The Information Diet – Limit Input, Maximize Output


Limiting intake of information can be very helpful for creativity and productivity. This means restricting volume of information, but also strategic planning of when information is consumed. For the purposes of this post, I will define information intake as email, social media, news, TV, radio, music, audiobooks and podcasts.

The most important time for intake restriction is while working on the most important tasks of the day. Shut out all distractions and concentrate until the task is complete. Computer popup notifications are one of the worst offenders to this. Even if you don’t respond to them, popups carry information that derail the thought process for a few seconds. The train of thought is broken and it takes time and energy to re-center. So, turn off all email, chat and social media notifications. I also close all internet browser windows.

Don’t start the day with intake! The first 3-4 hours of the day are the most efficient and focused for creativity and problem solving. The subconscious mind has already been working on the most relevant problem or task of the day, so it’s best to start with that in the morning. Beginning the day with information intake—especially email—derails that thought process and more energy must be spent to re-center on the important tasks of the day. I wait until 11am to check email to make sure I get the most out of those first 4 hours.

Limiting intake also means not filling breaks and free time in the day with more intake. I was guilty of this for years. Lunch break was a time for TV or Youtube videos. 5-minute breaks were to check Twitter. The result was I did not work efficiently and always found it difficult to concentrate and re-center on new tasks. The ideal break involves exercise, fresh air and a change of environment. This activity clears the mind and gives it time evaluate the next task.

Of course, information intake isn’t 100% harmful. It works best when placed in finite time at specific times of the day. This does 2 things. It gives freedom to focus when working on important tasks. “This task is my entire world right now. All other issues can wait until their scheduled time.” It also forces efficiency. “I only have 15 minutes today to review Twitter and Facebook, so I can’t look at every photo, watch every video and read every article.” Tasks grow to fill the time allotted. This is brutally true for the bottomless pit that is social media.

Intake scheduling is especially effective with email. Answering all emails in two 15 or 30 minute sessions per day allows the brain to stay on a single track and operate at peak efficiency. In a practical sense, it also saves time by eliminating switching between applications, opening up emails and responding. After closing an email, my app (Gmail) is set to open the next email without returning to the inbox. So it’s easy to batch process without distraction.

In closing, I’ll touch briefly on selective auditory intake. Animator Milt Kahl was known for his powers of concentration and was a strong advocate of working in complete silence. Tim Ferriss, author of the Four Hour Workweek, says music is ok, but no podcasts or audiobooks. Though I’m sure there are benefits to it, I’m not willing to give up my podcasts yet. However, I only listen to them while doing freely creative tasks like drawing and modeling. Mentally intense tasks such as writing and animation must be done in silence.

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