Prioritize Output activities— and beware of excessive Input.
Input: reading, watching, listening, learning, observing
Output: writing, engineering, speaking, journaling, self-reflecting, producing, doing
We need time in both modes. But many of us, myself included, tend to spend too much time in Input, and too little in Output.
We used to starve from the paucity of information, but now we drown in it.
No generation before has had access to the level of information available now, so we can’t expect to have any natural defenses (and I don’t believe we do).
—Cue statistic about how much TV the average American watches a day.—
“But I don’t watch TV!” you object. Then go check daily social media usage on your phone.
It’s not that Input is bad per say, it’s just that the balance between Input and Output has become crooked for most.
To make it worse, there are now massive, publicly-traded (as in, profit-overfitting) corporations that serve to benefit from your attention, and therefore, serve to benefit from your distraction from everything else you could be doing.
If you don’t think large input platforms—social media like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube—aren't addictive now, just wait 5 years for the field of psychological manipulation via software to advance. And, by then, your habits will have solidified.
Whatever the causes are, it’s easier than ever before for Input to crowd out Output.
And expect it to only get worse.
When I first wrote this essay, I would’ve agreed with you. I used Input to relax almost everyday: whenever I didn’t feel like I had the energy to create anything, I watched science videos on YouTube for an hour or two.
But now that I’ve been writing this website for a few months, I’ve found that I VASTLY prefer writing to watching. And now whenever I try to watch more than hour an of YouTube (or generally researching or reading anything which I was not already looking for), I find myself feeling sick.
Output has become my preferred way to relax. (And, it’s highly productive!)
How much time do you spend in Output? How much time are you spending in Input?
If you’re like me at the time of originally writing this, you’ll see that your time allocation isn’t ideal.
How will you protect yourself against excessive Input? What will you do when you catch yourself out of line with your ideals?
It doesn’t matter what you specifically do to protect and redirect yourself, so much as you’re making a plan.
We need to answer these questions individually because
Input activities are far easier to sit down and start than Output activities. It’s far easier to sit down and begin reading or watching something, than it is to sit down and start writing something.
In general, an unreasonable amount of our behavior is swayed by small nudges.
How can you make Output as instantaneous, easy, and effortless to start?
Intentionally stop in the middle of Output activities. When you stop working on an Output project, try not to stop at a point where your thoughts are wrapped up. For example, stop writing in the middle of a sentence.
This makes the first two seconds when you start later much easier. Starting is no longer infinitely open ended— “Of all possibilities, what should I write now?”— but instead, starting becomes very natural and concrete— “How do I complete this specific sentence?”
What projects of Output have you wanted to start, but haven’t? How much time would you like to spend on them?
How can you make everything you might otherwise do instead just a little bit more delayed and effortful to start?
Acknowledge that there will always be more to consume.
Setting personal rules
If your Output is digital:
Let me know and I'll add it here. I'm also interested in any direct research about interventions on this topic.
Even if you enjoy Output a lot, you may still find yourself spending much time in Input. I enjoy writing incredibly, but a week will go by where I somehow forget this feeling, and my time entirely in Input.
[Full essay on this.]
Input by itself is meaningless. OK, you’ve read 200 books or papers, but have you done anything with that?
Learning is for later application. Input is for eventual Output. Of course we can’t tell in advance what Input will be the most useful for your Output, but there certainly are marginal returns of spending time on Input.
Output is more important than Input
In mid 2020, I had just finished a multi-month project. I had relished in the Output, but once it was over, my time reallocated. I didn’t consciously choose how I would spend my new free time— I just did the default thing: I read more essays, and watched more YouTube videos.
But I missed Output. Now that I had tried it, I knew what I was missing. (As I write this I’ve spent the vast majority of my life in school—in Input: listening to teachers and reading textbooks. I had assignments that required Output, but they were almost always secondary to Input.)
And that’s why I started this website.
Since I realized the idea behind this essay, I’ve set myself on Output (writing for this website) every day before any Input or schoolwork. It’s made me feel more in control of my days. And I love that I’m actually making something everyday. Most days are slow, but in only four or five months I have a few dozen essays posted that I really like.
This goes to you, Ariana:
Don’t let Input—school—crowd out time for your Output—creating art, drawing, writing.