Focus, Guest Column, and Higher Education

Fat-free data consumption begins with an ‘information diet’

October 20, 2012
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As educators, it is not uncommon to discover that one or more students are either texting, surfing the web or updating Facebook while the class is in session. It is easy to become angry and ask the student to pay attention to what is happening in class. But much to our amazement, these millennials are experiencing what the business community is facing each day: the need to view, understand and process multiple information inflows at the same time. To reach this goal, they are making continual choices as to what information is important and what is not by using a wide array of personal and technological filters. Multiple contexts and vast amounts of data continually compete for attention, and somehow something has to budge.

It is estimated that more than 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created each day. As employees and individuals, we must sift through it all and make sense of it in the best manner possible. Articles are written each year pointing to the fact that the amount of data available is increasing exponentially and that we are all facing information overload. In fact, we should not be looking at the potential inflow as overload, but instead as a potential failure of the filters we have put in place to make sense of the world of data.

In 2008, at a Web 2.0 Expo in New York, Clay Shirky suggested that the issue we face is not the sheer quantity of data flowing in our direction, but rather a failure in our array of filters we have shielding us from potential overload. J.P. Rangaswami likens our continual intake of data to that of consumption of food. That appears to be the point where the two data experts’ concepts intersect. We could allow paralysis to set in whenever the data floodgates are open. And much like the unbridled ingestion of food, we become inundated with excess bytes leading to unusable facts and figures within our RSS feeds and the like. Using the food analogy, we could easily curb our insatiable hunger for statistics by seeking only the healthy balance of data using any one of many filtering techniques.

With excessive food intake, we could become overweight and even obese. Imagine the same scenario with the consumption of data. The sheer volume of information at our disposal could create a situation where we can no longer navigate and be productive. And worse yet, we could have so many files that we might not know where to begin or how to remedy our affliction. Could proper exercise be the cure, or do we simply need to go on an information diet?

For many people who are lost deep in information, the best way to manage the situation is to start with an information diet. It begins as a total elimination regimen, similar to food diets, allowing a person to start with a clean palate.

For one day, all information inflows should be avoided while a list is kept to note what data is absolutely necessary to get through the day. It is not unusual to find that only 40 percent to 60 percent of current information inflows are actually needed for daily consumption. Once it is clear which healthy data inflows are necessary, it is time to clear out the “junk food” of information. To accomplish this, purge and permanently delete inflows by unsubscribing to unneeded apps, RSS feeds and bookmarks.

Once you have trimmed the fat, evaluate if the information retained is healthy information. Determine if it helps create a more organized work or personal life or if it is consumed out of a feeling of obligation or because of an addiction to the content.

Social media can be a fascinating source of information, but many times it can be the junk food a person craves. You do not need to cut out every single information inflow that would be considered junk. But remember, just like a food diet, a person must strive to balance data ingesting in moderation.

With the information consumption now streamlined to only the “must-haves” and healthy options, a person should consume the information consciously. This is an idea Clay Johnson detailed in his 2012 book “The Information Diet.” Johnson points out the need to discern between opinion and facts when consuming information and then find a middle ground.

While munching through close to 40 gigabytes of data each day, it is important to make the effort to attentively ask the questions of who, what, when, where, why, how and, most importantly, can this be true? As with food, most of the time information inflows that offer fast and delicious content are junk. With speed and a need to please, many times these inflows are not verified or accurate. Whereas healthy alternatives may take time to consume and understand, in the long run they will offer superior information.

As a person works toward a healthy balance, it is important to remember that human brains need time to think, digest, rest and rebalance. Try finding time to take a “thinking” break where you free your brain of information and give it a rest. Keeping your information filters in peak performance requires some information downtime. And as a side note, as entertaining as it can be, keeping up with social media, watching television or reading does not give your brain the information downtime it needs.

As with any diet, you cannot expect to make major changes without time and effort. This process may be more involved than one would imagine and will take time to adjust. In fact, after the initial diet has begun, it is important to re-evaluate your information consumption regularly, and as new sources of information inflows emerge, decide if they are a healthy or unhealthy addition to your balanced data intake.

Timothy Syfert, Ph.D., and Meagan (Luttenton) Knoll are affiliate faculty of management at Seidman College of Business, Grand Valley State University.

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