An Information Diet For Founders – with Clay Johnson

What does the founder of Twitter have in common with the Director of MIT Media Lab & the CEO of O’Reilly Media?

They’re all on an information diet. Clay Johnson says that if you go on an information diet too, you’ll be more productive and efficient. Clay is the founder of Big Window Labs and Blue State Digital. He’s also the author of The Information Diet, which makes a case for conscious consumption.

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About Clay Johnson

Clay Johnson is the author of The Information Diet, which provides a framework for consuming information in a healthy way, by showing you what to look for, what to avoid, and how to be selective.

Raw transcript


Mixergy’s audio transcription is done by Speechpad

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Andrew: Everyone, my name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart, and the place where over 600 entrepreneurs have come to tell you their stories, teach you what they learned along the way, and pass it all onto you so that you can build your own success story, and I hope when you do, you’ll come back here and do an interview as Clay is about to do here today.

And this interview has got a focus and the focus is, well, let me introduce it this way. What does the founder of Twitter have in common with the director of MIT Media Lab and the CEO of O’Reilly Media? They’re all on an information diet and Clay Johnson says, “That If you go on an information diet too, you’ll be more productive and efficient.” Clay is the founder of Big Window Labs and Blue State Digital and he’s also the author of the Information Diet, which makes a case for conscious consumption. Clay, welcome to Mixergy.

Clay: Hey, it’s’ great to be hear.

Andrew: Clay, you’ve been on TV a lot lately and on radio recently. How did that intro do? I was kind of fumbling through it. How does this compare with what you see the professionals do, not like amateurs like me?

Clay: I think you’re doing a great job. I mean, The Atlantic Monthly wrote me down last week as being the director of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, which wasn’t me.

Andrew: So they got it wrong?

Clay: Yeah, they got it completely wrong. They corrected it. Of course the Atlantic Monthly knows that David Plouffe and David Axlerod are the guys who ran the Obama campaign, but…

Andrew: You’re a bigger man than I am, friend. I would have let that slide because once it’s in the media, bloggers pick it up and start referring to you that way, and, you know…

Clay: Yeah, I thought about editing my Wikipedia page and then I have a verifiable source.

Andrew: Right.

Andrew: All right. I want to give people an example of what happens if they go on an information diet themselves. So what’s the benefit? Give me an example, if you could.

Clay: So, you know, going on an information diet isn’t just about productivity, it’s really about health. And what the information diet is really talking about is, it’s time to sort of make the shift and thinking about our information consumption habits as being purely about our efficiently and really about our own personal health. I think the first thing that being on a real information diet means is, is thinking about it through that lens. So when we start thinking about it through that lens, the first thing we think about when we are talking about our consumption of information is that we’re usually sedentary. You know, when you’re sitting in front of a computer all day, you’re normally sitting down.

There is sort of a fringe movement of early adapters now that are getting treadmill desks or something like that. But those folks are very rare. And being sedentary as we know, kills us. It’s very bad for us. And I think the same things happening for TV, you know, if you’re watching a lot of news on television or you’re watching television a lot, you’re usually sedentary. It’s very rare for people to be, you know, outside and playing while there watching television. And so the first thing is, I think that information over-consumption is linked to obesity and that information consumption keeps us sedentary.

Andrew: OK.

Clay: The second thing is to really think about your information consumption. We have this idea of information overload. An information overload doesn’t really exist. That’s like saying that people are fat because they have food overload. Right?

That’s just not the case unless somehow fried chicken is re-animating itself and flying into people’s mouths. That doesn’t happen. So it’s about taking responsibility for what you’re doing. In terms of what you get out of being on an information diet, one, I think it’s just better for your health, you get to walk around and spend less time getting trapped in some of the junk information that’s out there.

Two, I think you get more enhanced social relationships, stronger relationships with the people that are around you. For instance, my wife and I, I’ve got two stories. The first is before I wrote the book and before I decided, “Hey, I’m going to go on an information diet myself.”

My wife and I would spend our evenings in front of the couch. She’d have her laptop on her lap, running her business vision strategy. She’s been a guest on Mixergy, too. I would spend my time on my laptop working on stuff that I was working on.

Then, there would be the T.V. in front of us and there’d be some piece of pop nonsense on television.

Andrew: What’s the problem with that? I’m sorry to interrupt your story but to a lot of people that feels like your spending time with your wife. You’re also absorbing some of the T.V. without paying too much attention to it and getting productive on your computer. You’re being productive in fun environment, together with your life. That doesn’t seem like that big a deal.

Clay: But you’re not developing any form of real relationship with the person sitting next to you, in my case it was my wife. Now my wife and I talk to each other. We eat dinner at a table. We ask each other how our day was and instead of maybe spending that entire evening in total information consumption mode, we go for a walk. My book is a little bit more complicated than, “Hey, turn off the T.V. and go outside.”

You know, we’ve heard that from our grandmothers and that’s nothing new. It’s more about, let’s be proactive and measure. I have an admission. This is my first admission . This is the only place I will ever admit this which is, that writing the book, ‘The Information Diet’, has in fact ruined my information diet, personally.

Now, I find myself spending a whole bunch of time worrying about the Information Diet. I have an app on my phone that tells me what my sales rank is on Amazon.com. My marriage’s health is more based on that number than anything else in the world right now.

I found myself in this really odd situation where being on an information diet is a challenge. It’s just like being on a food diet, the most dangerous place in Washington, D.C., is between me and a chicken wing. It takes active control for me to not want to eat that chicken wing. It also takes active control for me to not spend half of my day on the Huffington Post reading about kittens and Kim Kardashian and confirming my own liberal bias.

Andrew: We’re going to get to bias’ in a moment. Let me make sure that I’m understanding your issue Now you’re getting to something that touches me. First of all, I do understand even though I was being a little bit, playing devil’s advocate about sitting on the couch with your wife.

I get that. In the context of Mixergy, I want to understand the business of going on an information diet and now you’re talking something that I recognize in myself. I will, in the middle of the day, find myself on what I think is a news site, like, Y Combinator in my case or maybe I’ll check out TechCrunch.

Then, I’ll go from there to another site, to another site, to another site and waste time. When you talk about your charts, I found myself going on getclicky, the hits counter to see how many hits my site has, I just keep checking it, wasting a lot of time.

