We live in a world of unlimited information. The internet produces 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every single day. Keeping up everything is impossible when we only have 24 hours in a day, and can stand in the way of getting things done and focusing on what really matters.
Anita Williams Woolley, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, says the biggest problem with information overload is the constant stream of interruptions. “Doing something such as writing an email while being constantly interrupted can lead you to spend at least twice as long writing it, and the quality of the final product will be significantly lower than if it was written without interruptions,” she says.
And switching our focus isn’t the only problem associated with our overconsumption of data. “The more information you consume, the more likely that some of it will be thought-provoking or upsetting and will stay in the back of your mind even as you try to move on to do other things,” says Woolley. This cognitive burden can make you feel more burned out at the end of the day and can harm your ability to concentrate on the task at hand.
Digital detoxes are heralded as the answer to our data consumption woes. Shut everything off, they say. But a digital detox may not be possible for everyone. After all, for many of us, our livelihoods are connected to our devices. Instead, a low-information diet may be the answer.
A low-information diet doesn’t mean cutting out data entirely, but, rather, choosing the information that you need to consume. “Like any other diet, moderation is key to success,” says internet marketing expert Larry Bailin. “Food is not harmful, too much food is harmful. To lose weight, you pick and choose what to eat, when to eat, and why to eat it.” Controlling the data you consume means selecting the data that is critical to your success, while ignoring the data that is not.
Follow these four steps to go on a low-information diet:
Develop a ranking system
Of the hundreds of emails you receive in a day, how many actually demand your attention right away? Probably only a handful, right? Yet so many of us are accustomed to looking at and answering every email as soon as it comes in, removing our focus from the meaningful work we’re doing.
Make use of your email system, marking critical emails with flags or stars. Woolley sorts her emails into four categories:
- Important and urgent
- Important but not urgent
- Urgent but not important
- Neither urgent or important
“When I go through my inbox, I put everything into one of those buckets, then I handle the 1s [important and urgent] first,” she says. This ranking system ensures that your brain is not overburdened with unnecessary or irrelevant information.
Keep social media feeds clean
Although it’s often blamed as the biggest time waster on the internet, social media can be a great resource for information, if used correctly. The problem, according to Bailin, is that we seek out to grow a follower base and miss out on the opportunities social media provides to access that relevant information. The more people we’re following that don’t produce content that is relevant to our lives, the less likely we are to see the content we actually want to see.
In order to get the most out of your social media data, avoid feeling obliged to follow people back or playing the numbers game just to grow your followers. Lighten your data load by seeking only the relevant and useful data. “Keep your feed clean so you see the relevant information that will help you stay competitive, instead of overflowing with random cat memes from random followers,” says Bailin.
Schedule your data usage
“We have unlimited access to food, yet most of us are not constantly eating. We eat at timed intervals,” says Bailin. Rather than answering every buzz or beep the second your hear it, determine when during the day you will reach for your devices to check in on email and social media. To train yourself to overcome this Pavlovian response, try waiting five minutes after a buzz, beep, or ding before reaching for your device. Then increase this to 10 minutes, 15 minutes, and so on.
Woolley advises scheduling your data time into your calendar or using tools such as Freedom to lock down your browser. Let coworkers and collaborators know about your time boxing schedule so you don’t feel that you’re keeping them waiting by not responding within two minutes of their message.
Shut down at night
It can be tempting to spend those last few hours of the evening scrolling through your social media, browsing the web, feeding yourself all sorts of data. Shutting down your data usage an hour before bed will allow you to gain clarity and prepare yourself for the day ahead, rather than clouding your mind with probably irrelevant information.