Input vs. Output

A few days ago,  I shared a mantra that has been central to my life over the past 5 years: always be learning. Today I’m flipping that mindset upside down – or at least putting it on a diet. My desire to accelerate my learning curve has certainly paid off, but this week I realized I’ve taken it too far. My name is James and I have an information addiction.

In the past, my days have been an information onslaught from beginning to end. After I meditate and review some affirmations, I read email newsletters, crack open a book, listen to podcasts, listen to audiobooks, check the news, read work email, etc. Later in the day, the consumption continues in spare moments and before bed – facebook, instagram, pocket, apple news, more email newsletters.

So this week I began an experiment: No input before noon. Only books are allowed, and they’re off limits too unless I create something first. 

It turns out, I’m not the only one with this habit and many thought leaders have wisdom to share to help us. Here are a few.

P/PC balance

Learning something new is sort of useless if you don’t act upon it. At some point, all input and no output becomes self-indulgent. It’s all about input-output balance – what Stephen Covey referred to as P (production) / PC (production capacity) balance:

Effectiveness lies in the balance. Excessive focus on production results in ruined health, worn-out machines, depleted bank accounts, and broken relationships. Too much focus on PC is like a person who runs three or four hours a day, bragging about the extra ten years of life it creates, unaware he’s spending them running. Or a person endlessly going to school, never producing, living on other people’s golden eggs – the eternal student syndrome.

– Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Diluted Learning Quality

This isn’t only about delaying input to focus on output. It’s also about the quality of input. My input is about more, more, more which dilutes the quality of learning each new piece of information – at some point there are diminishing returns. Learning fewer things well is better than skimming over a ton of stuff.

True learning is about taking an input and integrating it with your existing paradigms or shifting your paradigms altogether. The act of creating – doing something with what you’ve learned – has a way of forcing that integration and cementing new knowledge. Step 3 in David Brooks’ Framework for Optimal Learning is to journal – just write about it. When you write about a new subject, you’re taking the intuitions developed in your powerful unconscious mind and making them useful by turning them into language.

Reactive vs. Proactive

A day full of input is a day full others’ ideas. Others’ priorities. Others’ agendas. Others’ perspectives. Joshua Waitzkin, author of The Art of Learning, who talks about having an internal orientation versus an external one on Tim Ferriss’ podcast. It’s about figuring how what questions to ask rather than taking in answers to others’ questions.

If you think about ‘internal plus proactive’ versus ‘external plus reactive’, this is how I would tend to frame this out: We want to build a ‘proactive’ way of life, that’s fundamentally moved from the inside out, versus a ‘reactive’ way of life where we’re constantly reacting to all these inputs which we may or may not want.

– Joshua Waitzkin

Cultivating Empty Space

According to Waitzkin the best way to be internal plus proactive is to “cultivate empty space” as a way of life, especially first thing in the morning. His morning routine: he wakes up and immediately begins writing in his journal for 30 minutes to process what his “subconscious mind has been brewing, scheming, problem-solving, and learning” in the night. This is reminiscent of a beautiful quote I recently came across – I’ll leave you with it:

You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.

– Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, via Austin Kleon

Here’s to bringing forth what I am and what I might be.

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