When you say information diet, are you saying cut out all those articles that really don’t do anything for you and stop looking at the charts and graphs that aren’t changing from minute-to-minute?

Clay: I used the food metaphor throughout the book. The reason why I used the food metaphor is because what our culture went through with food is really important to learn from, both the positives and the negatives of that. One thing I think we have learned from the food diet world, is that focusing on quantity, doesn’t really work.

A healthy diet, whether it be a food or an information diet is really about the quality that you’re taking in, not the quantity that you’re taking in. You’ll find very few people that are obese because they’ve eaten too much broccoli, and you’ll find very few people that are information obese because they’re paying too much attention to raw data and statistics in management. However, the real important part is to measure. To be on an information diet the first thing that you have to do is measure what it is that you’re taking in…

Andrew: I’m sorry, let’s take a step back, because I don’t think that we’ve made a solid enough case to the audience about the benefit that they’re going to get by listening to this, for them to take in all the tactics that we’re going to teach them. We do have tactics and I promised the audience that we’re going to go specifically into it. But if all I say to them is if you do this, you’re going to read the Huffington Post less during the day, and you’re going to lose weight they’re going to say screw it. I don’t ever go to the Huffington Post, and if I want to lose weight I’ll go sign up with a gym.

I want to really give them something that hit’s home that says, here’s the benefit, now you pay attention to the next 40 minutes or so and you’re going to get that benefit if you do what we say. So what’s that big benefit?

Clay: You get more time. You get more time to either produce what it is you want to produce. Whether that be for your start up, and you get enhanced relationships. So you get to increase the amount of time you spend either building your own social network, or you get with your spouse or your family. Both of those things are important.

I think those are the biggest tangible benefits but then the third biggest benefit is you think more clearly. You have the ability to make more rational, more conscious decisions, because you’re feeding your mind, what it is that you need in order to make those decisions. And you’re avoiding the stuff that’s going to throw you for a loop a little bit.

Andrew: Like what? What can throw me for a loop?

Clay: I think over consumption of affirmation. People telling you that you’re right all the time is really bad.

Andrew: I see, so if all I do is read about lean start up, lean start up, lean start up, then I’m only going to be exposed to that way of doing things and I’m not going to be exposed to other opinions. I’m not going to be exposed to opinions that might even challenge this one opinion that works for me.

Clay: That’s right, and you’re also going to presume that the only thing that matters in the world is your start up, and your relationships may suffer. To some extent those sort of blinders are helpful, but the problem with that, just even from a neurological standpoint. Your brain starts wiring itself so that’s the only thing that it can see. So you start limiting your perspective and your decision making I think can be thrown off.

Andrew: All right, now you’re talking my language. Now you’re telling me that at the end of this program if I do everything that we’re about to teach people, and of course if they go and buy the book, ‘The Information Diet’, and make your marriage happier, can also by the way, learn how to go on an information diet, then they’ll be able to do these things is what I wrote down. They’ll be able to produce more and of course if you’re not consuming other peoples junk, and we’ll talk about why they’re producing junk and what their benefit is for doing it.

If you’re not consuming it, you’re going to have more time produce and you will put more stuff our there in the world. For me it’s more courses, more interviews, which will hopefully bring in more revenue. Make a bigger impact on the world for someone who’s out there creating software it’s adding more features, or adding more software or selling the software to new people and bring them in their world.

It’s time also because if you’re not getting sucked into the junk like junk TV or junk on the web you’re going to have more time to do things for yourself. Clarity we talked about that, and we also talked about relationships.

I just did an interview with the founder of Wibiya and he said, I stepped outside of my office, I went out to events to really connect and meet people one on one and he told me. One of the people he met ended up investing in his company. The other person he met ended up buying his company, and those are just two of many relationships that he had made by pushing away from the computer, putting down the Blackberry, and actually having one-on-one conversations.

All right, I’m talking a lot because I want to make sure that people now understand the big benefit. I think we’ve explained the big benefit, now we have to answer the then next question which is… All right Andrew, shut up now tell me, or Clay tell me, how I can do this. So Clay, what’s the first that someone who just bought in to this benefit needs to do in order to get it?

Clay: Well you know [??] the first thing I tell people is measurement is really important. Just like if you’re going on a food diet. Keeping a journal of your calorie consumption is for a lot of people, not everybody, but for a lot of people really important. Just being aware of how much it is you’re consuming. The same thing happens with information, so I use RescueTime.com a lot, I feel like I’m becoming a strange unpaid spokesman for their software because it’s really the best software, I think, for really measuring your own intake for information. And, no, they’re not paying me which is…

Andrew: Unfortunate.

Clay: Well, it’s good because then I’d have a bias.

Andrew: What does RescueTime do for anyone who doesn’t [??]?

Clay: rescuetime.com. I think they were a Y Combinator [??] in one of the earlier classes. They…it’s a software application that you install on your computer or computers and it measures all of your intake based on the window title of what window is in your focus. And then, you can go into RescueTime and say, “these are the things that are productive for me to be spending my time on, and these are the things that are not productive for me to be spending my time on.”

And then every week they email you and say, “this is how productive that you were this week,” right. And so, you know, I have [??] spending a lot of time on informationdiet.com/cms, you know, that’s my [??] system, that is worth a lot of my time and that’s being very productive. And spending a lot of time doing Google searches for Clay Johnson, is probably not a very good use of my time or spending a lot of time on the Huffington Post or on some other sort of a novelty blog or the Verge is probably not a good use of my time.

Andrew: That takes up a lot of my time, too.

Clay: It’s great though.

Andrew: It is a great…they write well, but they write long pieces, which really means it sucks up a lot of your time.

Clay: Right.

Andrew: So RescueTime helps you measure. What else do you use to measure and to really get awareness for how much junk you’re taking into your mind?

Clay: So the other part is, right, you consume a lot of information when you’re not at a computer. Let me be clear about what I mean by the information that you’re consuming. What I’m talking about is, anything that involves a page or a switch, something that you have to proactively consume. I’m not talking…you don’t have any control over the ads you see on the subway or something like that or the billboards on the side of the road. [??]

Andrew: You’re not suggesting [??] move to Brazil.

