Every once in a while I hit a stretch where I feel stagnant in my personal development. I’ll get stuck in an endless loop of Facebook, Twitter, email, and other addictive sites that can be very tough to break. However, I’ve come to recently view my time as having two different “modes”; input mode and output mode. Paying attention to how much time I spend in each mode has provided me with a great way to recalibrate how I spend my time and break out of those unproductive slumps.
INPUT VS. OUTPUT
Input mode is when I’m spending time acquiring new information. Sometimes that means I’m reading something beneficial, like a book for school, but most of the time input mode is characterized by mindlessly using the internet. Fiddling around on Twitter, Facebook, and reading blogs are all examples of activities where I’m more or less being a mindless sponge. It's becoming easier and easier to never leave input mode. Keeping up with all of the various sites and services that most of us use requires a very heavy toll on our time and attention for very little personal gain.
Output mode, on the other hand, is characterized by creation. During periods of output I’m writing, brainstorming, and generally bringing new ideas into the world. It requires more effort and conscious thought than input and therefore sometimes gets pushed into the background.
Identifying the two different modes is just the first step to improve the ratio between them. When the ratio is skewed toward output, I always feel more productive, happy, and at peace in my life. It’s when the ratio is heavily weighed toward input that I begin to feel lethargic, lazy, uninspired and generally unmotivated. While much of personal development tries to pass as an input mode (reading books and blogs), true personal development is a function of output. How can we adjust our input/output ratio most effectively, then?
FIXING THE RATIO
One way to improve the ratio is to possibly increase the amount of time you spend in output mode. Focusing on spending more time creating whatever it is that matters to you is definitely one way to tip the balance of the ratio in favor of output. However, I don’t think that’s the best option. In my own experience, primarily focusing on spending more time in output mode usually just results in my stress levels going up. Without first addressing the amount of time I spend in input mode, I end up trying to cram more output into a small amount of time.
Instead, I think it’s more beneficial to first adjust input habits. When I feel myself becoming passive I take a hard look at how much time I spend in pursuits that don’t require any active engagement from me. Reading blog posts, playing with Twitter and Facebook, listening to podcasts — these are all input modes. Scaling back the amount of time I spend doing these activities has the same effect on the input/output ratio as increasing my output. The difference being that I find removing unnecessary activities is much easier than trying to cram more output into an already filled day.
GETTING INPUT UNDER CONTROL
If you’re feeling like your personal development has become stagnant, maybe it’s time to look at your input/output ratio. Try some of the following tips to recalibrate how you spend your time.
Purge: One of the first things I do when I realize I’ve been spending too much time in input mode is to purge my RSS feeds. At its highest point, I was following 30-40 blogs in Google Reader and spending way too much time trying to stay up to date. Blanking the slate and starting over is a great way to reclaim a bunch of former input time back into output time. You can also use this idea for things like Twitter (Chris Brogan recently did it), Facebook, and any other service that requires you to keep up to date with ever changing information.
Set limits: Everyone knows that checking email every couple minutes is an unproductive and borderline neurotic activity. But how many of us have actually set limits to how often we check it? How many of us have set limits for the amount of time we spend on sites that suck away our time? There are software programs out there that can help you block websites for a certain amount of time or even for a certain time of day. For example, I have my computer set up to only allow me access to input sites like Twitter and Facebook for an hour during lunch time and after seven o’clock in the evening.
Make output your “default”: I realized that at my most unhappy and unproductive nearly all of my default actions had something to do with receiving more input. If I was bored I’d immediately open the Twitter or Facebook app on my phone and mindlessly flip through the updates. I decided that I really didn’t need access to these services 24/7, so I removed those apps from my phone. Now, when I’m feeling a little bit bored I don’t have the option to just flip open an app and “fix” it. Instead, I do something like brainstorm an upcoming article or project. Or I just sit and practice meditating. Or I call my family. The difference is that my new default action falls in the realm of output, not input.
Thinking about your time and how you can better spend it is the hallmark of a conscious and aware individual. If you find yourself feeling lethargic your input/output ratio may be out of whack. Your initial thought may be to try to increase your output, your productive or creative, time. Instead, I encourage you to first scale back your input time. I think you’ll find that productive activities will automatically grow to fill the void.
What are the best ways you’ve gotten your input/output ratio at a more healthy level?