributes that attract me to the profession, but I realized this last month I can be okay with being a bit more uninformed. I’m still open and hungry for knowledge, but I’m feeling less of a compulsion or desire to be the first to know, or the one to know the most instantly. A lot of the “imperative” or “breaking” news I acquired over the span of the last several months is actually quite useless in the long term. Most of the information was probably even useless at the time, in all honesty. The key is, I realize that constantly running ahead of the news cycle is just not all that personally fulfilling to me.
Thirdly, I love reading books. I always have. I was a bookworm pre-smart phone and pre-Mac Book. I read a ton of books while in France in 2011. I would like to replace my lost attention span and overall time with more productive (read: limited) information habits and more books. Reading a book takes concentration, when you’re done the experience stays with you longer than an article/tweet/status–and who doesn’t feel incredibly satisfied when they’ve finished yet another book?!*
So that’s where I’ve been for several weeks. If anyone is interested in learning more about information overload, the effect of constant internet connectivity on our lives, and how to change/assess habits, I recommend the The Digital Diet by Daniel Sieberg. I’m still trying to apply much of what he talks about slowly to my over-connected life and hope to hit on a few more points in posts to come.
*I have a rule about not forcing myself to slog through a book that is unappealing to me, as such I feel no guilt moving on to the next one if it’s not my cup of tea. As such, a rarely close a book at the end and am disappointed or feel I’ve wasted time. That’s just me and my process of selecting books for personal enjoyment.