How to Stop Information Overload
From Crushing Your Creativity

This post is part of the Break Through Your Creative Blocks series.

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The internet is a wonderful thing, especially for creative people looking for entertainment and new ideas. Never before have so many different sources of inspiration been so freely available. But as many of us have discovered to our cost, you can have too much of a good thing. Too many websites to visit, too many blogs to read, too many videos to watch, too much music to listen to, too many links to click on Twitter, StumbleUpon, Delicious, Digg… And that’s before you’ve even opened your e-mail!

Some days, it feels like your laptop is a Pandora’s Box – open it and you unleash all kinds of digital distractions, that make creative work an impossibility. Or to change the metaphor, information overload is in danger of crushing your inspiration.

This is the situation described by João Freitas, in response to our invitation to tell us about your creative blocks.

One of my creative blocks it’s the fact that i always think i’ve got to see everthing that goes on the internet, read everything, all the news, watch all the movies, know all the new music bands that are emerging, etc…

ALL, ALL, ALL

so…..

if i try this “daily actualization” i obvious don’t get much time to STOP, THINK and WORK. but i don’t know…it’s some kinda of a a magnetic force because i’m always doing the same thing.

what do you think? Can you help me? Have you ever felt the same?

thanks for this project

João Freitas

Hi João,

I’ll start with your last question: yes, I have felt the same. And I know from talking to my coaching clients that you and I are not alone – information overload is practically an epidemic right now, and presenting many of us with a big challenge. So what you’re experiencing is pretty normal. You might even say it’s an occupational hazard for 21st century creatives.

I’m reminded of a story told by Nile Rodgers, the legendary music producer:

When it comes to dealing with women I’m a super, super romantic guy. But I probably have what they call Don Juan syndrome: which is, every time I meet a girl – every single one – on some level there’s flirtation involved. I was friends with an actor by the name of Malcolm-Jamal Warner who worked on The Cosby Show. And Bill Cosby noticed that Malcolm had a wandering eye. And he pulled him aside and said to him, ‘Son, there are many, many beautiful women in this world – but you can’t have all of them.’

Then he said, ‘Once you realise that, it will give you peace.’ And it’s true.


Guardian interview with Nile Rodgers

It’s only human nature to get over-excited when presented with an abundance, whether it’s a world full of beautiful women, an all-you-can-eat buffet, or the latest cool things on the Digg homepage.

The important thing to bear in mind though, is that it’s not the abundance that’s the problem, or even the excitement – it’s getting caught up in the excitement, to the point where it becomes an obsession. This is the “magnetic force” you describe.

And you know the solution: “STOP, THINK and WORK”. But some things are easier said than done, so here are some tips to help you reduce your information overload and boost your creativity and productivity.

Give yourself some digital downtime

Every morning I spent 20 minutes either staring at the wall (sitting meditation) or walking up and down in the garden (walking meditation). It can get pretty boring. Many days, I’m tempted to skip it and fire up the laptop, especially when I’m busy or anticipating something exciting happening in my internet business. But it’s one of the most important things I do each day .

By the end of the 20 minutes I feel much more relaxed, alert and clear headed. And when I sit down at the computer, it’s much easier to avoid distractions and get down to work.

I also have a rule that I’m not allowed to use my laptop in the evenings. This keeps the last part of the day free for family: playing with my children, enjoying a meal with my wife, pottering around in the kitchen or the garden, or watching a movie. Sometimes it’s hard to drag myself away from the computer, but it’s always a relief when I finally switch it off.

I’m not saying you need to take up meditation (although here’s a good place to start if you want to). But I suggest you schedule some regular digital downtime in your day – i.e. switch off your computer and phone (and yes, that does include an iPad!) and spend time in the ‘real world’ of people and things, socialising face-to-face, exercising or doing practical tasks like washing the dishes or tidying your home.

If you really want to break the cycle of information overload, try Tim Ferris’s low information diet for a week, as described in his book The Four Hour Work Week: seven days without any newspapers, magazines, news websites, television, books or web surfing (except for essential work tasks).

Notice what’s happening

Once upon a time, a Zen student wrote to his teacher, criticizing himself for being ‘dim and dull’. Here’s the teacher’s response:

Your letter informs me that your root nature is dim and dull, so that though you make efforts to cultivate and uphold the Dhamma [i.e. the Buddha’s teachings], you’ve never gotten an instance of transcendent enlightenment. The one who can recognize dim and dull is definitely not dim and dull.

(From 365 Nirvana: Here and Now, edited by Josh Baran)

I’m not a Zen master, but I’d suggest that the same thing is true for you – the fact that you can see and describe this “magnetic force” driving you to read everything you can find on the internet, means that you are not completely caught up in it.

