How I Overcame Information Overload, a.k.a. Mental Diabetes

How I overcame information overload, a.k.a diabetes of the mind, plus practical tips.

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My Case of Mental Diabetes

Up until recently, I stuffed my brain with information like a hung-over heavyweight fills their belly at a Las Vegas all-you-can-eat buffet:

  • Listening to double-speed podcasts while sh*tting and HIIT-ing.
  • Skimming through email newsletters while eating.
  • Reading non-fiction books to bookend my sleeps.

Why not?

Knowledge is power, right?

I figured that one day being so “well-informed” would come in handy. And I thought it made me smarter.

Maybe it did.

But the more acute effect was an overwhelmed brain that had me constantly feeling on edge, jittery, and restless. My right eyelid even started twitching.

It was as if I had developed Type II information diabetes:

The spiral of mental diabetes from information overload

I was consuming more information than I needed. But the more I took in, the more my brain became desensitized to it. And this made my brain hunger for more.

A vicious spiral. And it was making me unwell.

Forced Withdrawal

Just as my information overload was getting so bad that I started going on Twitter, an unlikely savior arrived:

The ultimate distraction.

Zac.

He stole away all the free time and attention I used to spend consuming information.

At first, I felt hangry for information. I was missing out on so many podcasts, posts, and newsletters. “Info FOMO,” you could call it.

These feelings, I realized, were unhealthy. Time with my newborn son was much more precious than whatever information I was missing out on.

So I decided to try an experiment:

An information fast. 

For over a month, I avoided trying to absorb any information other than how to change diapers.

Chris feeding Zac
Rather than over-consume information, I focused on helping Zac consume milk.

A Change in Appetite

My information fast worked out wonderfully.

My eye twitch vanished, my cravings subsided, and I found more appreciation for real-life—i.e., the things happening right in front of me.

But as great as info fasting felt, I didn’t want to keep it up forever. Ignorance may be bliss, but the pleasure I get from learning is even better.

So I slowly started reintroducing information into my daily diet…

…And I noticed something had changed inside me:

  • My palate was pickier. Most of what was in my feeds wasn’t appetizing to me anymore.
  • My appetite had shrunk. Whereas I used to always finish what I started, now I often put aside empty-calorie content after only a couple of nibbles.

The biggest reason for these changes?

I had gained an appreciation for the opportunity cost of consuming information.

Taking in trivial trivia prevented me from doing and enjoying cool real things with my life. So I dramatically shifted and slimmed down my information diet toward only consuming what could make a marked difference in my real life.

And I came up with a mantra: 

WWIDDBOTI mantra for information overload

WWIDDBOTI

It’s pronounced “wide-body” and stands for:

What will I do differently based on this information”?

  • Listen to Tim Ferriss interview another billionaire about his routines and strategies for success. WWIDDBOTI?
  • Read a book like The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. WWIDDBOTI?
  • Watch some Mr. Beast Video because everyone else watched it. WWIDDBOTI?

WWIDDBOTI serves as insulin for my information diabetes. It isolates the useful information within whatever I consume and puts it to good use rather than letting it pass right through me or clog me up.

Also, WWIDDBOTI became my filter. If I consume some information and can’t extract an honest answer to what I’ll do differently because of it, I second-guess going back for seconds.

“You are what you eat,” right?

Or maybe, more precisely, You are whatever you do based on the information you consume.

How to Safely Apply WWIDDBOTI

WWIDDBOTI may seem simple, but:

  1. Simple works best for simple-minded people like me.
  2. You can still easily misunderstand and misapply it if you’re not careful.

On the latter point, three words in particular seem to cause people to misuse WWIDDBOTI and not benefit from it as much as they should.

Watching cooking video on YouTube
Learning how to cook does me no good until I put that knowledge into action.

1. Do, Not Think

Just thinking differently based on the information you absorb is useless. 

I can watch a bunch of baking videos on YouTube and think I know how to make a magnificent soufflé but, unless I do it—i.e., try making one myself—that knowledge is useless. 

The same goes for all forms of information.

Like the news.

The number one defense I hear people use for consuming so much news is they want to be “concerned citizens.”

How altruistic of them!

But have you heard Derek Sivers’ saying, “If information were the answer, we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs”?

Well, in a similar vein, let me take a stab at another quote:

“If being concerned citizens did us any good, we’d have nothing to be concerned about.” 

