Don't blame the information for your bad habits

Clay Johnson on info overload vs. info overconsumption.

We assign blame for our overconsumption in odd ways. Gulp down one too many cupcakes and that’s 100% on you. Yet, if you’re overwhelmed by the fire hose/deluge/tsunami of information, blame must be placed elsewhere: on those glutton-minded information sources or the overall degradation of society or … anywhere really, as long as it doesn’t reflect back on your own lack of control. Information overload seems to always be someone else’s fault.

Clay Johnson (@cjoh), author of the forthcoming book “The Information Diet,” believes the information overload problem is actually an information consumption problem. In the following interview, Johnson explains how reframing the issue around consumption and taking ownership of our info intake are the keys to finding information balance.

Is “information overload” the wrong term?

Clay JohnsonClay Johnson: Information overload is the wrong term because it blames the information. That doesn’t make any sense because information isn’t something that can make decisions or be malicious. Information is something that informs decisions, and those decisions are made by people. We never say someone suffering from obesity is suffering from food overload. Bad food is manufactured by companies that are being run by people, being distributed by companies that are run by people, and being purchased with money from people. Spend a night in a room with a bucket of fried chicken, and provided you don’t eat it, your cholesterol is unlikely to change.

Because of this mistake in how we look at the problem, we’re unable to fix it. Information overload’s message is, “put these tools on your computer, and you’ll better manage the information.” This kind of practice would be like trying to go on a food diet by buying a different kind of refrigerator, or trying to become a professional athlete by relying solely on the purchase of running shoes. The problem is, we don’t need to manage the information. We need to manage our consumption of it.

In other words, we don’t suffer from information overload — we suffer from information overconsumption and poor consumption habits. The solution is just as simple as a successful food diet. It’s about building habits and healthy choices for yourself, and sticking to it.

Why do we place blame on the information itself?

Clay Johnson: Information is different from the three things we need to consume to survive: food, water, and air. Without getting too mystical, food, water and air are made out of matter, but information is ethereal and comes at us from everywhere. Information is much harder to think of as something we consciously consume.

It’s certainly easier to blame the information than it is to take responsibility for our consumption. It’s also easier to worry about the economic system that we’ve set up that values information that affirms our beliefs, makes us feel good, or terrifies us rather than pursue information that informs us and empowers us to make smart decisions. It’s just easier to think about a bogeyman than it is to be consciously aware of our consumption.

What are the physical and mental effects of information overconsumption?

Clay Johnson: The book starts out with what I think are the two examples of information overconsumption, and the biggest problem I’m trying to solve in writing it: an electorate that’s massively disconnected from the mechanics of their government. In front of the White House in 2009, I saw someone holding a sign over his head that said “Keep your Government Hands off my Medicare.” Shortly thereafter, I saw someone else holding a sign over his head in front of the (now closed) Walter Reed Army Hospital that said “Enlist Here to Die for Halliburton.”

Now, neither of these signs made any sense: you’re not going to be able to keep government’s hands off of a government-run program, and nobody enlists to join the Army at an Army hospital. But after speaking with some of the people behind these sorts of messages, they didn’t come across as stupid. Medicare man, for instance, spoke with me for about 45 minutes about the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank in Jekyll Island, Ga., and he could name the first 10 amendments of the Constitution. It made me think that there’s probably a form of ignorance out there that results from the consumption of information rather than the lack of it. And sure enough, when you look at our history through that lens, you can see a lot of problems — from the tobacco debates of the late 20th century to the climate change and vaccination debates of today.

In other words, information overconsumption can make democracy less scalable. Thomas Jefferson said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Information overconsumption can cause as much ignorance as a lack of education.

Overconsumption has all kinds of other individual consequences — cognitive ones like a poor sense of time and shortened attention spans, or social ones like shallower relationships. Let’s not forget the physical ones — stress, hypertension and sedentary lifestyles are nothing to laugh at. We’re not sedentary because we’re silently meditating. We’re sedentary, usually, because we’re consuming too much information.

The Information Diet — Just as junk food can lead to obesity, junk information can lead to a new form of ignorance. This book provides a framework for consuming information in a healthy way, by showing you what to look for, what to avoid, and how to be selective. In the process, author Clay Johnson explains the role information has played throughout history, and why following his prescribed diet is essential in today’s information age.

What are the first steps you should take to address information overconsumption?

Clay Johnson: Step one is measurement. Just like with food, it’s a good idea to get a non-obsessive look at how much you’re consuming. Count the stuff that requires effort for you to consume — anything that involves a power button, page, switch, tap or click. There seem to be all kinds of gadgets that track when you sleep and how well you sleep these days, but not that many that help you when you’re awake. On your computer, you can use a service like RescueTime that will count everything you consume. When you’re not in front of a computer, keep a little media journal.

Step two is to cut cable TV. Going on an information diet with a high-end cable sports package is like trying to go on a diet while subscribing to a daily fried chicken and ice cream delivery service. Cutting cable does two things: it reduces your exposure to advertising (probably the junkiest of all information) and reduces your ability to “couch surf.” Plus, it’s just cheaper. You’ll save a lot of money going Internet-only and getting your television through Netflix, Hulu, iTunes and Amazon.

