I’ve let it slip that one personal goal for 2011 is a more regimented information diet. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the concepts we apply to diets on the body can be applied with some parallel applications in the world of information.
The first thing that applies to physical diets is the concept of tracking intake. Our bodies can utilize up to a certain amount of food after which, no matter how good it is, the food is going to be stored up as fat. Is tracking intake something that can be applied to information? The number of sites visited in a day, the number of browser tabs open, the amount of time getting pumped with information via some form of media: podcast, radio, screencast, television or otherwise? Is there a point where that additional reading does no good and takes away from what might have been retained?
The second basic thing in the world of physical diets is some concomitant form of exercise. Some of this might be for burning away calories (cardio) but sometimes it’s about gaining mass or turning “fat” into “muscle.” I wonder what exercise looks like in the world of information. Steve Yegge had an old article about practice for programmers and I suspect that exercise involves designating time specifically for the mental effort related to processing information efficiently.
“The great engineers I know are as good as they are because they practice all the time. People in great physical shape only get that way by working out regularly, and they need to keep it up, or they get out of shape. The same goes for programming and engineering.”
Media and Delivery
There are different “food groups” associated with a healthy diet. Some types of food, like “fatty carbs” are very difficult to incorporate into any meaningful diet but others, like fruit, are a staple of most sensible dieting efforts drawn up for a healthier lifestyle. I wrote down my main sources of intake and looking at the list I would consider some blog entries analogous to fatty carbs or sugar whereas other forms of intake such as technical books to be a more substantive form of media for input and processing.
Confession: I’m an architecture geek1. It started in earnest when I moved to South Dakota – it was the first time I’d lived in a rural area. I missed the built environment I was used to in cities. Along the way I’ve managed to have 14 different architecture blogs in my RSS Reader. Especially since I’m not an architect, this is excessive. I usually enjoy a story here and there but I leave a lot unread. This is a case where it’s not my curiosity that needs to go away, it’s the delivery format. I’d be better served rereading Steen Eiler Rasmussen’s Experiencing Architecture or Bjarke Ingalls’s Yes Is More than getting distracted by blog entries from the web.
I’m not sure there is any equivalent in the world of dieting but the last thing I’ve been thinking about related to my information diet is designating time for processing. Earlier this year I finally made some headway in understanding Getting Things Done and though I can’t say I’ve implemented everything David Allen recommends two things have stuck: his recommendation of using a calendar and the idea that you process information rather than letting it idle in an indeterminate state.
It’s occurred to me that in recent years information access for personal and professional development is trivial. Wikipedia is a great resource for documenting general knowledge. For professional work there are websites, link aggregators, and vendors eagerly providing a glut of information to learn from.
In this environment, what does it mean to “process” an information resource? For example, at work this week we watched Bart De Smet give a talk on a language feature of C# called LINQ. I’ve used LINQ quite a bit but his talk covered some direction in the technology that is new (Rx). In a more general sense, he referenced the Wikipedia entry on Monads – another resource which I would like to process.
I’m not sure what processing should look like but it seems like what it means to process an information resource is less of an issue than the discipline it takes to designate time for it. Perhaps that ties this notion back to exercise.
I’ll be using the next couple of weeks to think more about what an Information Diet should look like and a practical structure to use. I’m posting in part because I would love any input on tactics and also because committing this to the permanence of my blog means the commitment is formalized. Four areas of focus will be:
- Calorie Counting – tracking input
- Exercise – deliberate practice
- Media and Delivery – determining which formats and timing work best for information
- Processing – what steps are involved in making meaning out of information
1A running joke with my wife is that I will quit my job, enroll in an architecture program just so I can be a critic. She takes great joy in laughing about this.