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6.The Low-Information Diet

CULTIVATING SELECTIVE IGNORANCE

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

—HERBERT SIMON, recipient of Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics8 and the A.M. Turing Award, the “Nobel Prize of Computer Science”

Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.

—ALBERT EINSTEIN

I hope you’re sitting down. Take that sandwich out of your mouth so you don’t choke. Cover the baby’s ears. I’m going to tell you something that upsets a lot of people.

I never watch the news and have bought one single newspaper in the last five years, in Stansted Airport in London, and only because it gave me a discount on a Diet Pepsi.

I would claim to be Amish, but last time I checked, Pepsi wasn’t on the menu.

How obscene! I call myself an informed and responsible citizen? How do I stay up-to-date with current affairs? I’ll answer all of that, but wait—it gets better. I usually check business e-mail for about an hour each Monday, and I never check voicemail when abroad. Never ever.

But what if someone has an emergency? It doesn’t happen. My contacts now know that I don’t respond to emergencies, so the emergencies somehow don’t exist or don’t come to me. Problems, as a rule, solve themselves or disappear if you remove yourself as an information bottleneck and empower others.

Cultivating Selective Ignorance

There are many things of which a wise man might wish to be ignorant.

—RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803–1882)

From this point forward, I’m going to propose that you develop an uncanny ability to be selectively ignorant. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is also practical. It is imperative that you learn to ignore or redirect all information and interruptions that are irrelevant, unimportant, or unactionable. Most are all three.

The first step is to develop and maintain a low-information diet. Just as modern man consumes both too many calories and calories of no nutritional value, information workers eat data both in excess and from the wrong sources.

Lifestyle design is based on massive action—output. Increased output necessitates decreased input. Most information is time-consuming, negative, irrelevant to your goals, and outside of your influence. I challenge you to look at whatever you read or watched today and tell me that it wasn’t at least two of the four.

I read the front-page headlines through the newspaper machines as I walk to lunch each day and nothing more. In five years, I haven’t had a single problem due to this selective ignorance. It gives you something new to ask the rest of the population in lieu of small talk: “Tell me, what’s new in the world?” And, if it’s that important, you’ll hear people talking about it. Using my crib notes approach to world affairs, I also retain more than someone who loses the forest for the trees in a sea of extraneous details.

From an actionable information standpoint, I consume a maximum of one-third of one industry magazine (Response magazine) and one business magazine (Inc.) per month, for a grand total of approximately four hours. That’s it for results-oriented reading. I read an hour of fiction prior to bed for relaxation.

How on earth do I act responsibly? Let me give an example of how I and other NR both consider and obtain information. I voted in the last presidential election,9 despite having been in Berlin. I made my decision in a matter of hours. First, I sent e-mails to educated friends in the U.S. who share my values and asked them who they were voting for and why. Second, I judge people based on actions and not words; thus, I asked friends in Berlin, who had more perspective outside of U.S. media propaganda, how they judged the candidates based on their historical behavior. Last, I watched the presidential debates. That was it. I let other dependable people synthesize hundreds of hours and thousands of pages of media for me. It was like having dozens of personal information assistants, and I didn’t have to pay them a single cent.

That’s a simple example, you say, but what if you need to learn to do something your friends haven’t done? Like, say, sell a book to the world’s largest publisher as a first-time author? Funny you should ask. There are two approaches I used: 1. I picked one book out of dozens based on reader reviews and the fact that the authors had actually done what I wanted to do. If the task is how-to in nature, I only read accounts that are “how I did it” and autobiographical. No speculators or wannabes are worth the time.

  1. Using the book to generate intelligent and specific questions, I contacted 10 of the top authors and agents in the world via e-mail and phone, with a response rate of 80%.

I only read the sections of the book that were relevant to immediate next steps, which took less than two hours. To develop a template e-mail and call script took approximately four hours, and the actual e-mails and phone calls took less than an hour. This personal contact approach is not only more effective and more efficient than all-you-can-eat info buffets, it also provided me with the major league alliances and mentors necessary to sell this book. Rediscover the power of the forgotten skill called “talking.” It works.

Once again, less is more.

How to Read 200% Faster in 10 Minutes

There will be times when, it’s true, you will have to read. Here are four simple tips that will lessen the damage and increase your speed at least 200% in 10 minutes with no comprehension loss: 1. Two Minutes: Use a pen or finger to trace under each line as you read as fast as possible. Reading is a series of jumping snapshots (called saccades), and using a visual guide prevents regression.

  1. Three Minutes: Begin each line focusing on the third word in from the first word, and end each line focusing on the third word in from the last word. This makes use of peripheral vision that is otherwise wasted on margins. For example, even when the highlighted words in the next line are your beginning and ending focal points, the entire sentence is “read,” just with less eye movement: “Once upon a time, an information addict decided to detox.”

Move in from both sides further and further as it gets easier.

  1. Two Minutes: Once comfortable indenting three or four words from both sides, attempt to take only two snapshots—also known as fixations—per line on the first and last indented words.