Clay: You can’t turn those off.

Andrew: Right.

Clay: But I am saying, we should be conscious about the information and measure the information that we do have control over. And, so I actually keep a journal of my media consumption. I actually keep it in a text file on my computer so if I spend, you know, three hours watching, How I Met Your Mother, over the course of a week, that goes down and sort of gets audited. So I know, you know, everything that I’m doing when it comes to consumption and that helps me make healthy choices. Just by looking at that data, I can start going, “hey, let me start either diversifying my information intake, so I as someone who has publicly worked with Democrats before, if I’m spending too much time on Daily Coast or the Huffington Post, that means I need to cut that out and maybe spend some more time on local news or stuff that’s around me or even watch some FOX News to pick up some opposing viewpoints, and see what I can glean out of that.”

Andrew: I see.

Clay: And then the…the other thing is, you know, am I just consuming…for the startup world it could be, you’re right, am I reading too much lean startup stuff and not thinking about how to solve the actual problems of my business? A lot of this stuff becomes a sort of affirmation, the stuff that tells you you are right. It’s becomes almost pornographic. It’s like you’re not going to actually be better or more productive person in your life, if all you do is spend all day reading lifehacker.com. I mean, I love the Lifehacker guys, but you can’t spend your entire life reading Lifehacker and be productive. [??]

Andrew: You know, Clay, you actually helped me realize something else. Just reading startup stuff is not enough, that’s a bias or at least a blinder mentality too, because I remember when I read Forbes Magazine recently, and I suddenly saw stories of billionaires and how they built their businesses and it suddenly opened me up to this world beyond the early stage.

Clay: Right.

Andrew: You know, and I think the same things goes for people who are in the audience. The founder of Bidsketch doesn’t just want to read about startups, he wants to read maybe about what his customers are reading. If they’re designers, what are designers reading? What are they getting…where are they getting their information? So you say, “measure and also, not just overall numbers, but also get a sense of, what kind of media you’re taking in, just be aware, that’s the first step if we want to go on an information diet.

Clay: Yeah, I think another thing is really be conscience of, I think, affirmation, especially mass affirmation is sort of (inaudible) your mind, right? If you’re being told that you’re right all the time you are in for a heap of trouble in the long term. Because no one is right all of the time. No matter what your view point, whether it be about start ups or about big enterprises, about Microsoft or PHP or whatever, chances are that if you are being sort of religious about your choices then you’ve picked up some dogma that’s not going to allow you to make some decisions.

The other thing I say is to keep a bias journal. I have a notepad, a text document, that’s on my computer. It’s called Bias.txt. I share some of them in the book, not all of them because some biases are personal. They range from everything from I tend to think that dudes who wear bright yellow Pumas tend to be untrustworthy to I think that large institutions usually, the larger an institution the more sociopathic it is. These are not, they don’t have to be logical. Both of these things are completely illogical, or irrational.

But now that I know that those are biases and I’ve written them down somewhere I can keep control over them rather than them having power over me. I now know that they exist and I can actively work to manage them.

Andrew: All right, let’s go on to the next one. I’ve got a whole bunch that you and I talked about before we started. Which one do you want to go to next? Do you want to talk about maybe where the media is coming from and give people a broader mindset before we dig into the rest of the tactics?

Clay: Yeah, the subtitle of my book is A Case for Conscious Consumption. The reason why it’s called A Case for Conscious Consumption is because it’s really important to know where your media is coming from and what the intent of your media is. The Huffington Post does what it does because they want to sell advertisements to you. So do all the political blogs out there. They may have started well intended but if they’re starting to sell advertising they are now businesses. Their job is to sell you advertising. Someone just tweeted at me don’t tell @SteveJo that I clicked on this ink but man, I couldn’t resist. It was an article to a two-faced kitten that had been born in Indonesia.

That is (inaudible) super, super interesting to go click on. I’m sure we lost like half of our audience for people that are looking for a two-faced cat now on Huffington Post. The idea that that two-faced cat is going to have any impact on your life is relatively slim. But its purpose in life, I don’t know what the cat’s purpose in life is, but the purpose of the Huffington Post sharing it with you is to sell you advertisements. In that regard it’s a lot like food. The food industry wants to sell you the cheapest calories for the most amount of money so we see a lot of stuff made out of corn that doesn’t look like corn at all. I think the same thing is happening with information.

Just being aware of where this stuff is coming from and why it’s being made the way it is is really important. I think for a lot of tech media it’s not, you know, half the stories on Hacker News are about somebody sharing a piece of technology that they wrote. That’s really interesting. Or it’s a [kit] hub repository. Obviously no one is trying to make a lot of money off of sharing their open source [kit] hub repository. Unless they’re trying to gain some awareness for their start up.

I got into a little bit of a flame war on Hacker Wars during the SOPA debates because this company Hello Fax…

Andrew

Because what, I’m sorry?

Clay: This company Hello Fax, they’re a YC start up that allows you to send faxes and stuff like that, they were like, for SOPA, we’re going to allow people to send faxes to their member of congress. Right? During the SOPA day I didn’t black out my website. Instead I hosted this thing called Better Activism Day where I interviewed, I was you for a day, and I interviewed a bunch of lobbyists and hill staffers about how do you effectively move congress. What is it that makes things successful or not? One thing we got out of that was, and that is very well known, is that faxes don’t work. I asked one person on the hill should I send a fax to you and they said we basically just take the faxes and throw them away.

Andrew: You know what, I’ve got to say though that for Hello Fax that was great marketing. They were saying we’re a provider of web to fax services. Use our service to complain.

Clay: Sure, but that’s the point that I’m getting to from the consumer point of view. What Hello Fax was trying to do is they were not trying to help you reach your member of congress. What they were trying to do was advertise their services. That was their intent.

Andrew: Ah, I see. By understanding their motivation you stop being a pawn in somebody else’s game to flip their company.

Clay: Right.

Andrew: OK. All right, and I don’t know what their response is and I hope to have them on here at some point.

Clay: I think, don’t get me wrong, I think Hello Fax is really great. I use them all the time. It’s just that it’s a great example of they were marketing. Right? That’s the point. They found a really innovative way to do it.

