Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Consuming Versus Creating

A few weeks ago a friend told me I read too much. It was after after I sent him a half dozen or so back-to-back emails and IMs with links to media and technology industry stories that I had come across and thought he would find interesting.  


Each morning, buzzed on a couple of cups of coffee, I log onto Google Reader where subscriptions to all my favorite news feeds and blogs are aggregated, sometimes resulting in as many as 1000 stories in a day.   

I try to quickly scan the headlines and dive into only a few stories. But with the media landscape transforming so quickly and profoundly, resulting in entire new industries emerging overnight, my scanning slows to a grind as practically every other headline grabs my attention.  (The rampant practice of "reader-baiting": crafting sensationalistic headlines for superfluous stories to increase page views and ad revenue, adds to the overload.)


Before I know it,  a planned 30 minute exercise has extended far beyond that as my caffeine buzz wears off, the morning disappears and my brain is flooded with a lot more info than it can handle.  


So when my friend told me I read to much, something resonated. (When I went back and looked at some of the stories I shared with him, just a week after sending, I couldn't even remember some of them.)


I decided it was important that I find the right balance of consuming versus creating, or as Seth Godin said in a recent post ... 

In and out

That's one of the most important decisions you'll make today.
How much time and effort should be spent on intake, on inbound messages, on absorbing data...
and how much time and effort should be invested in output, in creating something new.
There used to be a significant limit on available intake. Once you read all the books in the college library on your topic, it was time to start writing.
Now that the availability of opinions, expertise and email is infinite, I think the last part of that sentence is the most important:
Time to start writing.
Or whatever it is you're not doing, merely planning on doing.

For me, it has been too much in and not enough out, this blog post aside.  After returning from a week long ski trip with my family where I intentionally avoided opening my Google Reader, I decided to try another week without logging on.  I wanted to see just how disconnected I would feel.  I wanted to see if the important stuff would find, me so to speak, sent by friends and colleagues in my various social networks.


(Interestingly, Twitter, Facebook and email are not distracting time-sucks for me, like they are for most people. I keep the programs closed most of the time,  avoiding the addiction of real time communication - dealing with them at select times during the day, in batches, just as a recent Newsweek feature story on information overload, titled "I Can't Think," recommends.)


It felt awesome, like my brain was cooling down from an overheated state, and finally allowed to recover from "information fatigue," a condition validated by its recent  addition to the Oxford English Dictionary.  On a plane trip during the second week of my "purge", I came up with an idea for a new business, a thrilling moment I had been waiting for, one that I thought my morning reading sessions would trigger, but I think ultimately delayed.


From that Newsweek story....

Creative decisions are more likely to bubble up from a brain that applies unconscious thought to a problem, rather than going at it in a full-frontal, analytical assault. So while we’re likely to think creative thoughts in the shower, it’s much harder if we’re under a virtual deluge of data. “If you let things come at you all the time, you can’t use additional information to make a creative leap or a wise judgment,” says Cantor. “You need to pull back from the constant influx and take a break.” That allows the brain to subconsciously integrate new information with existing knowledge and thereby make novel connections and see hidden patterns. In contrast, a constant focus on the new makes it harder for information to percolate just below conscious awareness, where it can combine in ways that spark smart decisions.

When I finally did log back on to my Google Reader one morning, I instituted a new set of guidelines:
  • Keeping sessions to 45 minutes or less
  • Stronger filtering - "Do I really need to know about this?"
  • Cancel feeds that are sucking up too much time
  • Saving stories that are relevant but too long to a "Read Later" folder on Evernote, a free cloud-based note taking and filing system that can be accessed from any device, any time. (Everyone should check it out.)
I am also investigating new tools to replace or minimize my dependence on Google Reader, such as Flipboard and Linkedin's brand new social news service. 

Although the Internet has give us so many extraordinary tools that enable us to consume and create more than anyone ever imagined, I believe some of the great new businesses too come will enable us to find a better balance between the two.