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The High Cost of Information
Seth wrote a post back in December that really touched a nerve on a ubiquitous problem that I see pop up nearly every day. His point was about the High Cost of Now - and his key insight:
More than ever, there's a clear relationship between how new something is and how much it costs to discover that news.
But what I began to think about is not the High Cost of Now, but instead the High Cost of Information. They're very similar, but the salient feature of the problem that he was looking at was the time-sensitivity of information, whereas the problem I'm looking at is the general tendency for us to jump headlong into collecting and categorizing information without thinking about why we're doing it.
I'll explain by an example: There's a turtle in a pond somewhere in Southeast Asia.
I could spend a lot of time giving details on the turtle, where it's located, why it's in the pond, and so on, and if you're wondering about all those details, your eye is on the wrong ball.
The turtle, or anything about the content of that statement, really isn't the important bit. It's just a piece of information that I've added to all of the other bits of information you're lugging around. That piece of information is worthless on its own; information without a context carries no value whatsoever. The only reason that statement becomes valuable is if it changes your behavior or decisions somehow. Adding more details to that statement doesn't necessarily make it more valuable, either.
Obviously, the real point isn't about that statement or turtles. It's about the amount of time we invest in gathering information that's not worth the cost we spend gathering it. A few actual examples:
I've heard people complain about the fact that iTunes only allows you to rate songs in whole star increments. What if a song is three and a half stars rather than either three or four? What if it's between three and a half and four?
There's a convention in many planner designs (including my own) in which the smallest increment of time that they'll give room for is 15 minutes. This frustrates some people, and I've been asked on multiple occasions "What if I only spend 5 minutes on a task and want to track that?"
One of the many reasons people use digital task/time management systems is that it allows them to see what they did six months ago fairly easily, whereas paper systems would require you to look in an archived notebook to do the same task. That's just inefficient.
People like the idea of applications/programs that show them where they're spending their time. But this information rarely makes people change their behaviors to become more effective. Despite the fact that it's not making an effective difference, people continue to track their time well after the placebo period.
I wrote this post Friday and let it percolate because it wasn't ready yet. In the meantime, I stumbled across this post on SvN, and it illustrates what I'm talking about rather clearly:
In our review yesterday we discovered that [we] were tracking everything in detail, but not really learning anything. Why? We were tracking for the sake of tracking, not tracking for the sake of learning. We weren’t really sure why we were tracking what we were ”” but we kept on doing it because, well, momentum is a powerful force. It became an exercise in seeing how organized we could get in spite of what we actually needed.
Our extensive use of categories and tags and custom fields and pulldowns could give us a whole lot of report-friendly information, but it didn’t give us any useful information. Information without insight is junk. That’s what we had. Plenty of it. Here we have the nice, prolific folks at 37Signals who fell into the Research Trap that catches many of us: collecting information for the sake of information instead of thinking about what we'll do with the information we're collecting. What's not being accounted for is the amount of time, energy, and resources invested into making sure that we have precise, retrievable information. Precision and archival come at a cost - and this is where Seth's question can be raised all over again: are the benefits of precision and archival worth their costs?
Adding tags and metadata, then sorting, categorizing, and layering those tags and metadata, is another clear example of this tendency at play. What's great about tags is that they allow us to categorize our information in an ad hoc way, but that ad hoc-ness sometimes comes at a high cost when we recognize that we've been labeling the same types of information in different ways. And there we are, trying to remember what tags we used and dealing with the cognitive dissonance of information that's sorted differently. Instead of thinking about what relevance the turtle in the pond has for us, we're thinking about what kind of turtle it is.
In an earlier post, I wrote about why GTD contexts are not worth the time for me. Instead of helping me structure my workflow, I found that context served to be an additional piece of information for me to manage, and managing that information wasn't value-added. So, rather than continuing to monkey with the system, I dropped them for a more lean framework. [This framework is discussed in the product I'm working on.] But here again, we see the High Cost of Information cloaked within a rationalization about what an efficient system looks like. I'm not saying that contexts are not worth the time for everybody, but really look at what you're getting out of them.
The last trend I'll discuss is our tendency to over-research information when we should instead be creating from and/or understanding the information we already have. As I mentioned a while ago, this tendency to research is often a prop we put in the way of doing the creative stuff we need to be doing. But the basic rationalization for this tendency is the idea that more information is better than less information.
And that idea is wrong. More information is not inherently better. More information will not necessarily help you make decisions or understand things any better than less information. Moreover, more information can create more work for either no gain or substantially diminished returns.
The truth is that there will always be more information to gather, and the only time you'll have a complete informational picture is when it's too late. Yet we still spend a lot of our time collecting, organizing, archiving, and rereading information that won't actually change our behavior or help make decisions.
How does knowing you spent seven minutes on a task from 10:00 to 10:07 change your behavior or help make decisions better than knowing that you did two specific tasks between 10:00 and 10:15?
Is it really worth taking the time to rate a song in half star increments when the cost of storing music data is cheaper than the soft costs of you spending the time to rate and sort songs by halves?
Is it really worth the amount of fiddling that digital task/time management systems tend to foster just so you can know what you did six months ago - especially when most of the time, we care about this only when dealing with others, in which case, the information is probably in your sent email archive anyway?
I'm not saying that there aren't times and places when more information is really valuable, and I'm also not saying that you should just keep winging it through ignorance. Far from it.
But here's the bottom line: if you can't ask yourself the basic questions that you're hoping the information will answer, you probably shouldn't be collecting information - you should be asking yourself what questions you need answered. If those questions are worth the high cost of information, then you're golden; otherwise, the juice isn't worth the squeeze.
Leave the turtle sitting in the pond in Southeast Asia - you've got more worthwhile things to be thinking about and doing.