You Are What You Read: Why Managing Your Inputs is a Crucial Part of Productivity

Nathaniel Eliason
Nathaniel Eliason / April 14, 2015

We have more information at our fingertips than ever before.

Scarcely an hour goes by without our phones pinging with a news alert, a traffic update, or a new post from a favorite blog about yet another way to improve your life. Turn away from media and back to your real-life connections, and you'll still find people trying to give you more information. Friends will advise you on what to eat, how to act, where to travel, and anything else they're interested in—and their advice often originates from some other information source.

Every new piece of information is an input to your mental operating system, to your collective understanding of the world, and it can either help or harm that system. We tend to think that more data is good—and it can be important or even necessary for highly important decisions—but mindlessly collecting more information as it's thrown at us is dangerous.

Just as you wouldn't put regular gasoline in a Ferrari, you don't want just to take in any information that crosses your path. Your inputs determine your outputs. Just as the Ferrari won't run its best on sub-par fuel, our minds can't run their best on sub-par inputs.

Too much poor information distracts you from what you're focusing on, making you think other items are more important than they are. That confusion in turn makes it harder to finalize decisions, keeping you running in circles, constantly changing priorities.

But that's just the beginning.



Seven Problems from Not Managing Inputs

1. Information Overload

newspapers

The obvious problem when we don't properly manage the information we receive is that we take in bad information. We then might listen to or give undue weight to this information, leading to poor decisions at work, hurtful interactions with friends or unhealthy eating habits. We also run the risk of getting information that might be true, but is presented in a slanted or biased manner. Biased information is a regular occurrence in politics, for example, where reporters make an effort to have a message resound with people as much as possible rather than simply stating the facts.

But if we want to have our highest output, we need to make sure that our information sources are as objective as possible. Biases in our inputs open us up to bad decision-making and acting out of conformity instead of challenging the facts or opinions put in front of us. The most dangerous situation where this arises is when we listen to information that confirms our beliefs, something we're frequently tempted to do as a result of the "Confirmation Bias." Though it's nice to listen to people who agree with us, it's dangerous as they're simply telling us what we want to hear and not giving us the full take on the situation.

2. Decision Paralysis

menu

You go into a restaurant serving one of your favorite cuisines. You open the menu, and you find an entree you like, then you find another appealing dish… then another… and suddenly you have no idea what you want because you can't pick from among the five items that caught your eye. When the waiter returns, you're flustered and despite wanting to ask for more time you don't. Instead, you hastily pick an entree and immediately feel unsatisfied. What happened?

You suffered from analysis paralysis, a mental state that occurs when you're forced to consider multiple similar options. When this happens, we get stuck in the decision, agonize over it, and frequently pick one at random or give up.

The most dangerous effect of analysis paralysis isn't that it makes decisions harder, but that it makes us more likely to do nothing. It comes into play anytime you consider a large amount of information related to taking some specific action. If you're starting to build up your email list, for example, and you read every single resource online, it would be easy to give up and do nothing in the face of the overwhelming amount of information.

Instead of looking for more information before making your decision, you would have been better off just to make a decision based on what you already know. You would have then at least accomplished something.

3. Decision Fatigue

shopping mall

You decide to go clothes shopping, visiting a variety of stores, trying on outfits, and carefully picking out the items that combine price, style, fit, and look. It's fun while it lasts, but by the last store you notice yourself becoming grumpy and curt with the sales people. Then when you go home, all you want to do is lie on the couch the rest of the day, despite your best intentions to have a productive shopping outing. What happened?

We only have so many "decision making units" in a given day, and they get used up anytime we must make a choice or trade-off, or even decide whether we want to make a choice. So in the shopping example, each time you considered an item, you exhausted part of your day's decision-making power.

This can apply to the information that we receive, as well. When you hear something, you will typically ask yourself, "How can I apply this?" or "What should I do with this?" If you're constantly taking in large amounts of information and pushing yourself to apply it somewhere, you're exhausting yourself.

4. Willpower Depletion

runner

Your willpower is your ability to push yourself—usually against your short-term impulses and desires—to complete tasks your rational mind knows you need to complete. Your willpower gets you started on your work, prevents you from having a cookie with lunch, and helps get you out the door to the gym.

Willpower, similar to your decision making units, is depleted as it's used throughout the day. So making yourself go for a run might make it harder to get yourself to eat healthy at lunch, depending on how much effort it takes.