Concerned citizen saying.

If you mostly agree but feel dirty about altogether quitting the news, at least WWIDDBOTI your New York Times, Economist, or US Weekly diet. And if you can’t extract anything to do differently, admit you’re consuming the news:

  • for entertainment
  • to fit in and/or impress people with your knowledge.

There’s nothing horribly wrong with either. But maybe sometimes you could be doing something more useful.

Me trying something new based on information I take in
Me trying something different, oil pulling, even at the risk of it not working out.

2. Differently, Not More

I’d argue “differently” is the most important word in WWIDDBOTI.

Because you’re not helping anyone if you only consume information that confirms what you already know so you can keep doing what you’re already doing. On the contrary, you are cementing your status as a hardheaded, self-justifying echo-chamber-dweller.

But can’t a bias toward doing differently also lead you astray?

Absolutely!

For instance, some Goop article may convince me to stop brushing my teeth and start swishing coconut oil in my mouth instead. (“Oil pulling,” it’s called.) And it may not work out as promised. But as long as I continue to do differently based on information that comes in—especially evidence from personal experience and from my dentist—I will eventually find my way onto a better path. 

Maybe, as in my Goop example, you’ll return to the same path as before.

So what?

At least you’ll have collected more evidence in that path’s favor and have learned about which sources of information to trust.

3. Will, Not Should

As Ozan Varol eloquently wrote, it does you no good to should all over yourself.

Using might is weak, too. So gather up the will to do differently based on the information you take in. 

Me holding month challenge calendar.
Me at the beginning of my “Keep It In Your Pants You Idiot” monthly challenge.

Practical Tips for Overcoming Information Overload

1. Consume more unprocessed information.

Podcasts, articles, tweets, book summaries, and even complete “how to” books are the Soylent of information: high-density, heavily processed, and quick to digest.

They have their place and our brains crave them, but a pure diet of them is not healthy.

Lean more toward information you need to chew on and take time to digest to extract the nutrients. The second best format?

Stories.

Consume more fiction and biographies.

And the most wholesome format?

Experience.

Do stuff and learn from it.

More on this:

2. Stage a self-intervention.

If you don’t happen to have a newborn on the way, find another way to force yourself to go on a strict information diet to recalibrate your system.

My favorite approach is a cliché 30-day challenge. It’s not permanent but long enough to make lasting changes.

Some challenges to consider:

  • The Keep It In Your Pants. I’m doing this challenge as I write this (part of the group monthly challenge cohort I’m leading). My monthly challenge is to unlock my phone fewer than 500 times. And every time I unlock it, I have to write in my notes the reason why and contribute a bit of money for a fund that goes toward buying a nice bottle of wine at the end of the month to celebrate. [Update: It was surprisingly easy and beneficial!]
  • No news. One of the thought experiments from my post on quitting the news was, If you were kidnapped and locked up for exactly a month, how much time would you spend catching up with the news you missed? And if that’s all the news you “need,” why not limit yourself to that much every month? Better than a thought experiment is a real-life experiment, so try it! No kidnapping required.
  • Empty pocket walks. Go for daily 20-minute or more walks with nothing in your pockets but a notepad and pen.
  • A pod-fast. For more on this, read my story on the benefits I reaped from quitting podcasts for a month.
  • Escape into the wild. If you go deep enough into nature that you no long have cell reception or toilets and spend enough time there, you will experience the “3-day effect,” where your mind fully unwinds from the web of the modern world, which measurably changes your brainwaves.
More on this:

3. Create a second brain to stuff instead.

i.e., Take notes.

Ostensibly, you’re consuming information to learn. Well, if you truly want to have that information stick around as long as possible, write it down somewhere. Treat lifelong learning like a university class with pop quizzes coming at any time.

Storing the information you take in externally:

  1. Unloads some of the burden from your brain.
  2. Slows down your consumption.
More on this:
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Start Fighting Your Infobesisty Now!

Based on everything you just read (or skimmed past) in this post, ask yourself:

What will you do differently based on this information?

WWIDDBOTI?

Then go do it.

Overload Your Brain With This Video:

YouTube video
About the author

👋 I'm Chris. Everything you read on TheZag.com is my fault. This site is like a gym for your comfort zone, full of challenges to make your status quo sexier. Join my 'Consider This' newsletter for a fun new challenge every 10 days. Try it!

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