The Information Diet

Pat Sweet | Comments | November 23, 2012

As an engineer, like any other information worker, you’re probably bombarded with information from the moment you walk through the door to the moment you leave. In fact, it probably starts before you’ve even made it to the office and continues until even after you’ve left. While there are a metric ton of reasons why it’s great to be so connected to the world around you, it can make for a pretty distracting day. How can you accomplish all that real work you have to do if you’re always putting out fires that come in over e-mail, voice mail, text, instant messaging, Twitter, Facebook, etc.?
My solution is the information diet. I started this process for myself about a year ago after reading “The 4-Hour Workweek ” from Tim Ferriss, and “Focus: A simplicity manifesto in the Age of Distraction ” from Leo Babauta. Today, I want to share with you the steps I took to implement my own information diet, and how it has worked out for me.

Enter the Information Diet

The information diet is an excellent way to rid yourself of at least 10 lbs of ugly mental congestion. I’m serious! It’s just like a real diet: you cut out the garbage that isn’t really good for you (junk food, fast food, etc.) and control your daily intake of the good stuff (portions, meal frequency). Mix in some exercise every day, and presto! you’re a Brad Pitt body-double. Good times.
This is fine and well for a food diet, but how might this look for an information diet?

Step 1 – Cut Out the Bad Stuff

This step starts out being a bit tough, but ends up feeling pretty empowering by the end of it. For me, this step meant keeping track of my personal and business email over the course of a week and paying close attention to what I got from various companies and email lists. I realized I don’t even read that vast majority of them, and unsubscribed myself from about 90% of them. I haven’t missed any of these mail lists in the least.
The next part was to set up some email filters so that I could route emails that weren’t going to be super important to see right away. For example, emails from my cell phone company get routed to a “Bills” category, and not my inbox. I know they’re coming, and I know I’ll have to deal with them, but there’s no need for them to show up in my inbox for immediate attention.
Then, I went through each of my social networks to… well, cull the herd, if you will. Basically, I unfriended or unfollowed anyone I either didn’t really know, or hadn’t spoken to in the last year. Turned out that that was a lot of people. The other cool thing I figured out that you could do with Facebook is to change the settings for each of your contacts to be able to control who’s updates come through on your news feed. Sweet.

Step 2 – Controlling Portions

This part was actually pretty easy. Just like snacking all day can make it easy to blow past your caloric maximum for a day, digesting information all day can lead to mental bloating. Not fun. My plan was to designate certain times of day to tackle and respond to correspondence. That way, I could focus on my actual work for the rest of the day. So, I set two times a day when I check email: 10AM and 2PM. I set aside about 30 to 45 minutes for each time. That gives me a ton of time to address each email. Finally – I also disabled automatic alerts for everything. If something is absolutely urgent, you’ll get a phone call, not an email. All an alert can accomplish is to stress you out over not checking that email that just came in.

Step 3 – Get Some Exercise

This step is pretty literal. I’ve tried to make an effort to actually get up from my desk and physically talk to people. It’s important to make real connections with people so that your electronic communication is as effective as possible. It’s also important to escape your cubicle every so often to be able to get yourself out of the line of fire with respect to constant distraction.

The Results

Life is great! I feel more productive, and I don’t miss the automatic emails from Old Navy about vests being 15% off for one day only. I really don’t. I can be more focused on my work, and each minute I spend at work is more meaningful. I’m at least 15 mental pounds lighter, and it’s showing.

What about you?

What information diet tips do you use? Tell me about it in the comments section below!

About the Author

Pat Sweet is a Professional Engineer working in Ontario, Canada. He’s a full-time vehicle engineer focusing on commuter train electrical subsystems and the author behind the Engineering and Leadership blog, where he shares his thoughts and experiences on leadership, productivity, and career advice for young engineers. Go to Pat’s blog now to get your free copy of his free career guide –The 7 Habits of a Highly Ineffective Engineer.”