Try to look at things from the perspective of the part of you that sees what’s happening. Get in touch with the thought or feeling that’s prompting you to let go of the magnetic force, so that you’re not carried away by it. The more digital downtime you give yourself, the easier this will be.

Schedule time for creating and consuming

As well as scheduling digital downtime in your day, set yourself times for work and times for reading, watching videos and exploring the internet. It might sound a bit rigid to organise your time in this way, but try it as an experiment. You might be surprised how good it feels.

For example, the morning is my ‘writing time’. I know that if I’m surfing the web and watching videos during that time, I’m skiving off – which makes it easier to stop. In the afternoons, I’ve got e-mail and a to-do list to get through, but as long as I deal with that, I can give myself time to read blogs and hang out on social networks. And I like to listen to podcasts while I wash the dishes in the evening. By allotting different times to different activities, you can stop them getting out of hand.

Use filters

When I started my first blog, I read loads of blogs about blogging. In the beginning it was exciting, but after a while, I realised I was struggling to keep up and felt overwhelmed. Then I gradually realised that I was learning the most from just two or three blogs, so I carried on reading them and unsubscribed from all the rest. Big relief!

Start using the 80/20 rule to filter information: make a list of the 20% of websites, blogs, people on Twitter, and other sources that send you 80% of the most interesting media content. Carry on following them – and ditch the rest for a week. Notice what a difference that makes.

Trust your network

A few years ago I read a piece by Ryan Holiday about filtering information on the web, where he made a remark that has stayed with me:

If it’s good and you miss it, it will come back to you, I promise.

This strikes me as both funny (how can he possibly guarantee that!) and true. Think of all the times you’ve come across a great blog post recommended by someone in your network – and then seen the same piece recommended by several other people over the next few days.

If you’re connected into a network of like-minded people online, you increase your chances of finding the really good stuff. Try this for an experiment: for the next few days, only click on links the second time you see them recommended by someone in your network.

Let things go

What’s the worst that will happen if you miss something? Next time you see a link that you’re really tempted to click on, sit on your hands for five minutes. Notice the temptation and resist it.

Can you let it go, close that browser window, and get started on your real work?

Over to You

How do you stop information overload crushing your creativity?

Any tips to help João STOP, THINK and WORK?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a creative coach with over 15 years’ experience of helping people get past their creative blocks and into the creative zone. For a FREE 26-week creative career guide, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. Hi
    I struggle with this every day. Even now at this very moment, I went to the computer to do something else but ended up reading your post… and thought I had to just make a little contribution.

    I had a good experience the other day when I had to sit at a car dealer’s to wait for my car to be repaired. I thought I’d utilise the time well so I brought my computer. I hadn’t hoped for a wireless internet connection there but knew I had my phone so I’d be online anyway. What happened the first minute? Well, my phone died. I had forgotten to charge it in the morning. So I had no internet. No worries really, I would mainly design a pricelist anyway, so I didn’t need to be online.

    It ended up being the most efficient hour I have had in months! It was a good lesson. Nowadays, I often bring my laptop to another room than the office room, turn off the network connection and leave my phone in the office room. The creativity often automatically comes back!

    Thanks, Mark, for good inspiration!

    Carolina

  2. Great story. So maybe the iPhone’s famously short battery life is all part of Apple’s strategy to be the technology of choice for creative types. ;-)

  3. Needing to *know* everything at best is a fallacy, and at worst is horribly self-destructive.

    I like to mentally divide the information which comes through into three vague buckets:

    1) What’s essential? (That is, what will help me in my day to day – what do I absolutely, positively have to know in my industry/my personal pursuits?)

    2) What will be useful? (The hardest of the lot. What is the information equivalent of a bit of string, which can be very handy at a later date?). I think most people have a hard time with this one.

    3) What can I ignore?

    I think it helps a lot with the vast amounts of information out there. And, a healthy dose of beligerence never hurt. :)

  4. Agreed, no 2 is the hardest bucket. When I was editing a poetry mag, I was (almost) equally grateful for the amazingly good and amazingly bad submissions – they made my life easy. It was the ones in between that caused all the agonizing…

    And belligerence? That must be tough for you Will. ;-)

  5. Funnily enough, I did a bit of “cleaning house” when it came to email newsletters and blogs I have bookmarked recently when I found that I was heading in this same direction.

    My situation is a little different though – I’m trying to balance a wedding, a full-time job, and the start of a small business all at the same time, so I really don’t have the time NOT to be choosy anymore.

    I do like getting these posts on my blackberry though. Although I’m sure there are advantages to making people click-through, getting the full post in my email usually inspires me to just read the email on my way to work and leave it at that, without the additional web-surfing.

