The Information Diet - five ways to improve your data consumption

Last week I had a visit from a friend of mine, who was on something of a farewell tour. After several years of planning, he'd packed in his dependable but much-begrudged corporate job, and was setting sail for Asia, to see more of the world. He's already seen much more of the world than most people. Not because he was well connected or rich, but because he made it his life's mission to tour the forgotten, the hidden and the forbidden places of the world. I mention this because if there ever was a man to take life advice from, it is this one, and he put into words something I've been pondering for a while now.

"It's called," he told me, over the noise of the pub, "an information diet." It seems like an odd concept, even a heretical one. I am by my own admission an information glutton. I suck up huge volumes of information like a baleen whale, sieve it, swallow it, gulp again. I have a cascade of feeds I never have time to read, and I'm getting serious indigestion. Seeing and sharing is easy in an always-online world, and addictive to boot. I'm not the first one to turn a critical eye on my sources of information - the phrase "information diet" was coined long ago; prior to the internet there was no shortage of voices railing against the popular medium as an unfit and corrupting influence, whether it be comics, video games, television, MTV, books, and, we must presume, scrolls and slates in some early day.

i-53db588cd2acce3e64ef3a917780a9e6-burger.jpgThis is what your RSS feed looks like

In fact, the information diet is such a popular idea, there's a book out next year on the subject, called, er, The Information Diet. Lifehacker have run a piece on the concept too. Now don't get me wrong, I attach no moral value to the idea of an information diet. I don't care if you follow one or not. If you want to guzzle, guzzle. But personally, I've become aware that a great deal of the information I consume is useless garbage, and time-consuming garbage at that, and I want to find a more streamlined and enjoyable way to consume media.

Thing is, at the moment, nobody is really getting into the nitty-gritty of an information diet. What does it look like in practice? So I thought I'd open the floor and throw some ideas about. Here are some of the things I've done in an effort to improve my information diet.

#5 Diversify your menu
Probably the most obvious option, and it stems directly from five important words: Turn Off That Damn Computer. I'm trying to repurpose my computer as a tool for finding the information I want, rather than being the plate it's served on. I'm trying to make time for cinema (for the whole experience of cinema - finding a friend, setting a date, choosing a film, buying overpriced candy...), for theatre, for pub chats, for radio, for half-remembered tales over coffee, for walking tours, for wandering the neighbourhood, for fiction, for newspapers, comics, crosswords; for paper. There are stories everywhere, I tell myself, and most of them are better for the amount of effort you need to put in to hear them.

#4 Find a better solution to boredom
Now that I'm commuting again, I've realised how even a short journey on a bus inspires the kind of preparation that would make polar explorers blush. Only it's not the weather I'm protecting myself against, but the prospect of boredom. Sometimes I'd only be happy boarding once armoured with a newspaper, book, work notes, smartphone and iPod. First I tried rationing myself to one "entertainment" medium per trip, since then I've taken a notebook and used the time to write down ideas for stories and projects; and to simply take in my surroundings rather than isolate myself from them. Hippie-shit I know, but at the end of it I have a notebook with cool ideas in it, and a quieter mind.

#3 Damn the social network
I've never made a secret of that fact I hate Facebook with a passion. It tries to be an email system, a photo sharing site, a chat site, and many other things, and it does all of them pretty badly. However, it's also the only way I'll remain in contact with certain far flung people, so for now I am stuck with it.

I've tried to quarantine myself from its lures, and have turned off all email updates. I never use the chat option. I do not make albums. My privacy values are at their highest setting, a tall fence to ward off unwelcome visitors. Instead of communicating through status updates, I'm trying to call people, arrange to meet people. It's bloody obvious, but social networks are a suppressant for the appetite of social interaction, not a meal.

Getting rid of Twitter is a dicier option. For its distraction and time consumption, it's also a powerful tool. I could live without it, but I'd be worse off, all in all. For now I've turned off all email updates; and Twitter themselves have already poured turpentine over that candy-coated crack that was the retweeted_of_mine button, so praise be to social networks who make their services harder to use.

