Information Overload

From Murderati, January 22, 2010

How much do we need? How much is too much? At what point does our dependence on information supersede our creative life?

These are all questions I’ve been asking myself this week.

I will be the first person to admit that I’m an information junkie. News, current events, politics, heck, even the weather: I’m constantly updating my internal databases with the latest news. The same goes for my publishing career. I’m always asking questions, wanting the latest information. I read the industry blogs, get daily mails from Publishers Weekly, Publisher Marketplace (silly, because the information contained therein really is redundant, I should pick one and let the other go) Galley Cat; newspapers, police sites, anything that might help me research, or learn, or feel informed.

I subscribe to RSS feeds of several major publishing related blogs, like Sarah Weinman. And I subscribe to several other kinds of blogs – news oriented, productivity oriented, wine blogs, funny blogs. It takes me nearly an hour to catch-up every morning, and more and more lately, I’m falling behind because I run out of the allotted time. (Because if I don’t allot a specific amount of time, I can easily splurge and read blogs all day.) There are just so many fascinating parts of the world to explore, and many, many writers who explore them in ways that I never can. So I read and experience these things vicariously, and feel smarter because of it.

Perfect example, right now I’ve subscribed to the Crime RSS feeds of the London newspapers, because I plan to set a book there and I want to get a sense of what’s happening. Do I need to do this? No. I could wait until I get ready to write the book and do the research then. It just seemed like a good idea at the time.

But why is this necessary? Why do I need to know all of these things? Need. Want. Two very different beasts.

I’ve been “complimented” in the past for being “plugged in.” I was actually introduced to a group as having my “finger on the pulse of publishing.” You can only imagine the internal cringe when I heard that. And it’s not true at all – I rely on others to feed me the most current information. Then I synthesize it and apply it to whatever project it needs to get applied to. I don’t take this as a compliment – to me it says I’m spending too much time away from my job. I’m a novelist, after all, not a journalist.

There is a tipping point, a moment when you realize that while it would be nice to know every single detail of the world, you don’t need to. Trying to know everything is incredibly, incredibly stressful. My tipping point came last week, when I realized I was spending half my allotted blog reading time slogging through Mashable. Mashable is a cool site, with lots of content. So much content that you could easily read Mashable alone and never get a chance to do anything else. It’s information overload at its finest. The day I deleted Mashable from my RSS feed was my first step toward information independence.

Here’s more irony for you—late last year I adopted a minimalist lifestyle, which included trying to have a more minimalist experience on the Internet. I just realized that in my quest to learn about minimalism, I ended up subscribed to 12 minimalism/productivity blogs, all of which basically repeat the same information over and over again. Not very minimalist. It was ridiculous, really. Anyone can talk the talk. It’s walking the walk that’s the hard part. There’s one blogger (who shall remain nameless) that I used to love. When I realized that he spent all his time talking about creativity, yet never creating, I deleted him from my feeds.

Psychology time. The most minor self-examination led me to a quick conclusion: It all boils down to the fact that I have a few small issues with control. As in, I'm a control freak. I’ve been known in the past to end up lifting heavy projects myself because I don’t trust others to do it right. It’s narcissistic, at best, to assume that my way is the best way. So the way I approach information is similar: If I KNOW all these things, then I'll never get caught short out in the real world.

I think we all experience this from time to time – we are the ME generation, after all. We want to be smart, to be hip, to be now, to know more than the person next to us. It’s borne from the same motivation that causes us not to listen to others when they speak—the weird way our brains work in conversation, mentally composing our next sentence to sound witty, erudite, charming and funny, not fully paying attention to what the other person is saying. Come on, admit it, you’re guilty of that just like I am. Naughty, naughty.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a certain amount of information that you absolutely need to know to succeed in your business. But do you need to know everything? Every nitty, gritty detail? No. The world is not going to end if you hear about the Google Settlement the day after it happens through the grapevine. We lose days talking about publishing houses getting kicked out of writer’s organizations, authors who take on reviewers and end up in the New York Times, Twitter gossip – all under the guise of necessary information. But is it really necessary? No. Not necessary.

