Firehose

One of the most helpful pieces of advice from T4HWW is to consume less information.

A certainty, like death and taxes, is that our time and attention is limited. The more time and attention we spend reading Twitter and cranking through our RSS feeds, the less hours and attention we have available for getting things done.

I’m a big consumer of information and I’m always trying to cut down. I’m usually way behind real-time in my Twitter timeline, RSS feeds and email. I follow too many people, subscribe to too many blogs and mailing lists and spend too many brain cycles trying to absorb and consider each item. It’s an infinite game that I’m never winning.

This full-fat, high sugar, MSG-soaked, trans-fatty-information diet, gives me broad knowledge of a lot of topics, which I rarely use to produce something worthwhile. Consequently, I generate a lot of ideas but struggle to execute on them because I just don’t have a deep understanding of any single subject.

Last year I spent some time learning Ruby in passive mode; reading a lot but producing little of value. Out of nowhere an opportunity came along to use this new knowledge. We were behind schedule at work and needed potentially months of code writing in just two weeks.

It was time to get to work and I couldn’t afford to be distracted. For two weeks I cut out all non-essential information intake and it had an amazing affect on my productive output.

There was no time for the sickly sweet drizzle of tweets, or the brain clogging stodginess of an RSS feed. Newspapers were out. TV was out. Email was definitely out. All Twitter clients (desktop and mobile) remained off for the duration of the two weeks. Email reading and response was cut to a single ten minute slot each day. If people wanted something urgently, they knew where to find me.

I kept my office door open and my RSS reader closed. I wore headphones at my desk, even when I wasn’t listening to music; people think twice about disturbing you when they can see you’re absorbed in something. It’s a subtle cue but it really seemed to work.

By day three I was feeling the itch, badly. Just a handful of tweets, just a couple of articles; something to satisfy the twitchy bit of my brain that loves to sink its teeth into juicy information. It was a big effort but I managed to resist the urge to snack.

I’m not talking about superhuman will power here; going cold turkey seemed extreme, so I allowed myself an hour of fiction reading before bed each night. I actually managed to finish reading a novel started six months before. An unexpected benefit.

On the strength of the first week’s experiment, I extended the information fast to weekends and was pleasantly surprised how much easier it was to relax and engage with the real people in my life. By the end of the two weeks the shakes were gone. I no longer craved social networking, email or articles. I was clean and it felt great.

With a bit of luck and a few productivity tricks (more on that in a later note), I hit the deadline at work and the results were well received.

The volume of work I produced in those two weeks was astonishing from a personal perspective and remains the most productive period I’ve experienced since the caffeine and youthful exuberance fuelled twenty hour programming stints at college. For what it’s worth, I produced over ten thousand lines of code in those ten days, most of it test driven and, for the most part, cleanly factored.

My usable Ruby skills improved beyond recognition and I gained a deeper, more practical understanding of the language and its tools. Those two wonderful weeks gave me more experience than the previous ten months of noodling around with toy projects and consuming reams of literature.

Since then I’ve slowly reintroduced some information consumption. I ruthlessly culled my Twitter-following and RSS lists and now guard them jealously. To this day I generally read and reply to email once per day, sometimes less frequently.

And it’s paid off. I’ve become more selective with the information I consume. I’ve been able to make more sensible choices when it comes to technical literature; only reading as much as I need to complete the most important task at hand.

I suspect most of us could afford to cut out a lot of the information we consume. Unless it helps us complete the task we’re working on right now then it’s just empty calories, and while tasty it probably adds little discernible value to our work.

Try it for a while. Turn off the fire hose, experience some precious mental quiet-time and really do those important things.