Yesterday, I realized that one of the ten people I listed yesterday in my Twitter post was someone I no longer wanted to be like. That meant that it was time to find a new person to follow. One person who came to mind was Venkatesh Rao, author of Ribbonfarm, an intellectually heady and subversive blog that I enjoy reading. His Twitter page was interesting enough to follow, and I now follow him, but in particular I found this little gem of a tweet.
@vkr Conjecture about human information processing: A*input+B*output<=C. The more you talk/write the less you can listen/read.
One half of the talk-listen version of this inequality is a pretty standard idea that I’ve heard stated as a platitude several times. If you want to hear what someone is saying, shut up. That’s a pleasant platitude.
The opposite implication of the inequality is less pleasant, but three years of working with highly opinionated and loud people has taught me that it is true. I would put it like this: if you want someone to listen to you, you have to get them to shut up first. There are plenty of tricks for doing that. Some of them are honest, some of them are manipulative, and others are downright rude. If you want to get an idea across to someone who likes talking, though, you’ll have to use one of them.
I have less experience with the read-write version of his inequality. It’s sensible enough- I certainly can’t produce new text while I am taking in other people’s text- but I’m not sure it’s an earth-shattering insight.
His statement of the idea however, gave me a clean way to express another truth that I discovered through another of my personal development experiments. Tim Ferriss writes in the productivity section of The Four Hour Work Week about what he calls the Low-Information Diet. The experiment he advocates is that you go for a week without taking in any external media stimulation, including Facebook, Twitter, RSS readers, blogs, magazines, or whatever, and see what happens. He claims that you will see a marked increase in productivity. For me, at least, he was right.
Why was this? I think it’s because the brain is an insatiable machine with an appetite for action. It is constantly looking for stimulation, and if it can’t find anything, it will do the next best thing by starting to create for itself. If you want to feel this, I suggest sitting alone in a room without books, phones, or a computer for a while. At first, you will take in your surroundings. When your brain has finished processing all possible inputs, you’ll get bored and start to generate new thoughts. The low information diet, then, is a lifestyle choice that hacks the brain. You starve it of new inputs, so it is forced to create or be bored. Brains hate boredom, so they will choose to create instead.
Actually executing on the low information diet is not easy and takes some discipline. It takes less energy to process input than it does to create output, so you may have to put up with a lot of searching for new input before your brain gives up and starts producing new thoughts. However, boredom is too powerful a force. Refuse to provide input, and eventually you will win.
Mathematically speaking, then, we need to add a lower bound to the equation. My version of the input-output inequality looks like this:
C1 <= A*Input + B*Output <= C2
While input is more fun, I find that the key to my long-term success is my creative outputs. While Tim’s brute force method of reducing input to raise output certainly works, there are other ways to play with the inequality to hack performance.
The lower A is, the more output each unit of input pushes out. How can I decrease the utility I gain from each unit of input so that I have to create more to be satisfied?
The higher C1 is, the more total input and output I have to consume and create to be satisfied. The higher C2 is, the more I can consume and create in any given time period before burning out. How can I raise C1 and C2 so that I go through more in the same amount of time?
My instinct is that C1 and C2 are each functions of both rote discipline and physical energy. The more I am conditioned to do in a day and the more my body is able to do, the higher they get. I’m not sure what A is a function of, though. Do you think you know? I’d love to hear in the comments.