Deciding the difference between necessity information and curiosity information is a good place to start with this. What do I need to know to get through my day? What will niggle in the back of my head if I don’t give it a glance?

While analyzing that dichotomy, I realized that the level of information I need has changed dramatically over the years. When I was first starting out, I HAD to know as much as possible, because having a little insider information might have made the difference between getting a contract and not.

But now? Now I don’t need to be up on the latest news from agenting. I don't need to read about creating a synopsis. I definitely don't need to read people's publishing stories, because no matter what, it ends up being a comparison of apples and oranges, and many of the oranges have had a rough go of it lately, and are getting a wee bit negative on their blogs. (These posts are more likely to bring me down than up, and that's not what I want from my online reading excursions.)

I have an agent. He’s wonderful. I'm not looking for a new one. I find myself reading agent blogs, thinking, hey, that’s good advice, and passing the information along to the folks I know who need it. And while that’s nice of me, it’s really not my job to educate people about how to get an agent. (Narcissism again. Tsk.) I don’t need to be reading every detail of the DRM issue. I’ve put a team in place to work for me, to deal with these issues so I can focus on my writing. Knowledge is power, most definitely, and I don’t advocate falling off the train entirely. But ascertaining what you must know versus what you want to know can shave hours off your day.

If pushed, I would say that I felt like so many people helped me out along the way, I owe it to the next class of writers to help them up too. But then I remember that weird thing called bootstraps, which I used to pull myself to the top of the heap by doing my own research on how to get an agent. I didn’t go to a writer and ask how, I researched the living hell out of it. (Hmm. Note to self. Next time someone asks me how to get an agent – I shall tell them to Google it. That’s how I got started…)

You get my point. I’m moving on.

I took some of my own advice, and deleted a ton of blogs from my daily roundup. I installed Instapaper on my Mac so I can skim headlines in the morning and give myself the sense that I’ve covered the bases, and save the detail for later in the day, after I’ve gotten my creative work done. I changed my RSS feeds – deleting about 50 that were either redundant, inactive, or otherwise not necessary to my daily being. I deleted a bunch of bookmarked pages, streamlined my toolbar so only the vital sites are visible. I dropped ALL of my social networking sites into a folder, and stowed that folder out of sight in my bookmarks that I don’t open regularly. Out of sight really is out of mind for me.

Having so many sources of information wasn’t giving me a broad-spectrum view of my interests. It was stressing me out. So it felt very good to crash my system and start fresh with LESS.

It's only going to get worse from here, folks. E-Readers will access the internet (and where's the fun of escaping into another world if you're email beeps in the background?) smartphones already do, netbooks - you know why I love to travel? Because there's no internet on the plane. That's X number of hours that I don't have to feel guilty if I'm not available. When that small bit of heaven is taken from me, I don't know how I'll ever escape. So I'm starting my good habits early, before the world goes haywire and Google starts broadcasting into our brain chips.

I challenge you to this information duel. Skip a day. Just… skip a day. Don’t read the paper. Don’t turn on the television. Don’t read your blogs. Don’t look at Twitter. Forget about Facebook, just for one measly little day.

A note on the challenge: You’ll need to replace your Jones with something. Go for a walk. Play with your kids. Write a letter to a friend you haven’t talked to in a while. Take yourself to lunch. Read a book. Something, anything, to get away from the information overload.

And here’s the kicker. When you come back the next day, delete everything. You’re not allowed to go back and read yesterday’s news or blogs. Move forward with your life, and see what happens. I’m willing to bet cold, hard cash that the world will continue spinning on its axis.

Go forth, my friends, and free your minds.

Wine of the Week: Chateau Borie de Noaillan - a very nice Bordeaux that I plan to restock my every day cellar with.

PS: I'm running a contest to celebrate the upcoming release of THE COLD ROOM February 23. Swing by Fresh Fiction and enter for a chance to win a Barnes & Noble Nook!