  6. This one really hit home. I am now finding myself on the computer more than I am painting and it leaves me with a unpleasant feeling in my stomach after a while, like I’m possessed or something! I have already begun to filter out some sites and blogs that I really don’t need to be reading but I have to admit that yours is one I always read! Thanks.

  7. @ Paige – I can relate! I started investigating time management/productivity when I was getting married and (re)launching my business. I agree it focuses the mind!

    @ Karen – Glad to hear we survived the cull! :-)

  8. Yes. It’s VERY easy to get sucked in and spend all day, or all week for that matter, just keeping up. I also agree that realizing the problem means there’s hope that you can overcome it. I’ll go so far as to compare it to drug addiction and suggest that any technique used to treat that, will work against information addiction.

    Cold turkey? It will absolutely work. At least short term. Long term though, the only thing that really works is to change your habits and the way you think about them.

  9. I was looking at some recommendations on a feed reader I was using for a while. It really struck me when I read something like, “You don’t have to treat rss like email. If you miss something, it’s not the end of the world.” Sometimes you have to just dump it all and go from there.

  10. @ Rasmus – Well, I used to work as an addictions counsellor… ;-)

    @ Mike – That’s one of the reasons I like Twitter so much, no pressure to keep up!

  11. Great post Mark, thanks. Like you and everyone else who has commented, I am wrestling with the same things. I feel like I have so much to learn, yet I am spending so much time on the learning that I’m not spending any time on the doing!

    Yet even the time supposedly spent on the learning is often really spent on the fluff – the email, the surfing, the undisciplined indulging in distractions.

  12. Thanks for this. It is something I have been looking into recently and am glad this came along.

    One of the ways I’m looking at, which you mention, is dividing my time. I normally set time in the morning for clients and earlier afternoon for writing. Once those are done I’m free online to do as I please until 5pm.

  13. Hey, this is welcomed post!

    I love that you mention meditation. Yes, I think it is quite important and I would add at least once a day. Or some similar practice that relaxes you.

    Myself I have adopted the “work for 90 minutes, rest for 30 minutes”. This gets me focused and it also seems to relax many of the urges. I feel like I have more time. Usually, the need to “be on top of EVERYTHING” comes from a deep stress that one is not enough. So, relaxing more, is more helpful than at first site.

    Everybody has different schedules of course but personally I have sections of time for certain things. For me, at the moment, my posts and books are the most important so I have to do that first or it just won’t work. So, I do this early.

    If I start other stuff on the net it will drive me mad with “guilt” not having done what is important. So, I focus on what matters most first: My current project that is. That is rarely checking out the latest stuff.

    But also very important, when I have done those tasks, I do have times set aside for checking out the web, doing comments etc and I find that knowing there is time for this later, after the essential work, I have calmed down a lot and I am more focused.

    So, having a small simple daily schedule how to work really helps. It brings focus. Having to do everything and checking everything is unfocused. It means you don’t know what the priorities are, or even what you are trying to achieve. So find them first or you will keep being overwhelmed.

    And even though Nile Rogers coment is true there is also a deeper truth that “woman” is everywhere, not just in women and you can breathe deep, the feminine beauty in every breath, feeling full of “her” radiant beauty wherever you are. Perhaps a good idea in order to calm down from the demands of a hyper super-ego telling you to “do more!”

    Cheers!

  14. I guess I could give some insight and a quick story that’s very familiar to some of you.

    Since I first found the web, back in the late 90s, I knew right then that I never wanted to miss out on what’s happening. This would lead to hours upon hours of trying to keep up, going deeper “underground” to stay ahead of most topics.

    Now, it seems like there are parts that have created this addiction where it’s not so much that I want to consume information as I just want to be exposed to it.

    It’s difficult to focus in on one item at a time because I’m so used to multitasking but at certain times it clicks when you have that burst of inspiration and get things done.

    It does require you to unplug from time to time.

  15. Thank you for the great insights.

    I’m a multi-disciplinary artist.
    I just stopped. I couldn’t take it anymore.
    I was searching the web and managing a lot of sites for myself and my band.
    Then I hit the wall and realized that all I was doing was chasing the next innovative techy carrot.
    I combed through an old photo album of my cross country trips, camping trips and realized that I was very happy then, without all of these internet accoutrements.

    So, I stopped.
    Unplugged myself from the machine. Well, as much as I could. It was like a tech-fast.

    I got the dumbest phone I could find, which I refused to answer on the weekends.
    I moved in with my boyfriend, so no more TV and cable, hence I read so many more books and gained so much inspiration.
    I unsubscribed from everything.

    Once I felt my artistic mojo return, I slowly began to subscribe to certain sites. That is after special consultation with those who are tech obsessed.

    In other words, I got back to my natural rhythm of life.