But your willpower can also be lowered by hearing bad or disappointing news. Hearing, for example, about a friend getting a major job promotion or hitting a professional goal that you're still working towards can demotivate you for the day. By not carefully managing the information coming your way, you could inadvertently make yourself less likely to go to the gym—or get anything else meaningful accomplished.

5. Worry and Fear

fear on news

Certain inputs can increase the amount of time that you spend worrying about something that doesn't need to be worried about. The news can often put you in fear of situations that you don't need to be fearful of.

For example, you could read an article about a man in the Czech Republic opening fire in a coffee shop and then start worrying about your friend who's traveling there from the US, despite the fact that the homicide rate in the CR is one-fifth what it is in the US. Or you might see articles about startups in a certain space receiving funding and worry that you'll have a harder time because of some imaginary trend. In any situation like this, you're spending time fearing an outcome that hasn't happened yet, instead of spending mental energy on filtering for stories that rationally apply to you.

6. Productivity Drain

studying

Information gathering is not necessarily productive, but we tend to trick ourselves into thinking that it is. When we collect a large amount of information that we're not going to use in the near term, we increase the amount of stuff we need to review later, which will contributes to future decision paralysis and fatigue.

It's the difference between "just in time" and "just in case" knowledge. Just in case knowledge is what we want to avoid—collecting information and data "just in case" we need it later inevitably means collecting a lot of things we don't end up using and wasting time in the process.

"Just in time" knowledge or information is figuring out what we need to know just in time to apply it. It's a more productive use of our time since we're not spending any time collecting or analyzing information that's irrelevant to our current problem, and making no extraneous decisions in the process.

The mentality of constantly collecting information just in case we need it comes from the way we learned in high school and college. When you're preparing for an exam where you don't exactly know what the questions are going to be, you have to indiscriminately try to learn everything. But since the real world doesn't work on the exam system, we need to expunge the habit, take in less information that we're not directly applying, and focus on learning skills and knowledge as we need them.

7. Unhappiness

unhappy

Last, and most importantly, many of these problems tie directly into our happiness. Taking in bad information, like crime coverage, is an obvious example since hearing something depressing would naturally make you more upset. But the problem goes beyond that.

Simply thinking about all of the great experiences happening to other people that aren't happening to you can bring you down, as well. But we rarely report on mundane activities in a famous person's life. We hear about the exciting activities of Mark Zuckerberg, for example, not that "today, Mark Zuckerberg woke up, had breakfast, went to work, dealt with a few stressful situations, then went home, had dinner, and read a bit before bed." When you only hear the exciting parts of a story, it's easy to assume the rest of the story is exciting, too. In reality, however, it's probably pretty similar to yours.

If being over-inundated with information can lead to all of these problems, then how do we prevent it? By carefully analyzing all of the sources of informational input in our life, and then giving each of them the right treatment.

Seven Information Inputs and How to Manage Them

Everything you interact with throughout your day is providing some sort of informational input into your life, but many of these sources can be grouped by type and managed the same way. Let's figure out how to handle some of the most common offenders.

1. News

newspapers

The news is the most perpetual source of fresh information in our lives, and the most problematic.

With the high frequency of "bad" news, you put yourself at risk of suffering from the depression and lowered willpower that come with sadness and fear. If you read financial news, you're ladened with decision paralysis about what to do with your personal investment portfolio instead of putting it somewhere safe where you don't have to touch it (like index funds).

Reading the news is also unproductive. It feels productive because everyone else thinks it is, but unless what you're reading is going to directly affect your decision making for the day you don't need it. You don't need to know every single company receiving funding; just set up a Google Alert for the ones that you want to watch. And you don't even need to know the location of the latest act of terror, unless you work in politics or the military. Someone will tell you about it if it was bad enough to warrant discussion.

You could skip the news entirely, and likely live a happier life without any trouble. Or, if that's too drastic, you can use an aggregation service like Feedly which can pull in the RSS feeds for news sites that you like. You can also use an aggregator like Techmeme, Nuzzle, or Google News to only see the most important news across all outlets, without ads or distractions. That way, you can quickly go through the headlines and decide what you need to read. By combing through the news this way you don't get distracted by sidebar or other content, and you can ask yourself with each headline "am I actually going to use this information in the near future?" Everything else you can swipe on past.

2. Advertising

McDonalds ad

Ads are a source of input that we don't normally think of, but the average person in the US sees 600 or more advertisements a day. All of them are trying to convince us to buy something, try something, do something, or otherwise make a decision.

