In 1989, architect and designer Richard Saul Wurman captured a societal trend when he popularized the term "information anxiety" in a book of the same name. Two decades later, that pre-Internet era seems almost placid, and our angst has heightened.
Whether at work or at home, we handle a stream of news, e-mail, blogs and reports throughout the day in a compulsive desire to keep up that borders on an information addiction.
The solution, argues Thomas Cooper, a professor at Emerson College in Boston, is to occasionally move away from this buffet table feast of information to engage in a media fast.
"Why not carve out a time to rest – to give the body and head a chance to calm down," he said in an interview. "Come to a place of balance, where you can decide what's important to you."
Prof. Cooper, who obtained his masters and doctorate at the University of Toronto after his undergraduate years at Harvard, tried his first media blackout in 1989, ironically the same year Information Anxiety was published. He has continued with annual media fasts since, often followed by a few days of silence, and puts his students through media blackouts to help them understand how celebrities and events that don't matter to them have come to preoccupy their life. He has now collected his ideas, and offers details on the process of removing yourself from media in his book Fast Media/Media Fast.
Just as when we gorge on food the antidote is a diet, the most practical antidote to out-of-control media consumption is probably a diet. And just as you create rules for yourself before beginning a food diet, you need rules for this diet, to provide clarity and avoid embarrassment. If you and your colleagues take in a movie together once a month, for example, you need to think through whether that will be part of the diet or not. You may need to check the sports scores to discuss how everyone's picks in the office hockey pool are faring.
The goal should be to narrow or remove media with which you are obsessed. Prof. Cooper's guidelines:
1. Decide how long you're going to diet, but also be open to making a permanent change regarding the media you consume, just as after a diet you may avoid or limit certain foods.
2. Carefully determine which media you'd like to eliminate altogether. "This will involve being honest about what media you are addicted to," he says.
3. For the remaining media, decide how many hours per week you want to spend ingesting it – overall, and by each medium. Obviously work must continue, but perhaps you can only check your e-mail once a day on the weekend for 15 minutes. Perhaps total media consumption will be cut from six hours a day to four hours.
4. Think about media you can upgrade, what he calls "a positive diet." Perhaps you can read more thoughtful analyses of business or your industry, or watch more educational news, instead of tabloid news. "In other words, think fruits and veggies as opposed to junk food," he says.
5. Afterwards, take time to reflect on the experience. If your life feels more in balance, how can you maintain it?
One step up from that would be a media fast, which is harder to carry out while working. But just as in a food fast you might still be taking in water and juice, in a media fast you can still take in some nutritious part of your work media but cut out everything else for a period, be it a weekend, a vacation, or some other period of time.
"Some fast participants go whole hog by using the fast as a personal or professional retreat. Without distractions, prioritizing your career goals or evaluating your life purpose is much easier," he writes.
Beyond that, there is a total media blackout – nothing, as if you were living in the remote woods, off the grid. Daunting, but potentially thrilling once you try it, as many have learned.
He argues each of these options will help you uncover the truth about yourself beyond the programming. But it also will give you a time of greater balance, perhaps pointing to how you might continue that balance – or at least retain more balance – after the intervention. It can also be restorative: I've tried fasts on vacations, long before hearing of Prof. Cooper, and they have been rejuvenating, even if I gorge again upon my return.