My information diet supercharged my productivity in the workplace

I recently decided to do a self-tracking experiment on my workplace productivity. I just finished reading Clay Johnson’s book, The Information Diet and I’ve noticed a growing chorus of blog posts extolling the virtues of more conscious, deliberate media consumption. I like the idea of turning down the volume on the flood of notifications I get every day. And Clay’s concept of infoveganism is really appealing to me.

So I asked myself, could an information diet help my productivity in the workplace?

Rules of the experiment:

1. Schedule dedicated time for communications and media. Avoid them like the plague at all other times.

This means no email, no instant messages, no social networks, and no news outside of two pre-defined blocks each day. The first block is 11am to noon, which is when we have a 20-minute daily team teleconference. That leaves a good amount of time for dealing with other communications, such as email and checking the RescueTime Twitter feed & Facebook page. I also gave myself some time at the end of the day, between 4pm to 5pm, to wrap up any emails that need responding to. Outside of work hours, I tried to keep work-related stuff to a minimum, but I didn’t really restrict my media consumption.

2. No notifications of any kind on my phone or computer, ever.

If it beeps, blinks, buzzes, or bounces, I completely got rid of it, with two exceptions:

  • I set up a RescueTime alert to let me know when I spent more than ten minutes on social media, communications, or news sites while outside of my allowed time periods.
  • Emergencies can happen, so I made sure my SMS notifications were still on. I told my co-workers and family about my experiment, and made sure they knew to text me if they urgently needed me – they haven’t yet.

It’s only been a week, but so far things look pretty positive (assuming you set aside the Hawthorne Effect for a moment). I feel more balanced, less stressed, and I’m getting more things done. Best of all, I have some hard numbers to back it all up.

I wasn’t sure how well I’d be able to stick to it. Turning off notifications was easy, but the real challenge was avoiding the unconscious checking of email / twitter / hacker news / etc. RescueTime was a big help here. I was able to see that, for the most part, I was able to stay on track the whole week. Only 2.6% of my time outside of my pre-defined blocks was spent on media and communications. Once, I triggered an alert for some extra time spent in email, but that was it, and I was able to stop shortly after.

The results

Well, to start, my RescueTime productivity score jumped up by about 10%. I also ended up spending 52% less time than usual on communications, social media, and news. That’s essentially giving myself about 6 hours of extra time over the course of the week. I got a feature that had been lagging for a few weeks finally finished. Somewhat unexpectedly, I also took my inbox from around 1000 emails (yeah, I’m bad at email) to less than ten. I didn’t make much of an effort on it. It just sort of happened because I gave myself dedicated time for communications each day.

A few random observations:

  1. The first day, I told my wife about my productivity experiment and she jokingly said “What if I tweet something funny!? You’ll miss it!” She was kidding, but it actually made me feel a little bit anxious.
  2. I realized over the first two days that I sort of pride myself on being hyper-aware of what’s going on around me (in the news, with my friends, etc). It was weird at first, but I think I’m actually enjoying breaking the habit of having to be on top of everything, all the time.
  3. My relationship with my phone noticeably changed, for the better. After about three days of unconsciously checking for phantom notifications, I finally started to treat my phone differently. It sort of turned into just another thing, rather than this beeping, buzzing portal to the rest of the world. The day I went to lunch without realizing I forgot my phone back at my desk, I knew something had changed.
  4. I felt less stressed, but not hugely so. I was half-expecting this magic transformation where blocking out so many external signals would knock me into this zen state of productivity. Everything would get done in half the time, and I’d make up the difference by going to the gym, writing blog posts, learning to cook, and all the other things that I wish I had more time for. That didn’t happen. I still had a couple days where I felt like I didn’t get near the amount of work done that I wanted to. It probably didn’t help that I was working on solving a pretty difficult problem last week, and it just took a lot of time. The main point is, it was nice, but not the explosive epiphany I had sensed from all the blog posts I’d read by people doing similar experiments.

All in all, I’d call my workplace productivity experiment a success. I’m definitely going to keep it up.

If you’d like to use RescueTime as a basis for your own work experiments, sign up now to get started.