Seeing ads for health products can make us insecure about our weight, ads for cars make us wonder if we should upgrade our own, and ads for food make us more likely to go grab an unneeded snack.

Ads, in many cases, make us feel less happy since they remind us we don't have something. That's part of the goal with ads, and it's insidious information like this that will spark many of the problems mentioned before.

Considering using an ad blocker extension (such as uBlock) to get rid of ads on most sites you see, as it will make you a happier and more productive person. It's a little unfair to sites, but I think companies like Doodle have done a good job of addressing the problem. And when sites are providing a service that you're getting value from, I recommend going ahead and paying for it.

3. Blogs

feedly

Blogs can be treated similarly to the news. If it's a personal blog or an article that is more for entertainment or inspiration, then there's no harm in reading it as it comes across your plate since that's not too different from reading a book. Informational articles, on the other hand, should be treated differently.

If you follow a blog with tips about marketing, for instance, it doesn't make the most sense to read content as soon as it's posted. You'll start questioning if you should implement the idea in the post, or how you can implement it, or the best way to use it, instead of waiting until there's an actual problem to solve.

Instead, try using a service like Pocket or Evernote to save the article for later. Both services let you tag articles with categories or search through their full text, so if you go back later and search for "marketing" or "social media" you can find all of the relevant articles you saved that could help you solve the problem you're faced with. You can even add articles directly to these services from popular social network and feed reader apps.

It goes back to the distinction between "just in time" and "just in case" information. Instead of reading something just in case you need it, wait till you have to solve a problem and then dig up the related information so you can solve it out just in time.

4. Videos

TED

Videos are great for explaining highly complex concepts with visual support, but for many topics they're a waste of time that will significantly slow down your information gathering.

The problem with video is that most people in the US speak at around 150 words per minute (wpm). In an explanatory video, that might be even slower. But most people can read at 300 wpm, and you can train yourself to read as fast as 600-800 wpm. That means that with training, you can go through information four to eight times faster when reading instead of watching.

The other issue is that with video, it's harder to take notes. You can't copy them into an Evernote file or other knowledge-storing system, and it's much harder to search through later (since, as of yet, there's no universal Control+F for video).

Whenever possible, opt for something you can read. Video takes up more of your time, yet often leaves you with less to take away.

5. Notifications

notifications

If you so wish, your phone could alert you for every phone call, text message, email, Snapchat, major news story, Facebook notification, Twitter mention, and dozens of other app activities. But every notification is a source of input that you need to act on, or decide to act on, that's using up your attention for the day. Worse, every notification is pulling your attention away from what you're working on, which makes it exceptionally hard to get into a state of "flow" or effortless productivity.

Most notifications aren't necessary. You're likely going to check Facebook later, so you don't need an immediate update on what's happening. Same for Twitter, text messages, and email.

You can go to various degrees of silencing with your notifications. It might seem scary to turn everything off, but I assure you the world doesn't end. I'd start with the bare minimums and work your way up.

  • Bare Minimum: Turn off Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social network notifications.
  • Advanced: Turn off email, text message, and other chat application notifications. Now the only sound your phone should make is ringing for a call.
  • Nuclear: Throw your phone in a lake, just to prove to yourself that you don't need it.

6. Books

books

Books are typically one of the best sources of information on a given subject. Unlike blog posts, they're less likely to be just thrown together in order to capitalize on a trend or profitable idea (though this has somewhat changed with the popularity of $0.99 Kindle eBooks).

But similar to reading blogs, books should be approached on a just-in-time basis and not just-in-case. If you're getting into an area you know nothing about, like trying to launch a business, there's temptation to read every single startup-related book out of fear that you might miss a piece of information instrumental to your success.

Before I started my first company, I read at least 40 books related to startups, startup marketing, and anything else tangential to starting a company. But because I had no experience with the actually problems, this research was all but useless. Once I started the company and had specific problems to solved, I realized what was actually useful in these books and retained the knowledge much better. The initial time spent reading those books would have been much better spent simply getting out and experimenting and figuring out what I didn't know.

But when you do need to solve a problem, non-fiction technical books are a great resource, provided you read them intelligently. There are various systems for taking advantage of nonfiction books, and this is mine: Read through the book, and take highlights of important concepts you'd want later. Once it's done, add the book to my "books to take notes from" Evernote file, then move on to the next book. Then I'll periodically take a book from that list, go through it, and pull out all of the important points into an Evernote file of the useful information from that book so that you can reflect on it later.

