Recently, I’ve been making two lifestyle changes. First, I’ve been trying to eat healthier and exercise more. When I saw photos of myself from commencement, all I could think was how bloated and exhausted I looked. I don’t like to think of things in terms of weight or dieting, but I wanted to undo the damage done by stress eating and the sedentary lifestyle that dissertation writing required. Second, I’ve had to reexamine my information consumption habits. Toward the end of my Ph.D., I went on an almost complete internet fast – no social media, no comedy websites, no podcasts, etc. It was pretty much just email, the UW library’s site, and an online metronome. Now that I’m done with the degree and trying to expand my professional network, I need to up my information consumption. I’m now convinced that the simple formula (or in click-bait speak, “one weird trick”) for successfully managing calories or information is: sufficient input of high-quality materials such as food or media (as well as limited input of low-quality materials) + slightly more output of high-quality work such exercise or creativity.
I want to clarify by what I mean by slightly more output. With diet and exercise, you need to make sure you’re expending slightly more calories than you’re consuming. Even if you’re healthy, you still have to fight entropy. I believe it’s the same with information and creativity. You have to take in a lot of information to be creative, but you also have to fight the natural tendency to just passively consume other people’s work. Obviously, the margin of “slightly more” will vary from person-to-person based on their situation and age. However, I think the formula holds true throughout. As a side note, with money, it’s the inverse formula – your input (income) needs to be slightly more than your output (spending).
I think it’s up to people’s personal discretions to determine high-quality materials from low-quality ones. When I started trying to improve my diet, I focused on nutritious foods that I liked, rather than obsessing on all the different kinds of junk food that I needed to restrict. While I try to completely avoid having any kind of junk food in the house, I still allow myself to splurge from time to time. I’m trying to take the same approach with information.
There’s also the issue of variety in input/output. Obviously, you need a variety of foods to have a well-balanced diet. In addition, activities like triathloning (which combines swimming, biking, and running) and yoga provide balanced, full-body workouts. One of the reasons that full-time academia wasn’t for me is that it requires you to restrict your information input and output almost exclusively to academic publications. That and the job market demands for academic publications require superhuman levels of output. It works for some, but is not a good fit for me.
If health/work/finance are all merely matters of balancing input and output, then why it so difficult for people to successfully manage them? After all, most people understand that they probably need to eat better/less and exercise more – it’s putting it into practice that’s the problem. I have two suggestions that address input and output separately.
For input, I think that the trick is having structured consumption (around 80% total) and unstructured consumption (around 20% total). For my diet, I have a basic meal plan formula: yogurt parfait for breakfast, soup/salad for lunch, a healthy snack or two, and meat substitute/bread/veggies for dinner. This allows me a fair bit of flexibility in terms of ingredients, but keeps me on-track (it also saves time and money with grocery shopping, which is an added bonus). While I stick to the plan as much as possible, I occasionally splurge a bit when I go out or dine with friends and family.
With information consumption, I have a three-part structure that I want to follow: social media (although I feel like I need to restrict myself to as little as possible), blogs/podcasts related to my various interests (although I need to be focused on specific ones since there’s so much out there), and radio (when I was finishing the dissertation, I usually listened to KBCS 20-30 hours/week and really miss that). The unstructured consumption can be all the mindless and trashy stuff I love to guiltily consume. I probably need to work up to an 80:20 ratio of structured/unstructured time, but for now I think it’s more important that I just make sure I’ve got everything on my to-do list done before I launch into unstructured consumption.
For output, I think that the key is to set realistic guidelines for yourself. For exercise, I do hot yoga every other day (3-4 times per week) and go for a walk on my off days. I’m hoping to get back to doing yoga 5-6 times per week (like I was at the beginning of my dissertation work), but I know it’ll take some time. For my creative and professional work, I’m focused on three main things: daily networking and application submission, daily practice and weekly arranging projects, and daily work on alternating side projects. This is on top of my current schedule of rehearsals, performance, and lessons.
Obviously, everyone is different and this process is very difficult, but I hope my insights will be of benefit to others in similar situations. I welcome insights from others on balancing input and output in work, creativity, music, etc.