What information consumes is rather obvious – the attention of its recipients. A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." So wrote the great social scientist Herbert Simon, and his comment applies in spades to cyberspace. We are deluged by tidal waves of information, and there have been few convincing guides on how to avoid drowning in data or wasting our time online.
"We are deluged by tidal waves of information and there are few guides on how to avoid drowning"
But help is at hand from an old friend – the 80/20 principle. You probably know this is the observation that usually at least four-fifths of results flow from one-fifth of causes. So, with a little ingenuity, we should be able to work out how to get more benefit from much less time, effort and money.
I have a theory that most of us – myself included – use social media and the ability to read stuff online as a displacement activity. My particular addiction is Twitter. It’s easier and often more fun to take a break from what I should be doing – in my case, writing a chapter of my new book – and send a tweet or read articles highlighted on my feed.
"Once you’ve had two ‘pleasure interludes’ online each day, allow no more until you’ve ‘clocked off’"
Having a pet website where you spend many minutes a day is fine if you come back to your core activity with new ideas or a refuelled determination to pursue the activity creatively. But much of the time going online ends up a rather unsatisfying experience with rapidly diminishing or even negative returns. Somehow, though, we remain hooked.
So what’s the remedy? I recommend an "online information audit". Ask yourself these questions:
- Of all the time you spend online, where is the 10% of most useful or enjoyable information coming from? Is it a particular site or is it a distinct type of information that cuts across many sites? Or within a particular site, are there articles posted by a small number of people that alone are really worth reading?
- Which sites or sources of information – defined as above – give you the worst returns of ideas and stimulation? What is the 80% that gives you at most 20% of great stuff?
- How much time do you truly spend online, and how do you assess the benefit of each chunk of time? For a week, put a sheet of paper next to your laptop or have a little notebook with you whenever you use your phone. For each chunk of time online, record the time, the site, the nature of the source (for example, what is it about?) and give the benefit from the time online a rating from 0 (useless) to 10 (terrific). Even if you only manage to do this for a single day, I guarantee that you will have some surprises that will start you thinking.
- What is the 10% of your time offline that gives you the very best results – the value to yourself, your company and other people? Now compare that to the value of the top 10% of your time that you spend online. Which is more valuable? Is the difference marked?
- Try going for a whole 24 hours without going online. Discounting the withdrawal symptoms, was that an experience you would like to repeat? Why? Why not?
- How much time do you spend online in 24 hours? Now imagine that you were only allowed to spend one-tenth of that time online. Which few activities would you retain? Try this one day as an experiment.
- What would happen if you only went online in your leisure time? Would that increase or decrease your overall productivity? Your overall happiness? Again, try it as an experiment.
Once you have conducted your audit, write up the findings. Then take these action steps:
- Stop the bottom 80% of time (relative to results) spent online.
- Double the top 10% of time spent online on those specific sites or activities that deliver the greatest results – provided this time compares favourably to similar time spent offline.
- Stop displacement activity by a rigid regime you impose. For example, spend no time online until you have achieved the most important single objective you set yourself at the start of the day.
- Use the most pleasurable time online to reward yourself for having achieved important offline objectives.
- Once you have had two "pleasure interludes" online each day, allow no more until you have "clocked off" from work.
If you follow these steps, I promise you will get far more from far less time online.
Richard Koch is the author of The 80/20 Principle. A revised edition of the book is published this month