Updated: 08/10/03; 1:05:10 AM.
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        Musings and Links about Mind, Psychology, Spirituality and other Curiosities.

October 2, 2003

Managing Your Attention to Avoid Information Overload

The amount of information that we are being bombarded with is getting insane. Life in the 21st Century is typified by us having to monitor more information channels than we can handle and sifting through increasing amounts of noise to find the precious signal that we need.

Think of every mode of experience as an information channel. Each RSS Feed is an information channel. Your email lists and friends, IM, chat, and forums are information channels. The radio news is a channel. Each web site or blog is another. Our conversation with our friend is a channel. Interaction with our dog is a channel. Feeling the gas pain in our stomachs is another channel. What channels have in common is that they are each a rough point of focus; at each moment you are probably paying attention to one channel. You might have some sense that the number of possible channels, or things we can pay attention to, is practically infinite.

Perhaps the most critical question of our time is then: What in the world should we pay attention to? What follows is just a few observations that I use to help answer this question for myself.

For many, these may seem obvious, but given the amount of information overload or information anxiety and stress that people feel, I'm sure most of us do not always put into practice such suggestions like these:

1) Know that you must limit what you monitor.

You cannot monitor every information source. We cannot be omniscient, at least for now. Our lifetimes are limited, so we cannot be exposed to everything there is to know (never mind learn it all), since that is practically infinite. While this is obvious, we often act as if we have all the time in the universe and "subscribe" to almost every information channel that comes our way. Then we wonder why we feel frantic and guilty for not keeping up with it all.

2) Choose the content of your mental programming.

Your brain is being programmed by the information that you take in. This is a huge subject covered, for instance, by the new science of memetics; for now, realize that you are being changed by the information that you consume. You can either let the world program you, by just choosing information channels that are practically forced upon you, or you can say no to them and choose instead something better for your mind.

3) Mostly monitor channels that reflect your values and goals.

In order to apply this advice, you need to develop a strong sense of what your values are, and be clear about your goals. This is highly recommended, but again it is a big topic that perhaps I will talk about some time. For now, think about what you pay attention to and notice how much time you spend paying attention to things that are simply not useful to you.

4) Monitor some channels that help expand your general knowledge.

To avoid becoming a narrow person who is only feeding your tiny interests, expand your horizons. Find good quality general channels that allow you to come across other information channels that you find interesting or that will foster new values in you. You might find some life-changing topics that you might have otherwise missed by just elaborating on what you already know and value.

5) Choose good quality channels.

Information channels vary in quality and signal-to-noise. In general, choose channels where most of what you come across is something that you want. While reputation may be a starting point, don't choose channels just because "they are supposed to be good". Always evaluate whether what you pay attention to is meeting your needs.

6) Choose some low quality channels but scan to find the pearls.

Some information channels are mostly useless to you but occasionally have some excellent information on them that is vital or otherwise valuable to you. For these channels, consider carefully whether it is worth putting up with the nonsense for the rare jewel. And become an expert at quickly scanning through material to find what you need. However, if you find you are spending most of your time scanning, then it is time to drop some of these low quality channels.

7) Find new channels and get rid of old channel clutter.

We are not static creatures. We are continually changing our likes and dislikes. Realize that you need to be always changing and put some time into it.

8) Minimize the preparation of information channels and focus on the information.

Sometimes, we can get caught up in getting ready to participate, and never get around to participating in the information channel. Endlessly optimizing your computer or trying to find the perfect software when what you have will do is one way that people spend their valuable time. On the other hand, investing time in preparing the tools required for connecting to information channels is required to save time later or to connect in the first place. I suggest limiting the time you spend on preparation, and get busy consuming the stuff you are interested in. Unless of course, you have decided to make "tweaking" a life goal.

9) Limit your time on each channel.

Even if you have a finely tuned information reality by choosing channels well, you will likely find that you still don't have time for everything. Make information priorities based on your values and goals and plan your perusals of all channels. Budget your time accordingly. Otherwise, it is tempting to spend a disproportionate amount of your time in one place. Also, realize that you cannot usually afford to obtain complete information about any particular topic, even if it were possible.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly:

10) Turn off the information hose.

Make time for processing the information you come across. Silence and quietness, disconnection from everything, is the best medicine for a wide variety of mental and physical ailments. Both this "time out" and managing your attention with some of the suggestions above are necessary parts of effectively dealing with information in this amazing universe that's almost too full of stuff to know.

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