Cure Information Overload By Being Intentionally Inefficient
Last week, I wrote about the difference between closed information loops and open ones (also known as stocks and flows). Closed loops are finished and complete products, like a printed book. Open loops are infinitely-updating streams, like a Twitter feed.
The danger with open loops is that if you don’t keep up, you’ll fall behind. And the further you fall behind, the harder it’ll be to get up to speed. We irrationally fear missing something important and dread playing catch up. We are compelled to constantly check social media, to feel phantom phone vibrations, and to refresh the headlines.
In the end, open loops lead to unnecessary stress and information overload.
Take the news, for example. Although newspapers as an institution are open loops (a new one published each day, forever), a single newspaper on its own is a closed loop — you can read it cover to cover and move on with your day. In fact, in 1920, you had to wait until the following day to get an update, and so you were freed from the burden of information overload because you only had access to a finite amount of information. Today, of course, the newspaper has been replaced by a constant stream of Twitter updates, Google News alerts, and 24-hour TV coverage. There is essentially no limit on information, so if you’re not watching the updates like a hawk (which of course, no sane person can do) then you’re behind. You’re out of the loop.
In an effort to keep up, we spend triple the amount of time reading than we did in 1980, but it’s not enough. So much content is produced in a single day that it would take you an entire year just to preview it all (via Kevin Kelly).
Our challenge, in 2017, is finding the right balance between refreshing open loops and doing literally anything else. But the problem we all face is that the creators of those open loops don’t want us to log off. They want to grab our attention for as long as they possibly can — because that’s how they make money.
A closed loop is a one time purchase. You spend $20 on a book and the writer/publisher makes money. They don’t care if you read the book ten times or never open it. Open loops, on the other hand, only make money with use, and stand to make more money the more you check in. Their mission is to make their open loop as attractive and addictive as possible, so they install features like recommend content, mobile apps, community engagement, rewards, push notifications, and more.
The incentives for the open loop creator are diametrically opposed to what’s in the user’s best interest.
“A fair guess is that it [Facebook] is filtering your news stream to optimize the amount of time you spend on Facebook — a much easier thing to measure than your happiness. But that may not be what you want to optimize Facebook for.”
Our willpower is limited. Even if we promise to check less frequently, open loops will always win. As an ironic illustration, I went to look up something about willpower, ended up reading three political articles, and couldn’t remember why I stopped writing in the first place.
The solution, then, is transform close the open loops — using your limited willpower against yourself. I call this practice: intentional inefficiency.
Information Overload, Meet Intentional Inefficiency
Open loops are hyper-efficient. Once you jump into the feed, the system makes it easy to stay engaged. It recommends related content, freeing you from the burden of discovery and choice. It offers a mobile app so you can pick up where you left off. It even positions ads as helpful suggestions, freeing you from having to shop yourself. All of these tricks have the effect of making it easier to keep scrolling than to disengage.
But open loops are dependent on whether or not you’ll allow them to take advantage of you. They position these “benefits” as no-brainers, but it’s entirely within your power to opt-out.
Delete Your Apps
The risk of visiting a website on your desktop is that you might get “distracted” and visit another one. That’s why publishers love apps — it’s like giving them your full, undivided attention. And they’re easy to check. With the tap of a button in line, in the bathroom, or at a stoplight, you’re right back where you left off.
But deleting the Facebook app was probably the best decision I made last year. Now, I can only check Facebook when I’m sitting in front of my computer, which means I check way less frequently. I also installed a plugin called Newsfeed Eradicator that blocks my newsfeed, so even when I do log in, I only see my notifications and don’t get trapped scrolling.
If you want to reduce your use, then delete the app. No one’s making you keep it. When the button’s not there, it’s out of sight, out of mind.
A standard iPhone gives you the option to place up to 24 apps on your home screen. That means every time you open your phone (or return home), you have 24 tantalizing options. Just seeing the Twitter app is enough to entice a click and a half hour of scrolling. Then going back to the home screen, you see Instagram — now you’re in for another 15 minutes.
Instead of taking advantage of Apple’s generosity, take advantage of their folders. Hide all of your potential distractions in one and use the search function to call up the app you want to you use. This has two benefits. First, you have to specifically want to use the app. Second, you have to go through the extra step of searching for it. As weird as it may seem, this extra bit of effort makes it much less likely you’ll get sucked in.
Make the News Come to You
If you don’t want to get stuck scrolling around on Slate, NYT or your favorite blog, sign up for their newsletter. That way, you’ll get the information delivered to your inbox, read it, and move on. The amount of information contained in an email is limited. The website, on the other hand, always has new or related content to recommend.
And if you already get too much email, then maybe that’s a sign you don’t need whatever it is you’re about to sign up for. Maybe you already have enough on your plate. I generally give something two chances — if I don’t open either, then I unsubscribe.
Having done all of these things myself, I admit I was scared at first. I worried that I’d miss something important if I didn’t constantly stay up to date on my numerous feeds. But the opposite happened. When I choose inefficiency, when I was asked to use my willpower to check in, rather than check out, I discovered that I didn’t need the to keep up in the first place. I discovered that more was a trap. I was finally free.
Three Things is about creativity, improv, and inspiration. If you enjoyed this week’s letter, you can sign up to get them delivered to your inbox each week by digital carrier pigeon.