A small amount of water reduces thirst. A large amount can poison you. The same principle applies to information. A small, carefully chosen amount can enhance your ability to make smart decisions. Too much and you fare no better than chance.
The negative effect of too much information has been demonstrated in studies. One study, documented in The Black Swan, involved a blurred picture of a fire hydrant. The picture was slowly made more clear and participants were invited to guess what the object was. Surprisingly, participants shown more intermediate steps to arrive at the half-blurred image were less likely to guess the identity of the fire hydrant.
Despite the negative influence of too much information, few people recognize the toxicity. In one test, doctors were given more information about patients than was necessary to provide a diagnosis. The extra information actually decreased the doctors ability to diagnose, while making them more confident.
In other words, more information makes you think you know more. Even if you actually know less.
How Information Poison Affects You
Information poisoning probably happens more than your realize. Here are two examples:
- Irrelevant Measurements. I’m a fan of measurements, but there are cases where excessive measurement can lead to bad theories. Weighing yourself every day may lead you to suspect different exercises are more or less effective. But since water and food content fluctuate more than fat levels on a daily basis, these measurements aren’t just meaningless; they can be damaging.
- Analysis Paralysis. You’ve probably known people who research and theorize endlessly, but never get anything done. Too much information can create doubt, when what you need is experimentation.
How to Purify Your Information Stream
Managing the information that is coming to you isn’t easy. Controlling what data you focus on ensures that irrelevant facts and overload don’t confuse the important.
- Minimize. Minimizing information may sound like a sin. Doesn’t that just push you into the ignorant masses? I’d argue that humans are information consumers, and it takes effort not to absorb information. Remember that information isn’t knowledge. Minimize the amount of facts that aren’t important to leave cognitive space for those that do.
- Disable Useless Theorizing. How does checking your website stats every hour help you? I currently check my stats once a day out of habit. Now I’d like to check them once a week. This disables me from creating theories trying to explain random fluctuations. Occasionally my stats might go up and down in a few days, and especially after a popular post. But speculating on the causes of daily fluctuations are a waste of thinking.
- Limit Critical Metrics. Find the key pieces of information that actually do predict results. Most fields involve a lot of variables for success. But usually they have one or two measurements that make up the majority of predictive efforts. Here’s a few examples I can think of:
- Blogs – Posting rate and posting depth. There are tons of variables that can spell success for a blog. But I’ve found the best factors to look at are how often they post entries and the depth of the entries they post. A few blogs can post infrequently and win on home runs. But most win by simply taking a lot of swings.
- Physical Fitness – Frequency of going to the gym. This ignores intensity of workouts, exercise style and supplements consumed. But the amount of times you actually show up is probably the most critical metric.
- Dating – Number of women/men asked on a date. I’ve read a lot of books advocating complex theories about dating. Interesting ideas, but honestly I think the best metric to focus on is how many people you are asking. Confident people win because they are willing to take enough chances, not because they have secrets of seduction.
- Disconfirm. Humans have a tendency to prove themselves right. We are believing, not rational, machines. Instead of seeking information that fits your theories, try to prove yourself wrong. Statistically significant proof of being incorrect is worth far more than another anecdote that supports your cause. Resist bias.
- Watch Out For Randomness. I’ve had a few blogger friends send me an alarmed message when their subscriptions stats take a daily nosedive. I tell them not to worry because it is probably just a random variation, not a significant trend. Limit information streams so they send you broader pictures rather than useless variations.
- Turn Off Noise. Cutting out distractions is a common theme of this blog. I believe focusing on random details is counterproductive. Minutia needs to be turned off because the brain is tricked into thinking it matters.
- Knowledge Over Information. Facts are useless. What really matters is how you weave that information into your understanding of how the world works. Focus on taking in a smaller chunk of information, but consciously thinking about it more. Critical thought and absorbing data aren’t always in conflict, but try to spend more time contemplating and writing than simply consuming.
- Don’t Pick Easy Numbers. Measurability does not make data useful. I used to record the number of books I had read each year. Later I realized that some books were worth ten times more than others. Picking the wrong number was sabotaging me into finishing poor books to boost my annual metric. Pages read or, better yet, time spent reading were more useful numbers in hindsight.
- Label Your Information Streams. Become aware of how you are spending your cognition. Pick a major area of your life. Now write down the sources of information you use to make decisions for that list. If we are talking about your school studies it could be:
- Hours spent studying
- Grades on papers
- Nights spent at the University library
- Pages of notes taken
These are just major ones, there are hundreds of streams used to evaluate performance. Labeling these information streams may point you to weaknesses in your approach. If you’ve found hours study doesn’t correspond with your success, you should stop measuring that and focus on a metric that counts.
Quality Over Quantity
This may not sound like a big problem. Sure you get a lot of information, but you can handle it. Plus it keeps you informed, right? If you consider that studies showed confidence improved while competence decreased, you might want to cast a little more doubt on that assumption.