Tech Life Aggressive Information Consumption

Repetitive Information Injury

Rachel and I were parked on the living room floor sorting through my old books. This is a tricky task because you’ve got to balance your interest in the books with getting the job done. Our current distraction was the Book of Questions. This was a late 80s fad book full of compelling questions you were supposed to answer honestly. In reality, the book landed during my college years so I think a lot of folks were using the book to figure out how to get laid.

The question Rachel and I were stuck on was some variant of, “Name a habit you have that you dislike.” While I pondered my response Rachel chimed in, “I hate how often I check my my email. I sit down, click the Get Email button, and see if anything shows up. If nothing does, I surf the web for a few minutes, and then check mail again… and again.”

I was shocked. Rachel is no nerd and the habit she was describing represents one the major downsides of all sufferers of NADD. I call it Repetitive Information Injury.

Sponge Variants

Your brain is a unique sponge. Regular old sponges have a pretty easy gig. They’ve got a puddle here or a spill there and they can usually handle it and, if they can’t, they just say, “Hey pal, I’m full. Squeeze me and let’s continue, ok?”

Your brain sponge has two unique qualities. First, there is no squeeze. Your consumption of stuff is only limited by waking hours and death. Second, your brain sponge isn’t dealing with puddles or spills of information. Your brain sponge is afloat in a ever growing sea of information. Add to that fact that every start-up I know of appears bent on figuring out ways to help shove more information into your brain sponge and you begin to understand where NADD comes from. It’s a set of habits designed as a self defense mechanism to deal the brain’s tendency to want to consume all information.

These habits don’t always work.

NADD sufferers walk a delicate tight rope between effectively consuming large amounts of information and losing themselves in a endless loop of useless, frustrating information acquisition motions that I’ll call Repetitive Information Injury (“RII”).

For me RII shows up late in the day. I’m between meetings and having nothing urgent on my to do list. I sit down at the computer and scan my unread email. Once done there, I click on a couple of tab groups in Safari and scan the news. Lastly, I switch to NetNewsWire and scan for changes on my 75+ feeds.

And then… I do it again.

And again.

It sounds silly, but I’m literally stuck in a loop of information acquisition. What I am looking for? Something interesting informational tidbit which grabs my attention and if I don’t find it, I’ll often loop four or five times before I realize that I’m in this useless, non-productive loop.

It’s not silly. In fact, it’s a warning. Pay attention to your NADD. My bouts of RII are limited to five to ten minutes late in the day when meetings become infrequent and my brain is just plain tired, but I’m assuming there are folks out there who are completely beholden to their RII. These are same folks who are contributing to the national average of a mind boggling 4.5 hours of TV watched each day… that’s over 9 years glued to the tube if you make it to 65.

Managing Your Sponge

NADD is a fact of life in this world of infinite information combined the increasingly ability to find personal relevance and share that relevance with those who care. RII is an unfortunately byproduct of NADD and I think it can be avoided with some simple adjustments to your information consumption habits.

Know the signs. As described above, RII is when you’re stuck in a consumption loop. Your brain is thinking it’s more important to continue to find something to soak in rather than moving on to your next project. It’s tricking you into continuing with thoughts like, “Hey, it just takes a second to press that Get Email button… or that Refresh Feeds button… go for it man! You never know when you’ll hit the information gold-mine!” Problem is, those seconds turn into minutes… and you’re suddenly staring at the same pages, listening to the same JUST DO IT advice, and suddenly 30 minutes have passed and you haven’t actually done anything.

The drug addict analogy works here on a non-life-threatening-level. You are, by definition, addicted to information if you consider yourself a sufferer of NADD and RII shows up when you’ve lost the ability to moderate that consumption. Knowing you’re in this state is step number one to unsticking yourself.

Trust your tools. Any NADD sufferer has their favorite set of information tools. Mine include Safari, Mail, NetNewsWire. The Safari tool is a combination of tabbed groups as well as information aggregators links such as Del.icio.us and Digg. For tools which poll for new information such as Mail and NetsNewsWire, I deliberately set the polling frequency to something longer than an every five minutes… every half hour or hour seems to work. These longer windows on polling inactivity give me more time to focus on other projects and if I’m focused on something else the appearance of 9 new emails in my inbox is less of a distraction.

Safari is more of a problem because it doesn’t poll. I’ve got to click on the tab group to see what’s up and once I start clicking, here comes the RII. Solution number one is to push as much of my tab groups into NetNewsWire and that sort’f works except brain likes to visually scan web pages… not just text headlines via RSS. My other solution is to mentally schedule my Safari excursions to twice during the work day. Once in the morning when the coffee is running through my veins and once at the end of the day when I want to assess the day. Success in doing is also varied.