Andrew: Let me move on to the next one but first I’ve got to take back this little side apology that I made. What the hell was I doing? I saw myself going and I hope to have Hello Fax on here so I don’t want to say anything negative. What? Did I just say that?

All right, next one. We need data literacy. What does that mean? How do we do it?

Clay: Yeah. I think for a lot of your audience this is a chapter in my book that they can pretty much skip over. The idea is that our definition, culturally, you know if you think about all of America or all of the world, our definition of literacy is really changing. It always has changed. Our definition (inaudible) throughout all of human history has changed.

Literacy, the ability to read and write, 4,000 years ago was a trade skill. It was a highly protected trade secret that you prohibited a lot of people from using. Then it became the ability to sort of sign your name. Now literacy is defined as the ability to read a newspaper. I think that’s not good enough anymore. You see this splitting [into] our economy. I know this isn’t at tactical as you want it to be but I think this narrative is really important. The people that know how to use search to process data by maybe using Excel or even loading it into a (inaudible) database. Or even the big data guys with [Adoop] and that stuff. They have a different type of literacy than everybody else does.

Being data literate, being able to dive deep and get to the data rather than get to the analysis, is really important. One thing that’s happening in journalism, and that drives me crazy, is that they’re not showing their work. When the New York Times writes about a bill on the floor they don’t link to the actual bill for you to read. It drives me nuts.

Andrew: What am I supposed to do? If I’m being data literate does that mean that I need to go hunt down that link and read the actual bill that they’re referring to?

Clay: I think sometimes. Yeah, it does. If it’s something that you care about then I think yeah, if you really are into SOPA, right, and you want to stop SOPA then you need to actually read the SOPA, PIPPA legislation. Understand what it’s about so that you can speak from a point of authority. Because you don’t actually know whether or not Wikipedia or Google, what their interests are. You have to make up your own mind. I think it’s really important for you to go and read the piece of legislation. Not just trust, I mean these are billion dollar operations that we’re talking about between Google and Wikipedia. I mean I understand Wikipedia is a non-profit. These are large organizations. I don’t think you can necessarily just trust that they always have your interests in mind.

Andrew: To continue with your analogy, you’re not just telling us to stop eating Cheetos or to slow down on the bad food. You’re also saying have some kale, have a carrot.

Clay: Right.

Andrew: I see. In that case, then, I would probably say I don’t care that much about SOPA then. I care much more about, I don’t know what, if I’m going to talk about the lean start up movement then I should go read the book about lean start ups and really understand what Eric Reese is saying. In that case I should really cut the whole thing out, shouldn’t I?

Clay: I think you’re actually doing an amazing job. You are an epitome of a good information dieter because you’ve made your whole job actually talking to your source material, right? Instead of reading blog posts about how great Eric Reese is you’ll have him on the show. Or instead of reading The Information Diet you actually get to come and talk to me about what’s in the book as well. You can get an idea of what things are.

I think that’s something that everybody should be doing, what you’re doing. Which is going straight to the source and trying to get as much value out of them as possible. That, for the start up world, I think is super important.

I’ve got to tell you, it’s really intimidating when you tell me that I need to go to the original material. And when you say that to the audience, I’m feeling they’re saying the same thing: “I don’t have time to interview the way Andrew does. I don’t have time to go and read every legislation that I’m going to care about.” But it seems like what you’re saying is… First of all, you may have been intimidated by carrots a while back, but you’re a grown up. Start eating them if you want to be healthy. And second, focus. You don’t have to care about everything on the planet. If this one piece of legislation is not something that you’re going to rally behind, then you don’t really have to focus in on it. But choose carefully, and then go deeper.

Andrew: Depth is more important that breadth. What the internet offers us is a breadth of information, a huge breadth of information. And that makes us scatter-brained. It makes us go off and read about a bunch of things. But depth is something that’s critical to being successful, building a depth of expertise. I’ve never found in my career that I’ve been right, right off the bat with my opinions. As I develop a mastery of a subject, I understand the nuances of a problem a little bit more significantly and can really grasp it. That’s important in Washington where I work, and in politics, and in the media, but I think it’s also important for start-ups. I think technologists naturally know this. That’s why they gravitate towards it. Maybe the best programmers aren’t single language programmers, but they generally develop some kind of nuanced expertise around a particular subject. A data scientist is different from a front-end developer. That’s because they’ve developed some expertise around what it is they want to do.

Clay: You and I have a list of things that we wanted to talk about. Ari, our researcher here at Mixergy wanted me to make sure to ask you about filtering. She pulled that out, and I think this is an excerpt from your book. She said, “One of the most ?? sources through filters. What is the intent of the author? Well, I guess that’s what we kind of talked about. Do you want to talk a little more about filtering?

Andrew: Understanding what the intent is, we just talked about that. I’ll quote from Tim Farris a little bit. Before our work week, he talks about “What’s actionable and relevant to me right not?” And in the world of politics, it turns out that your local government is more actionable and relevant to you than your national government. Barack Obama is not going to put a stop sign at your house, but your state rep or your city council person will.

Mark Zuckerberg has this quote that makes some activists cringe, but I think it’s really important. I don’t know the exact quote, but it’s something like, “A squirrel dying in your front yard might be more interesting to you than a genocide in Rwanda.” Now, I don’t know if it’s more interesting to you or not, but it is definitely more actionable. You can solve the dead squirrel in your front yard crisis right away, and it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to solve the genocide in Rwanda problem right away as an individual.

Clay: So you’re saying, filter out those things that we can’t solve right away.

Andrew: Or find a way to dismiss the stuff that you care about that isn’t actual and relevant. So if you really care about the genocide in Rwanda problem, make a donation and feel like you’ve done your part and move forward. This is a terrible analogy, but focus on the dead squirrel.

Clay. Let me ask you if I did something right. But first, let me address this. I just realized I unzipped my boot. Because it’s so hot in this freaking office, I’ve got to take to take this sweater off. Then I realize, that sounds really weird that I’m unzipping something. People pay really close attention to these interviews, and if they pick that up and think that I’m unzipping something else, I’m in trouble. It’s so odd what people will pick up on in the background here, and it’s scary.