Step three is to adjust your consumption habits. Just like with food, it’s good to go local. Start your media consumption with the things that are the most local to you: your closest family and friends, then your local and professional communities, then national issues, then international. Too often we focus more on the issues of Washington or the world when it’s our local school boards and state legislatures that make the decisions that affect us most.

Step four is to fix your computer. Try and get rid of anything with a number by it. Your inbox number, all those notifications that pop up, that little red box for notifications on Google+, even the stuff that might be popping up to tell you when a song is playing. Get rid of them. End the battle for your attention on your computer. It’s your computer, not Google’s, not Microsoft’s, not Facebook’s. Yet these guys seem in a constant battle for getting in front of your eyes every waking moment. I put together a list of tips and resources to help rid your system of notifications.

Step five is, again just like with food, to not consume information that would be unrecognizable to your grandparents. Avoid highly processed stuff and go straight to sources. Actively avoid news articles that don’t empower readers or viewers with the source materials (so few do) and seek out source materials for yourself.

How do you know when you’ve got information consumption under control?

Clay Johnson: When I first put myself on this kind of diet, especially after removing the ads and notifications of my life, it was as though I lost weight. It’s like being in a room with a really noisy air conditioner — you don’t realize you’re suffering, but you breathe a sigh of relief when the the air conditioner turns off.

Unfortunately this only lasts a few minutes before your brain starts wondering when it’s going to get its next dopamine hit. But keep at it. For me, after about a year of being on an information diet, I find I have more time for my wife and family, I’m better at my work, and I have less stress overall.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Photo of Clay Johnson by Joi Ito.


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  • Chrisfs

    The author’s take is a bit disingenuous. Information may not have a will of it’s own but it’s created and presented in such by it’s creators to draw our attention. Email from both wanted and unwanted websites has bold, grabbing subject lines, as do blog posts. Facebook, twitter send out notices to your email and your mobile phone.
    I agree it’s necessary to take action to reduce the amount of information, but you can’t say the providers of info are blameless. They structure their sites like Pringles, so that it’s hard to eat just one. Acknowledging this and counting it is part of the diet plan, just as recognizing that the cashier’s offer to super size something is not a random innocent request.

    (and just as important, find good information. You can recite the 10 amendments but if you read extremist news sites, you’ll won’t be well informed).

  • Huge fan of Clay’s thinking on this issue! >

    Thanks for surfacing it again for me, Mac. Information obesity is the key. That’s a choice. I’ll take it a step further on the issue of “information” overload. If it informs you, makes your decisions more reasoned, can you ever get too much of that?

    We’ve been having a lot of discussions about this recently where I work. We may not be overloaded by too much information at all. One thing we are certainly overloaded with is a litany of Internet-based junk food that doesn’t inform or help us make well-researched decisions.

    Not sure what one word would replace information for Internet-based junk food — or printed and televised junk food infotainment — but something disguised as information, then dashes our hopes, leaving us feeling frustrated and malnourished.

    My vote: Webcakes.

    Keep doing what you do. And people … follow @cjoh for “information” in its true form and buy his book.
    @MarkAEvertz and @attensa

  • I recently read the draft of Clay’s book, and it really made me think about my own information consumption habits, and the importance of aggressive “hygeine” to improve those habits.

    Time is a precious resource. You don’t get it back. Thinking through what you want to produce as well as what you want to consume, and how much time you’ll allocate to each activity, is a good start. But there are a whole host of productive steps you can take to remove cruft from your information diet.

    His book is both thought-provoking and practical. Unlike a lot of the information you consume, you’ll get back more time than you put into it.

  • gregorylent

    bogus problem

    keep your attention on the self and what is needed comes at the right time.

    the self is the only filter needed.

  • The amount of information that is accessible and presented to us has increased exponentially over the past decade. While we’ve been enjoying this orgy of information, the populous has not been thoughtfully evolving our information related behaviors. I for one have recently come to a realization that my overzealous information consumption was starting to have negative effects. Personally I am creating strategies to alter my behavior to be more focused. Read about it here:

  • This speaks truths to iPad/tablet owners.

    – Written on my iPad

  • Sara

    Mac, I really enjoyed this piece. I am working on a book and hoped you might permit me to reprint portions, with credit to you. Please email me for more details.

  • This is an excellent metaphor. The kind that makes one wish we had thought of it! :-)

    I think also that “information overload” can also refer to excessive complexity.

    And though you do touch on it, perhaps you should stress “quality” of information a little more strongly in the overviews and summaries. Eating less junk food is not the whole answer if that’s what you’re actually eating, of course. Consuming high-quality food is essential.

    And one thing I stress to others is to think about just picking a few sources of information through which most of everything else will trickle through, such as Charlie Rose interviews, or or Techmeme. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are also great ways to have a laugh and keep or critical thinking skills sharpened in detecting when information is deceptive.

    As we all know, deception is rampant, and people rely on the information overload to deceive us.

    Finally, I’ve long said that oversimplification is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. It’s a human coping mechanism, and it’s problematic.

    There are many things to think about, and just as with our diets, we have to put in some thoughtful effort to maintain a good balance, of course.