In a recent interview, Stuart Butterfield — CEO of Slack — compared our communication patterns to the diabetes epidemic plaguing the modern world.
Butterfield’s argument is a simple one: Type 2 diabetes became prevalent in the developed world when people gained easy access to empty calories that added little nutritional value to our diets. In fact, it’s darn near impossible to “eat healthy” in a world where every meal is packed with added sugars and fats. Need proof? Check out the amount of sugar in popular yogurt brands — which may as well be considered desserts instead of healthy snacks. Or Prego Spaghetti Sauce. Or Nutri-Grain Bars.
The same trend is happening in my digital life.
My addiction to messaging applications — think email, Facebook, Twitter, Buffer, Pocket, Snapchat, and Instagram — is leaving me buried in empty information that adds little real value to my intellectual life. Sure, I have ready access to a million ideas. And yes, I can connect with anyone, anytime and from anywhere. But ready access to a million ideas and anytime/anywhere access to anyone willing to share anything doesn’t always mean that I am better off personally or socially than my parents, who relied on three television channels, the local newspaper, rotary phones with party lines and bowling leagues for information.
I’ve struggled with information overload — which Butterfield calls “cognitive diabetes” — in the same way that bodies struggle with excess sugar.
At first, I pushed against the influx of new ideas — using all of my mental resources to handle and sort and interpret the messages that surrounded me. I invested extra time and attention into managing my new communication realities in an effort to keep up. I’d check email several times a day, trying to reply to messages in less than three hours, login to Twitter several times a day to see what I could learn and who I needed to connect with, and use Buffer and Pocket several times a day to follow content and schedule Tweets and “stay in the stream.” My day began before 5 AM in bed with my phone and my social applications and ended the exact same way sixteen to eighteen hours later.
But this new investment of time and attention is unsustainable.
I just can’t can’t keep up with the demands of the “new opportunities” surrounding me — so I’ve pulled back. I can’t tell you the last time that I signed into Facebook or Instagram to see what’s going on in the lives of the people who I follow in those spaces; I’ve lost track of several really good friends that gather in Voxer for regular conversations about sports and education; and I haven’t read or written nearly as many blogs as I’m used to reading and writing.
And in a lot of ways, I feel disconnected.
My practice seems antiquated because I know little about “the latest and greatest” tools that swirl through sources like Twitter and Facebook. People who I once connected with several times a week are now nothing more than strangers to me. It’s been hard to pull back from opportunities given how easy digital tools and spaces make it to jump right in.
But if I’m going to live a healthy life, I’ve got to be able to spot the “extra calories” in my intellectual life in the same way as I keep an eye on the “empty calories” that I pump down my gullet every day.
Obsessively checking Twitter or replying to email or liking pictures in Instagram or bookmarking content in Pocket or sharing links through Buffer is really no better for me than plowing through six creme-filled doughnuts and a large Heath Bar Swirled Iced Macchiato with Whipped Cream at the Dunkin’ Donuts on the way to work in the morning.
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