#2 Decentralise your media consumption
This is a bit of a heretical idea too - technology is geared towards central entertainment systems for our homes. But you know what? They are hateful, terrible devices. Ten years ago, if I'd wanted to listen to music, my flow chart would have looked like this:


Now it looks something like this


Ad nauseum. And ultimately, I end up sat in front of my computer for an hour dicking about, when all I wanted was to play some music. I'm distractible, I know, but it's a trait that won't change. So, to that end, I have purchased a very unfashionable clock radio. It plays music, from the airwaves! It also has an iPod dock so I can listen to my own music. That's all it does. One button, instant music. I haven't quite built up the courage to downgrade from a smart phone to a regular one, because I get lost too much and I like having Google Maps in my pocket, but I'm warming to the idea.

#1 Burn your TV
There is no greater advice I could give to any person to improve their life, than to get rid of their TV. It's not that I despise TV programs (we can all agree that the majority is utter shite, but there are gems). It's that television watching is an open-ended activity that automatically expands to fill all the time you allow it, and usually more. Programs are intentionally constructed to quickly draw you in and keep you watching; they demand your attention and give you little for it. If you stop watching TV, you'll soon find you have time for all those things you never get a chance to do. Boredom is a great motivator. I have a simple check that pretty much destroyed my ability to sit and watch TV: I ask myself "If you saw this in the TV schedule, would you have made a point to watch it?". It's not enough for TV to be enjoyable. You need to make that conscious cost-benefit analysis: is it worth your time? This mantra is a great immunity from that time-eating rogue. Now I find it very difficult to watch TV, even when I own one. I like the police chase shows: you can switch on half way through while you eat dinner, understand perfectly what's going on, and switch off when you're done eating, because you already know how it ends. Perfect disposable TV.


So there it is, a long ranty stream-of-consciousness on improving your digital menu. Which you've just sat and read on your computer. Ho ho. I hope it was worth it, that SciencePunk was a nutritious amuse-bouche for your daily dining. Leave a comment, then go outside and play.

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Like #4 and #5. I've started reading more library books over the past year and I feel smarter again. Now if only I could get my spouse to kick his Wikipedia addiction...

Terrific post! I've started culling my RSS feeds about once a month, keeping them down to the sites that bring me actual time-worthy information.

And TV? TV can go to hell. You're right, there are gems, but most of it seems designed to put one into a state of pleasant confusion that lasts the duration of a show, and is then gone and completely forgotten. It is, literally, "killing time." It's an easy, convenient way to pass the dreary hours until we die.

If getting rid of TV isn't an option, DVR or TiVo or some such can help streamline one's TV habits. Your shows are recorded automatically, so you can turn on the set, watch your shows (skipping commercials), and turn it off again.

"#1 Burn your TV"

No no no... recycle it.

FWIW the tv can be pretty damn useful. If your into the techy thing, xbmc running psuedotv linked to lectures such as Itunes U can turn it easily into a regular feeling television experience with only interesting and informative channels, per your own customization. It's astounding.

By SushiMPLS (not verified) on 21 Nov 2011 #permalink

I have to say, I love family tv time.

Otherwise I end up chasing people around with books: I love reading, and when I'm on my own I don't turn on the tv for weeks at a time, but reading does not lend itself to conversation. Tv's only watchable with people watching with you though.

Great post and something I've been working on myself recently. A little tip for anyone trying to restrict their web-browsing time, I just started using "Nanny for Google Chrome" which allows you to limit the time you spend visiting certain URLs during time periods and block access to them altogether during certain times of the day. I use it to limit my Facebook time to 5 minutes every 24 hours and block the site during my work hours. I've only been using it a few days, but it's great:…

Haha, I agree about the 'retweeted of mine' button in Twitter, can't believe they got rid of it - but Hootsuite still has it! ;-)