Thursday, April 4, 2013

14 Day Challenge - Information Diet

In the spirit of the 30-day challenges popularized by Matt Cutts (among others), I have spent the last 14 days on an "information diet".  This is not a new idea by any means, and in fact there was an entire book written about the concept.  I actually heard about it initially from Tim Ferris, and this post on the 4-Hour Life Blog.  Anyway, enough with the background - what the heck is this about?

At a high level the purpose of this "diet" is to reduce the amount of media content that you passively consume, and be more deliberate about where you spend your time.  The rules are as follows:
  1. No newspaper, magazines, audio books or non music radio. Music is permitted at all times.
  2. No news websites whatsoever, and no social media sites.
  3. No television at all, except for one hour of pleasure viewing each evening.
  4. No reading books, except for 1 hour of fiction pleasure reading before bed.
  5. No web surfing at the desk unless it is necessary to complete a task for that day.
These rules are pretty strict, since most of us spend a huge portion of our time doing the things that are prohibited by this diet.  Let's go into a little more detail about my motivation for doing this.

Improving The Signal to Noise Ratio

Prior to this challenge I was consistently reading over 100 RSS feeds, getting multiple email newsletters, and spending a fair amount of time reading news sites like Business Insider.  It started to feel like I was consuming a ton of content, but not really getting a whole lot of value out of it.  Some of the articles were only tangentially related to things that I care about, and some of them were just pure entertainment, or "junk food".  This resulted in a feeling of being constantly overwhelmed by how much there is to read and absorb, while at the same time feeling like much it is low value.  This is not a great place to be. 

By taking a step back and allowing the unread items in Feedly and Gmail to pile up (R.I.P. Google Reader...), I hoped to identify some streams of content that could be pruned due to a low percentage of meaningful content.  This was a challenge after all, and I always planned on emerging from my bubble at some point.  There is a lot of valuable content that I read which makes me a better engineer and a more well rounded human being - this particular goal was simply to get rid of some of the cruft.  

Becoming More T-Shaped

As I mentioned in Learning Strategies for Engineers - Part 1, the idea of being a T-shaped employee makes a lot of sense to me.  Here's the description from Valve again:
"That is, people who are both generalists (highly skilled at a broad set of valuable things—the top of the T) and also experts (among the best in their field within a narrow discipline—the vertical leg of the T)."
Reading a ton of blog posts, news sites, emails, and generally just consuming content that is pushed to you is a great way to widen the top of your T, but it doesn't do a whole lot for that vertical leg.  One of my goals was to give myself the time to deepen my skills in particular areas through deliberate practice. Whether this meant researching a particular topic in preparation for a talk, writing a blog post about some piece of software, learning a new framework or language, or reading a technical book, it all boiled down to being very focused and specific about what information I take in.

Spending More Time in Quadrant Two

You may be familiar with Stephen Covey's time management matrix:


One of the biggest takeaways for me from Stephen's book (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) was that to be extremely productive you have to spend most of your time in quadrant two: doing things that are important but not urgent.  This is where you have room for creativity, spontaneity, and serendipity, and most truly valuable work comes out of this subset of activities.  I classify most passive news consumption as a quadrant one activity - you are basically just firefighting and trying to keep that unread count at zero.  Thus another goal of this challenge was to give myself the time to investigate some important things that I had been putting off because they weren't urgent.  

So How Did It Go?

I ended up doing this challenge for two full weeks, ending on Sunday, April 7th.  During the challenge I definitely felt more relaxed, had significantly more free time, and didn't feel the same fatigue that I usually get after spending hours reading technical material.  I tried to use the time to do valuable things, and I managed to get a fair amount done:

  • Finished the Coursera class I was taking and blogged about it
  • Spent a lot more time with friends (lunches, dinners, etc.)
  • Started and finished The End of Eternity
  • Exercised more consistently (no more "I'm too busy" excuses)
  • Learned the basics of Ruby
  • Installed and played around with CodeIgniter
  • Submitted three conference talks
  • Started a couple of programming projects
  • Refinanced my mortgage
  • Finished the first season of The Wire (yes, I really hadn't seen it)

It wasn't all fun and games though, there were some challenges and drawbacks:

  • I basically had no idea what was going on with the world.  This problem was exacerbated by the fact that I work from home - I was pretty cut off from the media.  People would reference major news items and I was largely oblivious.
  • During the small periods of dead time during the day (e.g. riding the train, the gap between morning exercise and starting work, etc.) I didn't know what to do.  It's easy to fill this time by reading a few articles, and without that to fall back on I was often at a loss.  The answer here seems to be to have a book ready, or maybe a list of articles that you are reading for a specific reason, like research for a presentation.
  • Once the challenge ended, I had a huge list of unread articles and emails to power through, on top of all of the additional work that I signed myself up for during the challenge (I had all that free time, after all).  This amounted to almost 600 unread items in Feedly and around 50 unread email newsletters.  As I mentioned earlier, taking a step back did allow me to take a critical look at all of these streams of information, and I did a lot of unsubscribing/deleting to bring things back to a reasonable level.

Takeaways

Overall I really enjoyed this exercise.  As I had hoped, it allowed me to get a more comprehensive view of where my time goes, and what information I consume.  By trimming out some of the less important information sources, I think I will have more time in the future to focus on work that adds value to the world and gives me more satisfaction.  

The downtime that I had also forced me to think more deeply about long term goals, side projects, and what skills I want to build to make myself a better engineer.  I found that this type of introspection helped me focus my energies on projects that matter, while at the same time bringing a feeling of satisfaction and control to my life.  

I highly recommend that everyone try this for at least a week or two.  You might be surprised by what you learn about yourself.