One of the reasons why I want to call it out is so that it doesn’t just burrow into my head and start to take my attention away and worry me for the next week or so until we publish. Going back to SOPA. I felt a little bit guilty because I said, “I can’t really impact SOPA. Wikipedia is already shutting down. ?? is shutting down. All I can do is get distracted from doing my interviews for my precious, precious audience and prepping the courses, and working like a mad man to organize the key ideas for both of those interviews and courses.” So I said, “They’ll take care of it. I can’t deal with it.” Some people would make me feel guilty for it, so much so that I wouldn’t admit this usually in public. What do you think about that? It seems like you’re telling me to do it, Andrew.

Clay: Well I think that if you want to get involved in a social issue or a political issue like SOPA, the best thing that you can do is to look at it, and I learned this in my interviews that I did last week on this, the best thing that you can do is look at the problem dispassionately. And this is why lobbyists usually beat citizen advocates. Because they can look at things dispassionately and they’re not charged up saying, like, we’ve got to stop this bill. They’re like, my job is to stop this bill.

They can look at the levers of power that they need to pull and they sort of treat Washington like an engineering problem. They go I have to do this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, in order to get done. And it’s a job for them. It’s not something that’s a matter of life and death. And when you get charged up about something you end up making some irrational and sometimes some bad decisions. And SOPA for me, and the reason why I wrote so much, and so I wrote this piece called Deer Internet, it’s not longer okay for you to not know how congress works. That got a lot of….

Andrew: That was a great piece. That was in response to someone saying, Steer Congress, it’s not okay not to know how the internet works.

Clay: Right. And both are valid. But you know, it’s a perfect example of what I talk about in my book which is you have to get a depth of understanding here. Because things are not as simple as media would like you to believe, you know. SOPA isn’t, you’re not going to understand the complexities of a law or where it’s coming from or why it is the way it is by seeing a blacked out page on Wikipedia. And you’re definitely not going to cause any chance in the world by seeing a blacked out page on Wikipedia and then picking up the phone and screaming at your member of commerce.

If you realize, for instance, you know Congress knows that their approval rating is 8%. They know that people don’t like them. But it doesn’t seem like just expressing your dislike or contempt of them is actually changing anything. You know, understanding the mechanics of how things work and the systems of how things are working is a much better way to cause change. And that’s not just for Washington, right? That is a skill that you can use in business too.

Understanding, being able to look at your start up as much as being, you know, as an entrepreneur I know that being passionate about your business is really the thing that wakes you up in the morning and gets you working. But being dispassionate about it and being objective about your business is the thing that’s going to help you make good decisions. You know, that’s the thing that helps you pivot. When you’re not tied down to like, this is what my business should be, and are instead tied down to, I need to grow a successful business. The difference, I think, between what is successful and not is being able to make those sort of analytical objective and dispassionate decisions.

Andrew: All right. If we had to sum up filter in a sentence, to tell people what they could filter out and what they should filter in, what would that be? How do we give them a clear direction?

Clay: I would say find things that are as close to the sources as necessary or as possible, and actionable and relevant to you.

Andrew: Actionable and relevant to you, going back to what you learned from Tim Farris.

Clay: That’s from Tim Farris, yeah.

Andrew: Okay, all right. Next, fitness and focus.

Clay: Yeah, so you know I think that attention is athletic, is a form of athleticism. And I think a lot of us have a problem with attention span that work online. And there’s a general constant complaint that it’s like, oh I just don’t feel like I can pay attention to things as well as I used to. So I think looking at your attention span dispassionately and objectively and going, how can I make this better, is a good project for everybody to work on. So the book talks a lot about attention fitness.

I also wrote an article called How To Focus a couple of years ago that that chapter of the book is based on about, you know, using some techniques that have been popular for a long time. Like the Pomodoro technique which is work for a certain amount of time on a particular task and then take a one minute break. And, you know, the way I describe it in the book is more like interval training. It’s not something that you have to have a strict adherence to but like measuring your attention, being aware of how much attention that you’re spending on something and when you burn out. And going easy on yourself and then increasing that time that you can focus on something over time is really important.

So, you know, start at a five minute work interval to a one minute rest interval. And then go up to a, you know, ten minute and then a twenty minute, half hour, hour, and but take those breaks too. You know, one interesting thing that a lot of, I found in my book, a nice piece of scientific research that said, you know, distraction, being distracted every once in a while is actually good for you. It’s a cognitive clean up method. You have to sort of decompress and go and be distracted in order for your brain to sort of heal up and to make sense out of what it is that you’ve been working on.

Andrew: Speaking of distraction by the way. I wasn’t getting distracted, I was taking notes. And what I would like to do at the end of this is give people a clear summary with the benefits and the actions that they can take at the end. Am I too anal by the way, Clay? You and I have known each other now, I’ve known your wife through the interview anyway, through the internets if not in person. Am I too anal? Am I too, tell me what the benefit is and tell me how to do it?

Clay: No, I think what you do is really important and it’s something that a lot of journalists could learn from. And that is you are being of service to your viewers and to your readers. And I don’t think that a lot of people do that and I really respect that you do that because a lot of journalists they just go, okay, my job is to tell people what to think, or tell people what to read or tell people. And that doesn’t work. And people hate that. And I think that’s why a lot of journalists are failing. What you’re doing is going, alright, how can I be of service to my audience?

Now you don’t want to be too of service because obviously, you know, sometimes you’re, the premise of my book is who wants to, it’s a little bit more political then what you and I are talking about which is, the premise is, who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they’re right. And we have a media culture that’s now much more invested in the latter than the former. I think you’re doing a great job of saying, look, let me be of service to my audience, let me get them straight to the source and provide something of value to them and be explicit about what it is that I’m providing. That I think….

Andrew: Someone once told me early on, I think it was Heaton Shaw of Kissmetrics. He said, really if you want to do a good job with Mixergy you have to tell people exactly what to do or be clear about what the, what process they have to take to get the results that you’re promising them. And I keep thinking about that. And the reason I think that we’re able to charge for content on Mixergy, and we’re getting more and more members and premium programmers. Because I just keep delivering results or helping people deliver results for themselves.