This way, you're only reading technical books in order to solve a certain problem, and you're taking note of the important pieces of information relevant to that problem. You're not wasting time or energy trying to guess which parts will be important, and everything will be more memorable since you'll be thinking of ways to apply your new knowledge.

7. Other People

keynote speaker

Last, other people are a source of informational input that has to be carefully managed.

Depending on what you're working on, or what you're talking about, other individuals will feel more or less qualified to offer their input based on their perception of how well they understand the problem.

C. Northcote Parkinson dubbed this the "Law of Triviality" or the "Bike-Shed Effect." In his example, if a city commission were discussing nuclear energy regulation based on deep scientific research, they would defer to the judgement of experts and not spend a long time talking about it out of recognition for how little they understand the problem. However, were they to start discussing what color to paint a new bike-shed in town, everyone would have an opinion on the color, shape, method of construction, and other variables simply because they feel they're qualified to discuss it.

The same happens in most discussions we have in our work and lives. As a result, we tend to spend too long discussing trivial matters and welcoming too much unsolicited input from under qualified individuals.

How do we manage information from other people then? There are a few important tactics.

  1. Know someone's experience – If the individual has had a hand in building a successful tech company, for example, then you probably shouldn't take their advice for your startup despite their enthusiasm to give it. Or if your friend is giving you diet advice but only quotes articles from Men's Health or Women's Health, you ought to be skeptical, as well. On the flipside, when you get advice from a friend or mentor who's sold her tech company or a friend who's constantly reading scientific health studies, they're likely worth listening to. But even then you can't take it purely at face value. That's just the first step.

  2. Understand the individual's sources, or the "source of knowledge" – This means digging in to where their advice is coming from in order to make sure that their knowledge is based on a good foundation. If they say something like, "Eating cholesterol raises your cholesterol!" And you ask, "Where did you learn that?" And they reply, "Oh, a BuzzFeed article about 8 things to stop putting in your body," then you know you can ignore that advice.

  3. Take information in aggregate – Analyze your life like a statistician; get as much data as possible and as is reasonable before coming to a conclusion. Advice from one person isn't sufficient. But if five people are saying similar things? Then you might be on to something. Or if three qualified people suggest A and three qualified people suggest Z then that's a sign that you have some more digging to do. The most likely situation is that the truth is somewhere in the middle.

By treating advice from people in this way you'll get a much more accurate picture of the world, and spend less time trying to listen to everyone's advice at once. You'll minimize the negative effects of getting too much information, and maximize your likelihood of making the right decision. And you can still keep up relationships without having to act like you don't care about each peer's inputs.

How to Improve Your Inputs

Optimizing the information you take-in is an ongoing process, but here are some simple ways to get started right now.

  1. Set up a news aggregator like Feedly so you can get your information in one place without ads, popups, or links to related articles,
  2. Sign up with an article storing system like Pocket or Instapaper so that you can save articles that might be useful in the future, without spending time reading them now.
  3. Assess where you get your information from on a day-to-day basis. Are these reliable sources? How can you improve your information flow? Write down your five biggest sources of information and critique each honestly.
  4. Make a list of the five people you listen to for advice. Are they qualified to give the advice that they're giving you? Are you sure? Having a certain job, title, professorship, or age, doesn't necessarily qualify them to give you advice. Think about it critically, and stop taking advice from the individuals that don't make the cut.
  5. Set up a note-taking system in a tool like Evernote or OneNote so you can hold onto the helpful information you're collecting in case you need to come back to it later.
  6. As you go through your week reading items and looking for more information, consider if each piece will be useful to you in the near future. If not, try to avoid the habit of looking for similar items.
  7. Feeling adventurous? Take a week-long media fast. No news, no blogs, no newsletters, nothing. You might be surprised at how nice it is and how little negative impact it has on your life.

And as you move forward from those exercises keep refining and improving your information practices, and make sure you're always getting the best inputs possible. Treat your mind like a Ferrari by putting in the best fuel possible.

Related: How to Better Remember and Make Use of What You Read

Credits: Photos courtesy Flickr users flattop341, Lauren Rabaino, Dean Leu, Wilamoyo, jacsonquerubin, Myradphotos, Alena, Michael Coghlan, Yukiko Matsuoka, Quinn Dombrowski, and Roanoke College.

Photo of Grace Garey

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