Discipline for my Information Diet

Problem
One of the demons I’m wrestling with when it comes to my information diet is keeping a high signal to noise ratio for an extended period of time. I know that the time and mental energy I’m spending reading news items about business, politics and technology are taking away from the energy I have for settled science and more timeless information (I mentioned this previously in Curiosity: Good Friend, Bad Master).

I think my problem is mostly discipline. I know that I’ll get more out of reading books and textbooks from my to read list than by reading The Economist and whatever interesting blog posts are featured on Hacker News, but even after I resolve to focus on the highest-quality material first and read other fun things on the side, as weeks pass I get less and less vigilant about it… until I some day I realize that I open the ‘hard’ books infrequently and spend most of my time reading lighter things that give me less lasting value. Once in a while there’s a big spike of willpower that brings me back on track, but it doesn’t last and at the bottom of the cycle I end up feeling feeling that I wasted an opportunity to learn new things and grow.

Why is it such a big deal to me? Because I feel that there’s a qualitative difference in how much I benefit from the highest quality material compared to whatever’s being written about this week. In short: More life-changing books like Gödel, Escher, Bach, and fewer articles about what’s happening this week in Myanmar.

Solution (?)
Maybe what I need is a way to keep track of my commitment, both as a reminder and a motivator. It worked pretty well with my molecular biology textbook… Until I moved to Ottawa. I haven’t opened that textbook in a month. You see what I’m talking about?

In fact, if I’m totally honest with myself, I’m thinking that maybe what will give the best result is a more drastic change. I’ve already unsubscribed to a few periodicals in the past, but maybe I should make deeper cuts and even create some rules about which websites I can visit and when (or maybe just re-arranging my bookmarks and RSS feeds would be enough to modify my behavior?).

If you’ve had a similar problem and found an effective way to deal with it, let me know in the comments.

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8 Responses to “Discipline for my Information Diet”

  1. ratufa Says:

    To a large extent, our bad habits are environment-driven.

    For computer-related distractions, I think that Paul Graham’s post about “Disconnecting Distraction” sums up what to do pretty well:

    http://www.paulgraham.com/distraction.html

    Something similar applies for purely printed stuff. Put your “junk reading” materials next to the couch or some other place where “sitting here means I’m not doing serious work”. Put your serious stuff someplace else, where you don’t have distractions handy. This makes it easy to time how long you were sitting at one place or another.

  2. Wuthering Says:

    I study clinical sciences and would like to be proficient in the engineering sciences and I relate to this post. It’s hard to not want to read what’s currently in the news. However, with so much news it’s just vacuous.

  3. Rich Says:

    I know exactly what you mean. If I know it’s getting in the way of productivity:

    http://www.proginosko.com/leechblock.html

    It’s a savior.

  4. Bjoern Says:

    Enjoy your blog posts. Would you consider setting up a twitter account and announcing new blog posts there (for example Twitterfeed can do that automatically from your RSS feed)? I don’t use RSS readers anymore.

  5. Michael Graham Richard Says:

    Hi Bjoern,

    I have a twitter account:

    http://twitter.com/Michael_GR

    But I use it mostly for my TH writings..

  6. jaycruz Says:

    Dumping everything for one week and then adding the things that I truly missed has been a good technique for me up till now. The basic idea was taken from this post, which is the idea from Tim Ferris (4 Hour Work Week author) Information Diet:

    http://tools-for-thought.com/2008/10/22/one-week-on-the-low-information-diet/

  7. jack Says:

    How in the world did Godel, Escher, Bach change your life?

    It’s what happens when humanity’s tendency towards long rambling stream of consciousness meets humanity’s tendency towards circular-logic pseudophilosophical gobbledygook and paraidolia.

    There’s a lot of basic boolean logic thrown into the mix, some set theory, and talk about basic programming concepts, philosophy, related to the next subject, to the next subject, to the next subject, and on until the end of the book. There is no conclusion, no insight. The much-heralded existence of “strange loops” is not suprising or really worth pondering further if you’ve ever encountered paradox in fiction or formal logic.

    Zen koans are the art of spewing gibberish at a person until their mind gives up and they can concentrate on things they would rather think about. I don’t need a thousand page book to tell me that, or to do that to me. I can test my patience by staring at a wall for twelve hours, thank you very much.

    I suspect Wolfram’s book about cellular automata being the crux of the universe is little different than this.

  8. Michael Graham Richard Says:

    Hi Jack,

    A lot of what I liked about GEB was this rambling quality; it helped me realize that what I wanted to be was a generalist, not a specialist. It also helped me discover some things about math and reductionism that I’ve since read more about, but that at the time helped me fill in some blanks in my map of reality.

    Maybe I shouldn’t have qualified it as “life-changing”, but it was certainly an immensely enjoyable book to read for me.

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