DoS’ing your mind: Controlling information inflow

Everyone wants your attention. No, seriously, they do. We’ve gone from a world where there were lots of readers and not much content, to a world where there is lots of content, and not many readers. There’s the latest game over here, the latest way to “get 20,000 readers,” over there, the way to “retire by the time you’re 32” over yonder, and “how to cure every known disease with this simple group of weird fruit from someplace you’ve never heard of (but you’ll certainly go find, and revel in the pictures of perfectly healthy inhabitants now),” naggling someplace at the back of your mind.

The insidious, distracting suck of the Internet has become seemingly inescapable. Calling us from our pockets, lurking behind work documents, it’s merely a click away. Studies have shown that each day we spend, on average, five and a half hours on digital media, and glance at our phones 221 times. -via connecting

Living this way isn’t healthy. It reduces your attention span, which in turn destroys your ability to get anything done, as well as destroying your mind. So we need to stop. “Squirrel” is funny, but you crash planes. “Shiny thing” is funny, but you end up mired in jellyfish (and, contrary to the cartoons, you don’t survive that one, either).

So how do we stop? Three hints.

Slack off. Tom, over at Networking Nerd, points out the importance of asynchronous communication (once again) in an excellent post about Slack. Sometimes you need to just sit and talk to someone. But sometimes you can’t. As Tom says:

Think back to the last time you responded to an email. How often did you start your response with “Sorry for the delay” or some version of that phrase? In today’s society, we’ve become accustomed to instant responses to things.

This means shutting down the IM, shutting down Slack for a bit, shutting down email, turning off your ringer, and just actually getting things done. This is also part of my theory of macro tasking. Controlling information inflow is as much about moving to asynchronous communications as it is anything else. And asynchronous means “I don’t have to answer right now,” as well as “I don’t expect them to answer right now, because I have other stuff I can work on while I wait.”

Yes, this is hard, which leads to the second suggestion.

Precommit. Set aside some amount of time that you’ll do nothing but work on a single project, or do a specific thing. You can’t set aside time for everything, and sometimes specific goals are more important than specific timeframes. For instance, I have two personal goals every day in the way of managing information. I write at least 2,000 words a day, and I read at least 75 pages a day. These aren’t static goals, of course; I’ve ramped them up over time, and I don’t meet them every day. I have larger goals, as well—for instance, I try to read 100 books a year (this is a new goal; last year it was 70 or so, but this year I’m trying to ramp up).

Odysseus had his men tie him to the mast of their ship until they were out of the sirens’ range. This is an example of “precommitment,” a self-control strategy that involves imposing a condition on some aspect of your behavior in advance. For example, an MIT study showed that paid proofreaders made fewer errors and turned in their work earlier when they chose to space out their deadlines (e.g., complete one assignment per week for a month), compared to when they had the same amount of time to work, but had only one deadline at the end of a month. -via connecting

Self discipline, as Connecting points out, isn’t so much about resisting temptation as it is avoiding it.

Vary your sources. This one might not seem so obvious, but you really do need to do more than rely on Google for your entire view of the world.

Think of the WorldWideWeb increasingly as the public and open façade of the Web, and Google’s Inner-net as Google’s private, and more closed regime of mostly-dominant, Google-controlled operating systems, platforms, apps, protocols, and APIs that collectively govern how most of the Web operates, largely out of public view. -via Somewhat Reasonable

You build a box for your brain by only consuming movies, or fiction books, or technical books, or Google searches, or a particular game. As I’ve said elsewhere:

You can’t really think outside the box in the real world. You can, however, get a bigger box in which to do your thinking.

Do these actually work? Yes. Do they work all the time, and immediately? No. They take time. Which is why you also must learn to be patient, to give yourself some slack, and to build up your virtue.

But if you don’t start someplace, it’s certainly never going to work. Ultimately, you are responsible for what enters your brain; controlling information inflow is just part of your job as a human being. Or, as I always tell my daughters: garbage in, garbage out. If you don’t learn to control the garbage in part, no-one else is going to be able to help you control the garbage out part.