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Managing your information diet
Adjusting your consumption of news can greatly increase your impact
I‘ve talked previously about family dinners with my mother, my father, and Tom Brokaw of NBC Nightly News, and more generally about the central role that information played while growing up as a child. I was recently reminded of this when visiting my now elderly father who has challenges with mobility but whose mind is as sharp as ever.
Following the news of the day as a full-time job
My dad still reads the local newspaper front to back each day, subscribes to several magazines, and watches NBC Nightly News on YouTube. I graduated with an economics degree for my undergraduate studies at Michigan State University, so my father seems to believe this makes me an expert in all things financial related. He asked me last month why our local utility, City Public Service (CPS), was issuing new bonds rather than funding proposed capital expenditures from the utility rates that consumers pay each month. I had to confess that I had no idea: I was completely ignorant. I didn’t know CPS was issuing new bonds, I didn't know what the proceeds would be used for, and I certainly was in no position to debate whether issuing debt was a preferable form of financing to other alternatives.
As it happens, CPS is one of the few locally owned utilities in the United States; the City of San Antonio acquired it in 1942 and rate increases much be approved by our City Council. Having public accountability for our government is important in my view and I’m glad that people like my father are doing their best to keep up with news items that affect us. However, most of us are not retired with a full day to devote to consuming news like my father. Given this constraint, how should we decide what our “information diet” should be?
The argument for conscious consumption
My father is an example of someone with an “information rich” diet. He is incredibly educated, holding a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Michigan. He leans Democratic and suffers from the confirmation bias as the rest of us, but I would say he consumes a wider variety of information sources than most people, myself included. Dad isn’t big on social media and his circle of contacts is small; he relies more heavily on the traditional “mainstream media” that he has trusted most of his life.
I recently got back to reading the book The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss, the well-known author, podcaster and entrepreneur. My wife strongly recommended the book to me after I decided to launch my own firm. One of the concepts that Ferriss advocates is consuming a “low information diet” and the cultivation of “selective ignorance”. Ferriss quotes the economist Herbert Simon who famously said, “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”. Ferriss makes the analogy of our modern propensity to consume too many calories, which leads to obesity and a range of negative health outcomes. He states:
It is imperative that you learn to selectively ignore or redirect all information and interruptions that are irrelevant, unimportant, or unactionable. Most are all three.
Ferriss goes on to contend that “most information is time-consuming, negative, irrelevant to your goals, and outside of your influence”. But wait - is intentionally choosing to be ignorant of what’s going on in the world around us really the best strategy? Ferriss contends that most of the “news” you consume not only won’t materially affect your life, but that you won’t even remember what you spent 1-2 hours each morning reading, watching, or listening to.
Another author, Clay Johnson, wrote a book published in 2012 titled The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption. His book makes that case that most people spend the majority of their day consuming and processing information (up to 11 hours daily or even more for some people). Similar to Ferriss, Johnson relates information consumption to the food industry and advocates that we take care in selecting what we take in. Johnson goes beyond Ferriss’s argument to limit information consumption in the name of productivity and efficiency; he argues that our health and even survival are at stake. Johnson also makes the point that much of the information that attracts us is affirmation information: the kind that confirms our preconceived notions and fuels our confirmation bias, so low on information content that fuels new, original thinking.
Finding nutritional sources of information
All of the arguments I’ve presented above do not touch on the recent concerns with disinformation, information wars, and the addictive nature of social media algorithms to show you more of what it believes you want to see, creating an echo chamber of sorts. So where can you go to find “nutritional” sources of information that are easily digestible, relevant, and not pushing an agenda? This is a challenge that this newsletter and my new firm Forestview Insights is attempting to solve.
I’m often asked by people, especially students and young professionals, what sources of information that I rely upon to inform my thinking. I’m still drawn to traditional media for the news headlines of the day, mostly because there are some standards in terms of journalistic integrity, although I acknowledge these are not as unbiased as I once thought. I would say I’m drawn more to specific people that I follow on social media, particularly LinkedIn and Twitter, as well as some podcasts which I find valuable. There are some newsletters like Forestview as well that are targeted and can be enlightening. Ferriss recommends developing a circle of friends and colleagues whose insights and opinions you have come to find trustworthy and utilizing them whenever a large news story appears that could be highly relevant to you and your organization.
Curating a balanced information diet is more challenging than ever, but doing so has both practical benefits in terms of increased productivity and ingenuity at work, as well as improved health benefits. I hope that Forestview can be part of that healthy sources of information for your and your colleagues today and in the future.
What information sources do you most rely upon? How do you prefer to consume information: textual (reading), audio (listening), or visual (watching)? How do you balance the desire to be informed with the need to be focused and productive without being distracted? Please share and insights and/or productivity tips in the comments below.