With so much information available, we spend our time consuming it, rather than understanding and applying it. Here’s what I did to reverse that trend.
With an internet of information a click away I find myself struggling to hold on to what’s important. Like many, I’ve got an irrational compulsion to skim articles and click links as if it were a race.
My information habit means I don’t feed real relationships that matter to me and this contradicts my values. But I also struggle to really leverage the information I do find. I read so much that I only remember jumbled snippets. After browsing articles all day, hitting reload on twitter while I wait in line, and constantly dipping into my email, I find that I don’t have a relationship to anything I’ve consumed and I feel unsatisfied.
When I skim through so much information daily, I can’t really digest the volume of information I’m reading. It’s like a meal that’s only licked. You have the sense that you ate something, but nothing ever made it to your stomach. You haven’t done the work of chewing and assimilating it. When you only taste but never swallow it’s empty sustenance.
Skimming is malnourishment for the mind. Intellectual nourishment requires thoughtful examination of quality information. It isn’t hurried or light. If you just glance over things, when you want to think creatively you’re going to struggle. If you don’t grasp and remember the details and subtleties of the subject, you’re bound to produce copies and sequels. Only when you really absorb the information you read can you apply it creatively to make entirely new offerings.
So what’s to be done? Permanently turning off and tuning out isn’t an option if you want to be a modern citizen. But what can you do to combat this poor diet?
The first step is to be choosy about what you read. Prune your RSS feeds ruthlessly. Unfollow twitterers that just re-tweet. Unsubscribe from email newsletters. I have a a note on my desk “books before blogs” to remind me that books (with editors, and higher creation costs) tend to be better than most blogs. My time will be better spent reading a book, than the equivalent pages of blog posts. For more here, pick up The Information Diet by Clay Johnson.
After selecting quality material, it’s time to develop a personal relationship with it. Take a few minutes to contemplate and take notes on each article (or chapter in a book) after reading it. You may read less material because of it and that’s ok. You’re looking for effectiveness rather than efficiency, quality over quantity.
Turn it into gold
Only once you have made concepts our own and fully comprehend them can you leap from them into original material.
If you wish to move from passive consumption to creative contribution, you need to make time and space for this to unfold. You need to develop habits and techniques for achieving focus and become devoted to your creative life, even scheduling time for it if need be.
In my own life I’ve been testing the following adjustments which have reduced distractions, given me space to ruminate, and released mental energy for creating.
On your smartphone, put all social apps (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) into a folder called “Distraction”. Then, each time you go for it you’re presented with this label. This is productive friction and can encourage you to skip the dip into information IV. Lots of “gap time” is regained with this hack. Those brief moments in-between activities are essential for your mind to take a break from focus.
Choose a day (I choose Sunday) to turn off your devices and spend the whole day being disconnected. This “digital sabbath” can help remind you of what it’s like to be free of email, phones, and notifications. It is a reminder that that you can choose to engage or not. I’ve found that I love having a full day where my mind is free to follow its own undistracted threads.
Create a zone of your home that’s tech-free. No screens or devices allowed. In order to “digest” your virtual experiences, you need wind-down time at the end of the day. I’ve made my bedroom the tech-free zone. When I used to watch a movie, read, or listen to a podcast or audio book in bed, I had trouble falling asleep, the quality of my sleep was poor, and when I awoke my mind was fuzzy. After several months of a tech-free bedroom, I now fall asleep quickly, sleep soundly, and wake clear.
Finally, make a conscious effort to contemplate new ideas by bringing them into your real life. I choose thought-provoking phrases or ideas and write them down on a index card for my desk. This gives me something to go deep with. It’s a week long meditation on an idea and encourages me to incorporate it into my worldview. It feels great to return back to something day after day. If you have a meditative practice (one in which you sit quietly and still your mind), you are already a long way toward creating space from which to be creative.
These changes have reduced mental clutter helping me to think clearly, which is the foundation for effective creation. William Zinsser in On Writing Well says, “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one cannot exist without the other”. I would add that clear thinking leads to creativity; one cannot be creative without knowing what you think. So disconnect for a while to regain your clarity and turn consumption into creativity.