And I want to say that also to the general media. That frankly if they, they can get a lot of eyeballs if they have a Kardashian on the cover, but they can’t get a lot of people to pay up. People will not pay, I don’t think, in the levels that the newspapers are hoping for, if all they do is throw this junk, the two-headed cats, those kinds of stories. If they put on their websites and say, now will you pay for it? They’re not going to pay for it. But if you give them results they’ll pay for it and they’ll talk about it and their lives will be impacted. And the people who are creating that kind of content will feel proud to have created it.

Clay: And if you act in service to the people that you’re working for.

Andrew: Yes.

Clay: Which is I think I have to give you a huge pat on the back for.

Andrew: All right, now I’m feeling a little guilty that I’m getting a pat on the back instead of working for my audience. So let’s move onto the next one.

Clay: Wait, let me, the other part of that you just brought up about being of service is actually really important and another piece of tactical advice I have which is, when it comes to our attention spans online, part of the reason our attention spans get so frazzled is because we’ve involved a lot of different services. We’ve invited a lot of different services to constantly vie for our attentions. And so before I went an information diet I was like a walking symphony of notifications. Like I’d walk down the street and my phone would be like beep, boop, beep, boop. And I’d sit down at my desktop and there would be these notifications popping up like, oh you’ve got a new Facebook message, here’s another Tweet about something that you did.

You know, here are e-mails from Facebook telling me that since I haven’t been on Facebook in three days I’m missing out on all of my friends. Here’s this number in my inbox saying these are the numbers of messages I have to read that are commanding my attention. And all of these things, all of these notifications are given to you for one principle. And that’s so that you click on links and view more advertisements. And that to me is something that you’ve got to work really hard to basically just eliminate from your life.

So I haven’t, if you go to Resources.informationdiet.com, there’s a bunch of tools there on how to install browser extensions to like get the number next to your in box, out of there. And to eliminate, to set your Twitter preferences right so that Twitter is not constantly nagging you for your attention. And Facebook same thing. You want to be in a place where you are going to them and you are consciously like, you want to be in a place where you don’t accidentally find yourself on Facebook. Or you don’t accidentally find yourself on Twitter. One interesting thing, what the science says about our relationship with our computers and our relationship with screens is that when you’re looking at a screen, your sense of time gets distorted. Massively distorted.

I think that’s why a lot of us will sit down at a computer at 10 o’clock in the morning or 9 o’clock in the morning and go, “Oh, my god. How’d it get to be 3 o’clock? It seems like just a half hour has passed and I haven’t gotten anything done today.” It’s because you have been reacting to the cacophony of notifications that you have set up for yourself.

The only thing I can liken it to, when I shut all that stuff off, it was like wearing glasses for the first time. It was like this relief of like, “Oh, gosh. I can, like, see and breathe again.” I know that that’s not like a tangible outcome but it’s, it’s man, what a load off that I’m not… I didn’t even realize how much noise I was allowing into my life until I cut all that stuff out.

Your mic, I can’t hear you anymore.

Andrew: Oh, there we go. I hit mute. I hit mute because I was inhaling funny. (Laughter) I read like someone who shouldn’t be on mic. What was I saying? Oh! That I’m sometimes on peoples computers and I see that they have these Twitter pop-ups come up. Then they have these special alerts for Facebook when they get a new message or new comment.

I don’t know how they get anything done with all those distractions. In fact, I’ll be honest with you and tell you that one of the jerkiest things that I’ve ever done in my life was back at the Bradford and Reed days. We used to run banner ads that said basically, you had two alerts waiting for you. Alerts for what? Alerts about what? What is this? Didn’t even matter. We’d get 5% click-through rates on these banner ads.

Clay: Right.

Andrew: Banner ads that would usually get less than 1% click-through rate because we said there’s an alert. I say I’m being jerky about it but Google’s doing the same thing. Every time I use Google, any service now, there’s a number in the upper right and it keeps changing.

Clay: Oh, that thing makes me crazy.

Andrew: Numbers are distracting.

Clay: And it’s Google, you know. I have it in my [bios] journal, I generally have an affinity for Google. The thing that makes me crazy about the Google+ notifications, right, is that they are not being of service for search. When you go on a search now, they’re saying, “Hey, there are these alerts.” In a big red box, that’s designed for your amygdala to go click on, right?

Andrew: Anything I can get those alerts off of, I get them off.

Clay: Yes. Now there’s a chrome extension to install that, to, like, get those things gone. It’s on the website but that Google doesn’t give you control over what pops in that box is also, like, calls to question the motivation there. I think. A lot.

Andrew: Yes, no kidding. That’s when I start to really worry about them. Finally, create. We are doing a lot of this so that we can be creative, more productive. Talk a little bit about that, if you could.

Clay: A personal story, I wish that I could have gone through the interview process for my book. You know, talk to the various media places before I even wrote the book. I have learned more about my book and the ideas in my book since it’s been published, than I did in all the research that I did for it.

It’s because I’ve been producing a lot of information for it. I’ve done a lot of writing about the book. I’ve done a lot of speaking with people like you, about the book. That’s helped me understand my own thoughts better. The production of information, the writing, blogging, using, like, a typepad or a Tumbler or whatever just to, like, jot down your thoughts about a particular topic in a given day. It is, I think, something that is so productive.

Andrew: Why is that productive? I that there are a lot of people who even see me put out a new interview everyday and say, “He’s just producing for the sake of production.” They hear about bloggers and they go, “Ah, those bloggers. All they’re doing is just adding more text to the internet.”

But you’re saying, as a creator, even if no one reads what you’re creating, you have been getting some benefit and especially when people interact with it you’re getting more benefit. Can you explain that so people understand that?

Clay: You’re able to crystallize your own views better. Right? When I wrote, I wrote an Op-ed for the L.A. Times this week and in the process of writing that, I began to think. When you have to put things down on paper, especially when they’re intended for an audience, you have to really think out your ideas a little more than when they’re locked in your head.

Your brain, [??], I’m not a neuroscientist but it probably has to do with the different regions of your brain and how they work. When you’re storing information, when you’re using your memory you are just sort of keeping your stuff up there. When you write it down, when you’re producing something for other people to consume you’re actually helping inform your opinion a little bit more. Now it’s not the sort of Michael Pollen, omnivores to (?) line from my book is, seek facts, not comfort, and not all the time.

