How to go on an information diet

While it’s important to stay informed, too much information can become confusing, anxiety-inducing, and plain counter-productive. The same way you try to eat healthy to improve your physical health, going on an information diet is a way to control what you consume to take care of your mental health. It’s not the same as a digital detox, where the goal is to completely disconnect. Instead, it’s about designing your habits and shaping your environment so you consume information in a mindful way.

Breaking the addiction

Information is a drug. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense: the more information our ancestors had, the more likely they were to survive. But this is the first time in history that humans have been exposed to such a constant flow of information. And in the same way the superabundance of high-calorie foods has led to obesity, this new information overload encourages overconsumption.

We’re not just seeking relevant information to increase our chances of survival anymore. We are addicted to information. We fall into rabbit holes, scroll our feeds mindlessly, watch video after video by clicking on the algorithmically recommended links. We have lost control over the content we consume.

“In the world of the Internet, we have almost universal access to everything that we need. And that means that we have to make empowered decisions and informed decisions about what it is that we’re consuming,” says Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet: A case for conscious consumption.

Simple ways to start an information diet

A mindful approach to content consumption is not only about quantity, it’s also about quality. It may seem obvious, but a couple of well-researched long-form essays are often better than a dozen of short Buzzfeed-like articles.

Have you ever heard about Michael Pollan’s diet? “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” When it comes to information, the equivalent would be “Seek. Not too much. Mostly facts.” As Clay Johnson puts it: “Eat low on the sort of information food chain, and stick close to sources.”

You don’t have to become a monk to go on an information diet. There are simple steps you can take that will make it easier for you to only consume the information your need, without relying too much on your willpower.

  • Curate your inbox. There is a reason why newsletters are making a comeback. They represent a more mindful, personal way to get the information you want, straight to your inbox (by the way, you should totally subscribe to my newsletter). But subscribing to many newsletters can quickly become a mess. Make sure to set up filters. If you want to take it a step further, try an app like Leave Me Alone (50 credits free here for members) to unsubscribe from unwanted emails, or Sanebox for even more granular control over your inbox—both are extremely respectful of their users’ privacy.
  • Dress the table. Spending a lot of time on your laptop? Shape your environment to make sure you’re not overly tempted to binge on useless information. Install something like RescueTime to understand where your time goes each day and to reduce distractions. Tweak your Facebook, Twitter, and other social media settings to reduce the number of notifications.
  • Add more offline foods to your content menu. A great way to be mindful about the content you consume is to increase your levels of “offline foods”—content you can consume away from a screen and that you can purchase or download in advance, forcing you to make decisions about what you will consume later instead of falling prey to in-the-moment curiosity. Offline foods include books, but also podcasts.
  • Schedule your content consumption. In order to take back control, it’s incredibly effective to block time for reading stuff online. If you’re really struggling with information addiction, you can even put a timer on. This will force you to prioritise information that really matters.

Whichever strategies you decide to implement in order to go on an information diet, it’s important to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Practice metacognition by keeping a journal—which has many science-based benefits—or at least taking the time to reflect.

And whenever you are reading or watching something, ask yourself a few questions. Why am I reading/watching this? Is this providing value to me? Is this the best use of my time?

Sometimes, the answer will be: “I’m watching this because it’s entertaining, and I need to relax, so this is the best use of my time.” And that’s perfectly fine. But other times, you will realise you are just wasting your time and would be better off reading, watching, or doing something else. Information is a tool, you just need to be mindful of how you use it.

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