Are You a Junk Information Junkie?

I read a Facebook status update the other day that went something like this: “Spent a few hours cleaning up my e-mail inbox. Down to zero unread messages!”

Meanwhile, in the Gmail account I use for work, I have 1,249 unread messages. My personal Gmail account has 5,162 unread messages. The Yahoo account I use strictly to play fantasy sports? I have 28,815 unread messages. Oh, the shame. And I know I’m not alone.

We’re living in an age of information overload. But the problem isn’t just that we’re hamstrung by the sheer volume of the information we’re bombarded with. It’s also the quality of the information we’re consuming. The scurrilous and salacious sells, and we’re gorging ourselves on it. Experts have a name for this. It’s called junk information, and like junk food, it can be delicious – and dangerous.

I’m just as guilty as anybody. And we all know how easy it is to fall down the Internet rabbit hole. An article on Kim Kardashian’s latest selfie leads to an op-ed savaging Kanye West’s recent circus of a wedding proposal, which prompts daily “Kanye is self-destructing” updates on TMZ, so you check out a list of the top 20 craziest things ever said by musicians, and since you’re checking out lists, you click over to a list of the top 27 cutest baby animals… and then, four hours have passed and you’re no closer to getting your work done.

Junk information can be a productivity killer. Clay Johnson, author of the book “The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption,” is on a crusade to get us on a more positive track. He offers a host of tools that can help you cut back on junk information:

Everything in moderation: Since information is something we decide to consume, Johnson says we must be mindful of what we take in. For every lowest-common-denominator rant we read in the comments section after a news article, we should make an effort to read something of high quality, such as the Sunday editorial section of The New York Times or taking an hour to watch the PBS News Hour. The goal is moderation and tempering vitriol, trivial information and wild conjecture – or low quality information – with thoughtful reasoning and cold, hard facts.

Fitness is your friend: Johnson advises to try something called “information fitness,” which is another way of saying put strict limits on your consumption in order to preserve your ability to focus. Tabbed browsing and endless e-mail windows are often the productive office worker’s worst enemy. Try an app like Mailbox or some of the tab management tools available for Chrome and Firefox.

Take a time-out: Set a timer. For every hour your spend working, you can take ten minutes for an unbridled junk information bacchanal, or just to walk around and get some fresh air. Reset. Repeat. The best part? The experts say that these short breaks actually reduce information overload and boost productivity.

Go vegan: Or as Johnson calls it, an infovegan. An infovegan is “someone who makes a deliberate decision to remove a vast amount of news and information sources from one’s diet, sticking to a well-constrained, allowable set of consumption inputs for their own health’s sake.” While this may be extreme for many, it may be the best – and only – option for some of the most diehard junk information junkies out there who are looking to boost their productivity.

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