But the idea isn’t that you should just always produce, obviously, but you should treat it kind of like a work out. That, you know, I try and write a thousand words a day before noon every day. Now some of those words go on my blog, and some don’t. Some are sitting in a draft folder of poorly sketched out ideas of things to write that may never see the light of day. Or may after about 500 words be completely crazy. But the point is just to work those things out and to be product-. If all you’re doing is consuming information rather than producing. And by producing I don’t mean just a blog post. I mean, you could also express yourself through writing code or doing a screencast or whatever. The important part is that you produce and that’s going to help you develop more of a mastery of what it is that you’re trying to accomplish.

Andrew: Produce in everything. I hate being a consumer. I don’t want to buy more stuff. I want to be a producer. I want to add more to the world. Alright, let me do a quick plug and then I’m going to read these notes that I’ve been taking as we did this and then I’m going to ask you one question that’s completely off topic but I think is important to know the answer to.

So the plug is for Mixergy Premium as always, if you like. And frankly my style guys is not for everybody. If you just want to hang out. I see a lot of tech podcasts where the two guys are just hanging out, one of them is eating a pear and they’re just drinking tea and they’re having a good time and their chatting. I can’t do that. And if you like that, that’s fine. You’re not going to like Mixergy Premium.

But if you like my determination to get useful tactics, things that you can at the end of the program go and do and then see results with then you’re really going to love Mixergy.com/premium. And I’ve been told one of the tactics I need to learn is to tell stories. So I’m going to tell you a story about Nathan Latka, a guy who was fired from a rec center job that he had and he said, what do I do now with my life? I want to leave a mark on the world, what do I do? He said, you know, I’m going to create a business based on Facebook.

And he signed up for Mixergy Premium. Many of you know this story because he did his interview here. But he signed up for Mixergy Premium and he started taking in information as much as possible, but the right kind of information to help build his business. And, he actually when he and I talked for the first time on video Skype he showed me the notes. He said I took notes on all these courses. When you showed how to do webinars I took notes on it, when you showed how to do this I took notes on it. He acted on those notes. End of the first year in business he got to $400,000 in sales. He now has. Wow is right, that’s why I asked him to do an interview.

He now has a business called Lujure where anyone can build a Facebook page using Wizzywig. So if you want to add video to your Facebook page you can, if you want to add an e-mail connection box you can. It’s all, that’s what the whole thing is. To make it really easy to create that Facebook fan page.

But the point is, he signed up for Mixergy Premium because he wanted to learn how to do the things that bring in business. How to get customers, how to get users first, how to get customers, how to present his ideas. And that’s what he did at Lujure. If you’re in a similar situation don’t wait until you get fired from your rec center job to go to Mixergy.com/Premium and learn directly from real entrepreneurs who teach you how they did it.

All right, Mixergy.com/premium. I should always end with a call to action. I’m still, you know Clay I’ve got to tell you, I’m still learning. In fact one of the reasons why I’m telling a story now is because the founder of Wibiya was on recently, Wibiya, and he said, he heard my pitch and he said, Andrew you’ve got to tell stories. Give a narrative, don’t just pitch. So, now I’m trying a narrative, we’ll see how that works.

Clay: I told you that in our interview when we were talking about organizing from the how DC, what entrepreneurs can learn from politics. It’s the same thing, right? If you can’t get people involved, enrolled in your cause. If they can’t identify with it they’re not going to do anything with it.

Andrew: The other thing you told me is, and I’ve got our notes here from I guess it’s 6/15 and 6/24, 2011 is when I took notes in preparation for your interview. The other thing you told me was, get together in person. And we’re actually going to do an in person event in New York tomorrow. By the time people see this recording it will have been done, but, I’m going to do more and more of them.

Alright, let me read my notes. Tell me if I’m wrong on anything here and then I’m going to ask you one question about your homepage that I probably shouldn’t be asking, but it’s important to know.

Clay: Okay.

Andrew: First, here’s what you said. The benefits of going on an information diet is you get to produce, you get more time, you get clarity, and you get to build relationships. And that’s why we want to do this and here’s how to do it. Said, first understand your media’s motivation. And you had a great example in Hellofax. Their motivation wasn’t necessarily give you the best took for taking action, their motivation was to introduce you to faxing using Hellofax.com.

You also said we should measure our intake and you recommended rescue time and you also talked about keeping a journal of where your time is going and the vices you have. You also talked about going on Informationfitness and you talked about the Pompodoro technique which is, you talked about interval working. So you work, you take a break, you work, you take a break, and the benefits of distraction.

You also talked depth which is find that one thing and go really deep instead of letting your mind get scattered including taking a look at pictures of cats with two heads. You talked about focus and in that part of the conversation we said we should eliminate alerts. You and I both talked about our hatred, or the distraction that comes from having the number on Google. But you went a step further and you actually put together a set of tools for people who want to focus. What’s the website for that?

Clay: It’s Resources.Informationdiet.com

Andrew: Resources.informationdiet.com for the transcribers to make sure they get that right. And finally you said create, and you talked about how writing whether it’s blogging or even for yourself, helps you think through your ideas better. And I think you said, Clay, that you write a thousand words every day before noon.

Clay: Mm-hmm

Andrew: Whether they’re published or not you do them. So, that’s a summary. Let me ask you this. You have Evan Williams on your homepage of the book, basically giving a recommendation. You have Tim O’Reilly, who else did I say? A lot of top people in the space. How did you get Evan Williams, for example, to basically not just say, I like this book, but I’m going on an information diet. I’m living the ideas in the book information diet.

Clay: I mean I asked him. And I think a lot of people when they really look at, a lot of technologists especially when they’re looking at what it is that they do, and the things that, one they’re suffering from and two, they’re that’s happening in America right now. I think we all know that something’s up, right? And my book tries to explain what is up and what’s sort of happening in America politically and also to ourselves as a sort of culture.

You know, it’s the number on, well who knows, because sales rank changes all the time. But sometimes it’s the number one culture book on Amazon.com. And the reason why is because I think we all know that something’s up. And, so when you, like you when you’re being of service and you have something to do that you really believe in, it becomes really easy to ask people to do things especially when you have a clear cut message and a clear cut cause.

Andrew: All right.

