Not only do many of us eat too much junk food; we also read too much junk information and suffer from a poor information diet. When your information diet is improved, you are highly likely to find that you have more time to go for a walk, take up a new activity and generally feel better about yourself.
Here’s why. For much of human existence, food was in short supply and so we are genetically ‘hard- wired’ to eat as much as we can find, whenever and wherever we can find it. That is especially so for foods which are available only at special times of the year. So when our early hunter-gatherer ancestors came across ripened berries, for example, they consumed as much as possible. Since the development of agriculture and fixed communities, our food supply has been readily available and we can generally get what we want, in many cases on a 24/7 basis delivered to our door.
Just as with food for the body, at least ever since the advent of the printing press, we similarly have an over-abundance of information food for the mind. Indeed, so great is this ever growing abundance of information, it is temptingly easy to read only the pre-packaged, fluffy, sugar filled stuff and avoid our deeper needs for something more lasting and substantive. Clay Johnson, in his book, The Information Diet (2011) makes a compelling case for a more nutritional information diet. Johnson notes:
“Information obesity isn’t new. Just as it was possible to be obese 500 years ago, it was possible to experience this new kind of ignorance 500 years ago, too. It was just more expensive, and you had to work much harder for it. But now we’re living in a world of abundance…” (p. 65)
We are what we read
You can learn a lot about a person by the language they use. If our reading is shallow, narrow, biased, and uncritical and focused the result cannot be good, especially for long-term individual growth and development. Accordingly, it is important that we expose ourselves to and digest, among lighter bytes of information, the best information in order to have the best thoughts that combined with good habits will result in the best actions and outcomes for ourselves and society.
Unfortunately, surveys that track our reading and information diets and habits suggest that the ‘information obesity’ problem is an even greater and more severe problem for society than physical obesity. Too often our information diet is overloaded with readily available infotainment, pornography and violent video games consumed on a computer/mobile phone. When this is the diet of children who have little or no supervision or guidance, is it any wonder that many of today’s youth often lack the intellectual rigor and critical thinking skills of an earlier age?
A Balanced Information Diet
Most nutritionists today would argue for a balanced diet. Similarly, I want to be clear that I am not advocating a return to arguably elitist “Great Books” Movement that was in vogue in the 50’s and 60’s and continues in some colleges and universities. Rather, I think that the great scholar, Francis Bacon, got it right when he noted that: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
Sounds of Information Silence
There is also a time to stop eating and rest in order to fully digest and absorb that which we have consumed. There is also a time for information fasting in order to have the opportunity for silent reflection on thoughts, feelings and intuitions. Such moments often lead to our greatest insights, innovations and pearls of wisdom.
Turning off the information flow can also improve the quality and quantity of sleep in our much sleep-deprived 24/7 existence that has left many feeling tired, stressed and sometimes overwhelmed.
Turning off the technology periodically can also improve face-to-face communication and enable us to be present in the company of each other. How many dinner conversations never take place because everyone in the family is glued to the TV set? How many meetings take place when most of the people are constantly checking their mobile phones and email/text messages rather than giving one another their undivided and full attention?
Good for the Workplace
Healthy information diets are also important for the workplace. Various studies have shown that workplace productivity can be harmed by too much time spent on email, the Internet, Facebook and other social media. Worse still, constant distractions as we break off from what we are doing to check an email can result in a lack of focus and lead to greater mistakes. This is one reason why otherwise very smart people can do stupid things. Again, this does not mean banning technology from the workplace; only ensuring that we use the technology effectively and wisely.
Good for Society
Not only is a healthy and balanced information diet good for the individual and workplace, it is good for society. Clearly, there is a relationship between a society’s information flow and its efficient and effective operation. It is important that we have access to the best information and make good use of the best knowledge we have so that we may find the best way forward to improve ourselves, our workplaces and society as a whole.
2016 New Year’s Resolution
When it comes to our information diets, we can and must do better. Let’s make it our New Year’s Resolution to: “Read what is worthwhile reading so that we are better able to do what is worthy of being written about and in turn have that history read by our children and grandchildren.”
1. Clay Johnson, The Information Diet, 2011Published by O’Reilly Media: http://shop.oreilly.com/product/0636920019978.do
2. See generally: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_books
3. Tony Schwartz The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time