Keep going forward. What your mind, your sponge, is really looking for during this NADD-induced RII bouts is significant change that it can transform into energy. Think of the first time you figured out what all the fuss was about AJAX. Remember drag and dropping in a web page without the help of Flash? You were probably trolling RSS feeds with a half full cup of coffee and WHAM you suddenly understood that web applications might be cool again. I remember that moment, wrote about it, too. Those information highs are what being an aggressive information consumer is all about. Even with the risk of RII, you’ve got to let yourself stumble around the Net and see what is what.

The difference between these free-form information excursions and RII has to do with direction. In RII, you’re stuck in a loop whereas information excursions move only forward. Like Safari, I try to keep these information consumption sessions away from work hours because they can turn into RII. Think weekends or pre-bedtime activities. Again, my success here has been limited.

Freaked out, yet?

Repetitive Information Injury intentionally smells a lot like it’s cousin Repetitive Stress Injury. Both are the result of bad habits. If you don’t figure out a structured means of managing your NADD, you’re not going to physically injured, but you are wasting a tremendous amount of time.

Personally, I rank my NADD as a key talent. My ability to consume and understand information is essential to working in a industry which likes to reinvent itself every five years. There’s lots of safe work in high tech that doesn’t require NADD, but I’ll risk it, RII and all, because my brain is unique sponge and when I stop using it, I might as well be dead.

19 Responses

  1. Very true. I just finished scanning through my RSS feeds, went to check my email and a message board, then hit the RSS refresh button and WHAM did this post just pop up outta nowhere.

    I could have been studying for an exam tomorrow but then I just had (HAD!) to read your article and I’ll bet you a dollar that right after I hit Post on this form I’ll check my RSS feeds again.

    I really need to start locking down some applications with ZoneAlarm when I’m trying to get some work done until I can break this cursed RII cycle.

  2. I was looking for a definition of the problem that has killed both my productivity AND creativity for the last few months. Thanks, Rands.

    Like you, I don’t want to stop my consumption, because it gives me an edge. I just want to constrain it, and I’m working on that.

  3. Jason Ross 11 years ago

    so, is it a bad sign when you’re refreshing your own website looking for new content that you know darn well isn’t there cause you’ve been too busy feeding your RII instead of creating new stuff ?

  4. Jay D 11 years ago

    i like how you think… keep up the good work

  5. This man speaks the truth.

  6. Wes Y 11 years ago

    Scarily true.

    I even hit the “refresh RSS feed” button in FireFox because it might not have updated since the last 5 minutes I cycled through my feeds.

  7. True, true, and interruptions make it worse.

    Every time someone drops into my office for a question or two, I go back to checking the blog list for updates. Sigh 🙁

  8. It’s good to know I’m not alone!

  9. I think it has more to do with searching for a sense of comfort out of rhythm rather than a need for information.

    But good read.

  10. I think your drug addiction analogy isn’t quite as accurate as a gambling addiction analogy, since the rewards of drug use are predictable, but a compelling component of gambling is the unpredictable nature of the rewards. If I click… just… one…. more… time… something awesome is sure to show up! Awww, darn. Maybe if I click… just… one… more… time…

  11. I’ve been calling this “happy clicking”. Just one more click…one more…

  12. Beirne 11 years ago

    I’ve always thought of RII like a crack addiction, where you get so high the first time you have to keep trying to achieve a high like it again. When I started using the web it was one of the coolest things I had seen. The novelty wore off a long time ago but I’m still looking for that original high. If I keep checking the web, newsfeeds, and mail that great item of information may reappear again that will be as exciting as when I first got on the Internet.

  13. The annoying thing about the web is if you’re plugged into the right resources, awesome stuff DOES keep showing up with the next click! As a basic example, how many times do I check out del.icio.us/popular and find an awesome website? Almost every time!

    The thing that’s kept me ground is seriously, shutting the stuff off once and a while. Let my email box pile. Probably not the best strategy (people waiting on me for stuff, etc.) but the only one that keeps me sane. That, and remember the wise words of GTD: “Is this actionable?” Such a profound thing, and almost nobody gets it. How much information do you consume with the purpose of actually USING IT, vs “wow this is interesting”? Realize NOW that if you’re reading information just for the heck of it, then the web is no different then TV. Start thinking about how you can apply what you’ve learned to DO SOMETHING.

  14. You were probably trolling RSS feeds with a half full cup of coffee

    Damn you, a half full cup of coffee stands right next to my laptop and I should be working right now.

    I’m glad it’s not glass of scotch.

  15. marnie 10 years ago

    Dear Rands,

    Does the term ‘starfish’ mean anything to you

    besides an aquadic animal? If it does, it means

    you already know about ‘techcomedy.com’. If not,

    take a look, you might enjoy.

    Really enjoy reading you,

    wanted to return something.

  16. You simply described my problem for 5 years.

  17. Arnon 10 years ago

    A thesis needed to be written. After a year with 0 pages written (!!) I finally understood the thing that was holding me back. I took a vow.

    The thesis has been submitted yesterday, and I can finally read slashdot again. I dread the amount of posts I have to skim, to make up for that year…

  18. Wow! Spot on. Thanks