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The information you consume over the course of the day has a significant impact on both your productivity and creativity. Our creativity is the sum of the dots we connect, after all. When we deliberately consume more valuable information, we connect more valuable dots and come up with more creative ideas and solutions to problems.
There’s usually an inverse correlation between the value of the information we’re consuming, and its entertainment level:
You’ll probably find an exception or two to this rule—I find many academic studies more entertaining than reality TV shows, for example—but most of what I consume follows this rough trend line.
Not all things you consume are created equal. Some books, documentaries, and magazines will, in the long run, make you more creative and productive than others—because of this, it’s worth making an effort to consume things more deliberately.
Consuming information on autopilot is one of the worst things you can do for your productivity and creativity. Here are 10 of my favorite ways to cut back on the fluff, and consume more valuable information throughout the day. While this list may seem daunting on the surface, I don’t recommend diving in too deep—if you’re anything like me, you’ll find your consumption habits are difficult to break. Start by noting what you consume throughout the week—the first idea below—and then choose a few other strategies to adopt!
1. Capture what you consume
Start by taking stock of the information you consume already. For one week, make a list of all the TV shows, movies, social media updates, podcasts, audiobooks, news sites, and everything else you consume—both by choice and on autopilot.
You may be surprised by what you find. (As just one example, the average American watches 34 hours of TV every week. That’s almost five hours a day.)
2. Eliminate the bottom 25-50%
Take stock of what you’ve consumed in that week. If you can, highlight some things to cut out completely—including TV shows you passively watch, podcasts you listen to without questioning how much you actually enjoy them, and so on. While you may want to continue consuming a few of these low-return items—being passively entertained can be fun in small doses—cut out the other low-return information: the things you consume that don’t contribute significant value or meaning to your life. Doing this helps carve out space for more valuable information.
3. Make three substitutions this week
If you don’t feel like cutting out so much, start smaller. This week, pick three low-value things to chop, and consume three higher-value things in their place. Three substitutions may seem like a minor change, but it’s a great place to start.
4. Consume one thing actively
Chances are you consume a lot of information on autopilot throughout the week—including news articles and social media updates. This week, choose one thing to consume that requires active attention—like a book, magazine, or conversation with a colleague.
5. Turn down the noise
Some of the information we consume in autopilot just adds noise to our life, such as listening to the radio during our drive home. According to positive psychologist Shawn Achor, something can be considered noise when it’s untimely (it can’t be acted on right away), unusable, hypothetical, or it distracts us from our goals.
Cut out one thing on your list that would qualify as noise.
6. See descriptions of information as pitches for your time and attention
Your time and attention are two of the most valuable ingredients in becoming more productive and living a more meaningful life.
It’s extraordinarily helpful to have the things you intend to consume pitch you for your time and attention. I personally see every podcast, TV show, and movie description as a pitch for my time and attention. This helps me select and consume things more consciously throughout the day.
7. Say no to three things this week
While it’s important to take stock of what you regularly consume, it’s just as important to protect your time and attention against new information. This week, make a conscious effort to say no to three new things you’re thinking of consuming—whether that’s something as simple as resisting an article you’re tempted to click on Facebook, or something as big as a new TV show you decide not to binge-watch.
8. Consider your learning style
There are three main ways we learn: visually, aurally, and kinesthetically. Knowing how you learn best will help you make more informed decisions of what to consume. For example, if you learn best by listening, it may be worth consuming audiobooks instead of reading physical books; if you’re a visual learner, you may favor watching a TED talk over listening to an audiobook.
9. Mind the medium
Some mediums are more productive than others. A few years back I found that all of the pointless and meaningless content I consumed originated from my TV—so I got rid of my cable subscription. Eliminating this medium from my life has proven to be one of the best decisions I’ve made over the last decade: I now read two or three books a week, have much more time to write, and come up with many more creative ideas as a result. Consider what mediums you consume the most information from—if you’re anything like me, all of the unproductive information you consume could be coming from one or two places.
10. Question the quantity of stuff you consume
It’s worth questioning the overall amount of information you consume from each medium. A few months back, I found myself reading two audiobooks a week—a fact I was pretty smug about proud of. But I quickly found that I retained hardly any of the information I took in, while I could remember quite well previous audiobooks I had read.
Be mindful of whether you’re consuming too much information from any one medium.