On better information habits
I have recently read The information diet. It is a book about information consumption. It makes an analogy with food that works pretty well: in the same way that healthy eating habits are good and needed in a world of food choices, good information habits are necessary in a world where information is everywhere.
The book contains great pieces of advice. Some ideas I loved are:
Information overload is a wrong concept. Information is not requiring you to consume it.
There has always been more human knowledge than any person could consume. The problem is that today it is all at the tip of your fingers.
Information should be consumed consciously. This implies consuming exactly what you want to consume when you want to consume it. The author even recommends scheduling your information consumption.
I have reviewed many times the approach I use for consuming technical information. In fact, I bought this book because I wasn’t quite happy with the system I had in place:
I was receiving too much information
I was exposed to a lot of noise
Too much information
I have always tried to be selective with the sources I was subscribed to. But at the same time, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of missing interesting stuff. The result is that I was subscribed to a lot of sites that published great content. This made it difficult to read all the new content periodically. This stressed me out and prevented me from enjoying the things I read.
So I decided to drastically reduce my number of subscriptions. I reduced my subscriptions from 24 to 5:
- Pragpub (monthly)
- Practicing ruby (monthly)
But more important that the specific sites themselves, which for sure will change with time, I clarified what I wanted from now on:
- Keep a really small group of subscriptions.
- Carefully crafted publications. Their authors work hard to produce and select high-quality content
- Predictable and slow cadence (weekly or monthly)
A nice side effect of these specific publications is that I didn’t need an RSS reader anymore. Just plain old mails and a filter to forward them to my Pocket account does the job perfectly.
In addition to these subscriptions, I love watching random screencasts from Peepcode, CleanCoders and Railscasts.
Finally, I think that technical books should form the basics of my education. In fact, reading books requires more time and effort that reading articles or watching screencasts. So freeing time for doing it was very important for me.
Not surprisingly, with the exception of the weekly newsletters, the contents I consume are not free. To me this is logical. Producing high-quality content is incredibly hard. When a publisher depends on ads, it is very easy that it ends up favoring volume and frequency, two things I really want to avoid.
Too much noise
I call noise to the pieces of information I spend time consuming that are irrelevant to me. It took me a lot of time realizing I had this problem and even more time taking measures against it. The source of my noise was basically Twitter.
Despite of all my efforts, I have failed to make Twitter a valuable information-consumption tool for me. At the end, I realized that the problem was that I was trying to use Twitter for something it was never intended to be.
One of my favorite parts of the book is when the author synthesizes his research on neuroscience applied to the way we consume information. At some point he talks about a neurotransmitter called Dopamine which is in the heart of brain stimulus reinforcement. In words of the author:
Dopamine makes us seek, which causes us to receive more dopamine, which causes us to seek more.
As a species, dopamine is good. It helped us to find acquire knowledge and innovate. With abundance of information and multiple notifications in place (emails, mobile phones, social networks, blogs’), dopamine is bad as it puts us in a loop where we can’t focus on a given task at hand.
The book doesn’t mention Twitter specifically, but when I learned about dopamine I realized Twitter was a perfect dopamine generator. So I wasn’t surprised to find articles like Twitter as the ultimate dopamine dispensary. I wasn’t quite happy with Twitter before learning about dopamine, but learning about it was enlightening.
I found myself reading about political opinions, hobbies, great and not that great technical articles, quotes, thoughts, discussions, travels, news, jokes, rants, food, cool apps Reading tweets that made me curious and click the associated link or google for more. Things that most of the times were entertaining and, some times, highly educative. But that didn’t pass the filter of ‘high-quality and relevant to my goals only’ that I wanted to use from now on.
So what I did was basically to remove Twitter from my daily life one month ago. The only measure I took was removing my personal account from the desktop app (I will use the web app if I need to). I still have the app on my phone as it’s a good time killer in some circumstances, but I am really trying to keep these circumstances rare. For example, they don’t include reading before going to sleep or pauses when working, which were 2 typical scenarios for me. So far, I am really happy with the new silence gained by turning Twitter off.
The idea of selecting good content to consume is pretty obvious. But in my experience, more important than selecting the best content, is the act of selecting a small group (of great content, of course). I want to manage a volume of publications I can handle effectively with ease. The system won’t work for me otherwise. Even when that implies leaving a lot of great content out.
I have never been a fan of social networks, of any kind. Twitter was different in my mind. In fact, my first tweet in March of 2010 was a question about whether Twitter would be useful as a technical information source. It took me more than 3 years to answer myself. To me it isn’t, because the noise of the channel is too high for my taste.