Clay: People usually say yes to that.

Andrew: There are a lot of people that have these clear cut messages and missions who are in the audience saying, all Clay did was just reach out and share his, and tell them that they share the same mission?

Clay: Obviously….

Andrew: Did you have a connection beforehand?

Clay: I mean, you know, I’ll be honest with you, the, I’ve done a lot of startups in the past and a lot of failed. And the ones that failed were, weren’t because, they were either because they were mismanaged by me. But they were also because I probably didn’t have a great network. And I’ve worked very hard over the past few years of building a great network for myself, you know. My publishers O’Reilly, Tim O’Reilly is a good friend and I’ve been to some Foo camps and stuff like that. So I have access to people that I didn’t used to have. And it’s because of, but it’s not because I’ve bribed my way in there or because I’ve focused on building a network and sort of being next to the internet stars. It’s because I’ve focused on doing things that are useful for people and focused on being of service to the people who I want to be of service to.

And that’s gotten me to know some really great people, including Evan and including Tim and Gene Etroponi, and that crew. And I think if you go into this trying to be unuseful but know a lot of people, you’re not going to get very far. But if you try to be very useful and a byproduct of being useful is getting to know a lot of great people, then that will pay dividends in the long run.

Andrew: So how are you useful to Evan Williams?

Clay: Well that’s a good question. You’ll have to ask him that.

Andrew: Okay.

Clay: I think Evan took a look at the book, read the book, and thought it was useful, I think it was more helpful. I made a three minute video. It’s not even a three minute video. These guys at Les Films, they run the Les Conf. in Atlanta.

Andrew: I didn’t even know that Alan Branch is ‚Ķ Alan is the only one I interviewed, so I can’t remember the other guy’s name.

Clay: The guys at Les Films made, it’s a minute long video. I did the voice-over for it. They did a great job. It encapsulates the entire message of the book in a pretty good way.

Andrew: So, you’re saying that it’s more useful than even having Evan Williams on your site.

Clay: Oh, yeah.

Andrew: Oh, really?

Clay: That’s part of what got Evan Williams on my site. It’s like, here’s a video. Here’s what I‚Äôm talking about. You should read this book.

Andrew: I see.

Clay: Gina Trapani’s on my site. She was kind enough to be a tech reviewer. If it hadn’t been for her, I probably wouldn’t have even written the book because I had gotten some bad reviews before her, and she’s the nicest person in the world. And she picked me back and put me back on my feet. It’s good to have good friends, but the reason I have those friends isn’t because I wanted to get to know Gina Trapani because she made Lifehacker. I‚Äôm not a fan boy. I‚Äôm friends with Gina because I was working on something useful when I was the Director at Sunlight Labs at the Sunlight Foundation, and I’ve met a lot of great people that way.

Andrew: All right. That‚Äôs a good point that we keep wanting to connect just so that people are in our back pockets or in our Rolodexes for the one time when we need them. Boy, I see when people do that to me. It’s a waste of my time, and it’s counterproductive with them because I don’t want to connect with them after they do that.

Clay: If you wanted to do that, you’d be wearing a NASCAR jacket with all the different companies’ logos that are on your show that are on it. That wouldn’t be of service to your users. It wouldn’t be of service to your viewers.

Andrew: The best is when people say, “Hey, Andrew, I found this bug on your site” or, “Hey, Andrew, I think the way you’re trying to interview people, I’ll connect you with someone” or, “I see that you are trying to get your pitches better for Mixergy Premium. Here’s what you’re not seeing because you’re talking. Here’s what I‚Äôm listening as an audience member” and helping me that way. That builds a real relationship.

All right. That’s my big take-away from that last part. Is there anything else? No? Let’s send people over to information diet dot. In fact, they’re not going to go over to informationdiet.com. They’re probably going to go to Amazon if they’re going to buy at all. There’s curiosity about the videos, so maybe, they’ll go check it out and see what that is.

My sense is that the tools you recommend on the sub-domain are really going to get people to click because that is something that will give them impact right away. And, by the way, hopefully it will lead them to “Information Diet”, the book. What’s the sub-domain? What’s the website?

Clay: It’s resources.information.diet.com.

Andrew: Resources.information.diet.com. I’m going to check that out right now. Clay, thank you again for doing another interview.

Clay: This is great. Any time.

Andrew: Thank you. Thank you all for watching.

Clay: Be good!

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  • http://www.workyourart.com/ Debbie @ Work Your Art

    Loved the interview. I’m very interested in interviews on the lifestyle and habits of a successful entrepreneur next to the business tactics we see here on Mixergy. I installed RescueTime to track my activities, that was a great tip.

  • http://webdesy.com/ Kenneth von Rauch

    Wow, you know what? You are RIGHT! I just realize where my time is wasted. I do so many things that don’t actually bring me any closer to my aim. I mean instead of working on something that will help my project grow, I pretty often just waste my time on some irrational piece of …. stuff :) if you know what I mean. Now I’m going to closer way closer attention to what the heck I’m doing  all the time. Thanks guys.

  • http://mixergy.com Andrew Warner

    I think you’re right. I should find more interviews on those skills.

  • http://mixergy.com Andrew Warner

    Glad it helped!

  • http://www.briancasel.com Brian

    Great episode.  Love these “out of the box” topics.

  • http://mixergy.com Andrew Warner

    Glad to hear it.

  • Pingback: Information Dieting … the fun way

  • Anonymous

    Man I’ve been struggling with this so much – the information diet is just what I need. My personal problem is the “actionable” bit.

    I see so many awesome articles each day that I know are relevant to me but I might not get to them for a couple of months – as a result I have thousands of articles in Instapaper, in a todo list in Basecamp, in an email inbox, in bookmark sites – articles that looked interesting at the time that I will never read (and bookmarking is so much work!).

    That’s why I created this!

    http://www.birdmine.com/

    I just made it live last night – the idea is that there is so much great content curation already on Twitter and I already tweet lots of articles from my Google Reader even after just skimming them to see if they’re interesting, that it makes sense to just index all the links that I post on Twitter.

    What do you think? Does it solve your problem, too?

  • Guest

    Good call on the potential for the media to do service to their audience instead of spewing two-headed cats. Great interview. Props to both of you.

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