  2. Three Minutes: Practice reading too fast for comprehension but with good technique (the above three techniques) for five pages prior to reading at a comfortable speed. This will heighten perception and reset your speed limit, much like how 50 mph normally feels fast but seems like slow motion if you drop down from 70 mph on the freeway.

To calculate reading speed in words per minute (wpm)—and thus progress—in a given book, add up the number of words in ten lines and divide by ten to get the average words per line. Multiply this by the number of lines per page and you have the average words per page. Now it’s simple. If you initially read 1.25 pages in one minute at 330 average words per page, that’s 412.5 words per minute. If you then read 3.5 pages after training, it’s 1,155 words per minute and you’re in the top 1% of the world’s fastest readers.

Q&A: QUESTIONS AND ACTIONS

Learning to ignore things is one of the great paths to inner peace.

—ROBERT J. SAWYER, Calculating God

  1. Go on an immediate one-week media fast.

The world doesn’t even hiccup, much less end, when you cut the information umbilical cord. To realize this, it’s best to use the Band-Aid approach and do it quickly: a one-week media fast. Information is too much like ice cream to do otherwise. “Oh, I’ll just have a half a spoonful” is about as realistic as “I just want to jump online for a minute.” Go cold turkey.

If you want to go back to the 15,000-calorie potato chip information diet afterward, fine, but beginning tomorrow and for at least five full days, here are the rules:

No newspapers, magazines, audiobooks, or nonmusic radio. Music is permitted at all times.

No news websites whatsoever (cnn.com, drudgereport.com, msn.com,10 etc.).

No television at all, except for one hour of pleasure viewing each evening.

No reading books, except for this book and one hour of fiction11 pleasure reading prior to bed.

No web surfing at the desk unless it is necessary to complete a work task for that day. Necessary means necessary, not nice to have.

Unnecessary reading is public enemy number one during this one-week fast.

What do you do with all the extra time? Replace the newspaper at breakfast with speaking to your spouse, bonding with your children, or learning the principles in this book. Between 9–5, complete your top priorities as per the last chapter. If you complete them with time to spare, do the exercises in this book. Recommending this book might seem hypocritical, but it’s not: The information in these pages is both important and to be applied now, not tomorrow or the day after.

Each day at lunch break, and no earlier, get your five-minute news fix. Ask a well-informed colleague or a restaurant waiter, “Anything important happening in the world today? I couldn’t get the paper today.” Stop this as soon as you realize that the answer doesn’t affect your actions at all. Most people won’t even remember what they spent one to two hours absorbing that morning.

Be strict with yourself. I can prescribe the medicine, but you need to take it.

Download the Firefox web browser (www.firefox.com) and use LeechBlock to block certain sites entirely for set periods. From their site (http://www.proginosko.com/leechblock.html):

You can specify up to six sets of sites to block, with different times and days for each set. You can block sites within fixed time periods (e.g., between 9am and 5pm), after a time limit (e.g., 10 minutes in every hour), or with a combination of time periods and time limit (e.g., 10 minutes in every hour between 9am and 5pm). You can also set a password for access to the extension options, just to slow you down in moments of weakness!

  1. Develop the habit of asking yourself, “Will I definitely use this information for something immediate and important?”

It’s not enough to use information for “something”—it needs to be immediate and important. If “no” on either count, don’t consume it. Information is useless if it is not applied to something important or if you will forget it before you have a chance to apply it.

I used to have the habit of reading a book or site to prepare for an event weeks or months in the future, and I would then need to reread the same material when the deadline for action was closer. This is stupid and redundant. Follow your to-do short list and fill in the information gaps as you go.

Focus on what digerati Kathy Sierra calls “just-in-time” information instead of “just-in-case” information.

  1. Practice the art of nonfinishing.

This is another one that took me a long time to learn. Starting something doesn’t automatically justify finishing it.

If you are reading an article that sucks, put it down and don’t pick it back up. If you go to a movie and it’s worse than Matrix III, get the hell out of there before more neurons die. If you’re full after half a plate of ribs, put the damn fork down and don’t order dessert.

More is not better, and stopping something is often 10 times better than finishing it. Develop the habit of nonfinishing that which is boring or unproductive if a boss isn’t demanding it.

COMFORT CHALLENGE

Get Phone Numbers (2 Days)

Being sure to maintain eye contact, ask for the phone numbers of at least two (the more you attempt, the less stressful it will be) attractive members of the opposite sex on each day. Girls, this means you’re in the game as well, and it doesn’t matter if you’re 50+. Remember that the real goal is not to get numbers, but to get over the fear of asking, so the outcome is unimportant. If you’re in a relationship, sign up to (or pretend to) gather information for Greenpeace. Just toss the numbers if you get them.

Go to a mall if you want to get some rapid-fire practice—my preference for getting over the discomfort quickly—and aim to ask three people in a row within five minutes. Feel free to use some variation of the following script: “Excuse me. I know this is going to sound strange, but if I don’t ask you now, I’ll be kicking myself for the rest of the day. I’m running to meet a friend [i.e., I have friends and am not a stalker], but I think you’re really [extremely, drop-dead] cute [gorgeous, hot]. Could I have your phone number? I’m not a psycho—I promise. You can give me a fake one if you’re not interested.”

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