Revisiting the Low Information Diet

Many of as assume a Low Information Diet is akin to a real diet, severe and unsustainable.
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As I recently read The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss and The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb (no, not the one about ballerinas,) I couldn’t help but notice the disdain that both authors had for the news.

Ferriss, who coined the phrase Low Information Diet, encourages us to cut the news out of our lives as a means to be more productive: the less you spend watching the news, the more time you can spend working on a side project or exploring a passion.

Taleb is more critical of the news and the media for a variety of reasons: he questions the value and the validity of media ‘experts’, and he points out that people that watch the news are more likely to think that they know what’s going to happen in the future, and are thus more likely to be wrong. He also can’t stand how the media puts a narrative to every new event, and he gives an example of how the same event was used to explain the stock market rising and falling on the same day.

So is there any advantage to reading or watching the news?

In Defense of Information

Of course if you google ‘Low Information Diet’, one of the first links is the article ‘Science Confirms Why a Low-Information Diet Is Bad for You’, written by the successful FIRE blogger Tanja Hester. She points out that a Washington University Study showed that watching cable news had no effect on well being. Hester also pulls in two books that’s research shows:

  1. That retirees, like everyone else, need social connections and,
  2. That people are happier when they don’t have to rely solely on their immediate family for their social connections – when they have a wider social network.

Her argument is mainly tailored toward people who’ve left the workplace – she argues that removing the news from our lives shrinks our mental worlds:

“If, in addition to removing a lot of our social interaction from our lives when we leave work, we also unplug from what’s happening in the world, we run the risk of living in an incredibly small world mentally. 

Hester, https://ournextlife.com/2018/08/13/low-information-diet/

She also argues that news helps us to be lifelong learners, which in turn makes us happy (Taleb and Ferriss would certainly agree). Her final argument is that consuming the news makes us more aware of other perspectives and more empathetic, which makes sense.

To be fair, Hester also understands that you can have too much of a good thing, and ends up recommending much of the same advice that Taleb and Ferriss do (albeit less extreme): Avoid TV news, set limits, avoid news from Facebook / Twitter, etc.

So Who’s Right? Is the Low Information Diet Dead?

I actually think Hester, Taleb, and Ferriss are more in agreement than not, particularly when it comes to cable television and the 24 hour news cycle. Neither Taleb or Ferriss advocate for being uninformed (well maybe Taleb does, a little), rather all of the writers are concerned about the quality of the information you’re consuming and it’s usefulness. I think most of the disagreement, particularly between Ferriss and Hester, comes down to the term ‘diet.’

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Infoquality: a New Term for a Better Dialogue

I think Tim Ferriss’s Low Information Diet is a brilliant idea – he took the language of media consumption (i.e. ‘binge watching’), turned it on its head, and has probably done more good than harm. It’s important to point out that Ferriss never meant being uninformed – even in The Four Hour Workweek he discussed how he still read two weekly magazines – but rather that we should be extremely selective about the media we consume and not use it as a form of procrastination.

I also think Hester was justified in her criticisms from the stand point that many people could take Ferriss’s idea to the extreme and become completely disconnected – that’s not ideal either.

In my opinion the root of the problem is in the usage of the word ‘diet.’ Diets are by definition something irregular, out of the ordinary, and in popular culture: extreme, unsustainable, and fad-driven. Just as healthy eating habits depend on focusing on nutrition, rather than any sort of fad, our information consumption should focus on the ‘nutritional quality’ of that information.

That’s exactly why Taleb, Ferriss, and Hester can agree that print media is better than the cable news: once information has the chance to be analyzed and distilled over time, it becomes more accurate, higher quality, and thus more meaningful / valuable.

Since I think ‘information quality’ or ‘the quality of information’ is too many syllables, I’d like to suggest my own term to refer to the quality of information: infoquality. The conversation shouldn’t be around whether or not to maintain a Low Information Diet, rather it should be about ensuring that your information consumption aligns with your values and ensuring that the ‘nutritional content’ of the information you’re consuming – its infoquality – is high.

What Determines Infoquality: Your Goals and Values

If you’re passionate about business, then consume business books and magazines. If you’re passionate about cars, subscribe to car magazines. Use information to further your goals and values, rather than procrastinating. Even Tim Ferriss, the father of the Low Information Diet, subscribed to Inc magazine. Skip the boring or irrelevant parts just because you bought a magazine doesn’t mean you should read it cover to cover. Don’t. Analyze your consumption habits and find ways to up your infoquality.

So is a low information diet bad for you? Taken to its extremes, of course. However most of us tend to overdo, just like most of us tend to eat a little too much. Instead of using the language of dieting (which sounds unsustainable), use the language of infoquality: seek out the high quality sources of information on the things that you care about, and avoid procrastinating by consuming low quality information.

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