Josh Kaufman

Bestselling Author, Business & Self-Education


Bit Literacy - Mark Hurst

This post contains my personal notes about the big ideas in Mark Hurst’s Bit Literacy. My book notes are different from many of the book summaries you’ll find on the web. Instead of following the structure of the book in question, we’ll isolate and examine the key ideas and themes that make the book useful. Along the way, I’ll tell you how I actually apply the ideas. Enjoy!

Information overload is stressful and exhausting. If your e-mail inbox is overflowing, your desktop is full of random documents, and using your computer is a daily exercise in stress and frustration, you need to read Bit Literacy by Mark Hurst.

About Mark Hurst

Mark Hurst is the author of the Personal MBA-recommended book Bit Literacy, and the founder of Good Experience and the GEL conference.

Here are 10 big ideas from Mark Hurst’s Bit Literacy.

1: “Bit Literacy" means developing the skills necessary to use technology in a healthy, productive way.

Computer use is not an instinct - it’s a learned skill that takes effort to master. Most of us learn these skills in a very ad-hoc way. and as a result, most of us don’t use technology very effectively or efficiently. That’s a huge opportunity.

Becoming “bit literate" is the process of mastering the technology you use to do your work. The more you rely on technology to create value, the more valuable bit literacy is, so make improving your skills a priority.

2: Bitstreams are increasing every day, but not every bitstream is relevant to your interests.

The amount of information in the world is exploding. A “bitstream" is simply a source of information - a newspaper, a magazine, a book, a blog, or your e-mail. It’s easy to feel guilty if you don’t have enough time or energy to handle it all.

Here’s the good news: it’s perfectly okay to ignore the bitstreams that aren’t relevant to your life and work. By relieving yourself of the responsibility to pay attention to every bitstream that exists, you free yourself to focus only on those bitstreams that produce results - an example of The 80/20 Principle.

3: Bits are heavy - they carry mental and emotional weight.

Information is physically weightless, but it carries a great deal of emotional weight. When you open your inbox and see that it contains 3,657 messages, it’s very easy to feel burdened and overwhelmed. The same goes for overflowing desk surfaces and stacks of unread magazines.

4: If not consciously controlled, bits will overwhelm you.

This is a natural consequence of ever-multiplying bitstreams and our limited time and attention. More information and less time to deal with it all means that your bitstreams will accumulate endlessly - unless you decide to do something about it.

Taking control of your bitstreams is a conscious Decision. The moment you decide to take full responsibility for the bitstreams in your life is the moment you can begin to fight the overwhelm.

5: You must learn to “let the bits go".

The central tenent of Bit Literacy is “let the bits go." The more you cling to your bitstreams, the faster they’ll overwhelm you. The first step in mastering informations is to learn to let it go. Attachment is the enemy.

Letting bits go can mean anything from deleting the streams that no longer serve you do directing the bits into archival systems you trust. Whatever you do, you must begin to move the bits somewhere, so they don’t accumulate.

6: No tool can manage your bits for you - you must take responsibility for changing how you manage them yourself.

Your computer can’t manage bits for you. It’s very common for non-bit literate people to assume that someday technology companies are going to invent a magical way to automatically manage all of your bitstreams for you. Companies like Google and Microsoft, and independent computer programmers have invented thousands of tools to help you process your bitstreams.

Bad news: automatic bitstream nirvana is never going to happen. Just like we discussed in Getting Things Done , even the best productivity system can’t make decisions for you. Bits have meaning, and only you can learn to manage them effectively. That’s why it pays to learn a few simple methods that you can use to manage the important bitstreams in your life. (Hurst has many specific tactical recommendations, which I won’t go into - if you’re interested in learning the best naming convention to use when choosing filenames for your digital photos, I recommend picking up the book.)

7: You can deal with bits in six different ways: act, delegate, defer, delete, archive, or ignore.

When all is said and done, there are really only a few ways you can manage your bits. The first four I call the 4 Methods of Completion , which are universal. You can either take an action related to the information, defer action until later, delegate action to someone else, or delete the information with no action.

Archiving and Ignoring are new options technology offers to deal with bitstreams. An e-mail, for example, may not require immediate action, but you may want to keep it available for future reference. By archiving it in a folder or storage system, you can search for it later - out of sight, out of mind, but still available if you need it.

Ignoring is also a plausible strategy - just because a bitstream exists doesn’t mean you absolutely have to pay attention to it. Personally, I ignore things like TV, newspapers, and most magazines, since I get very little value from them. Ignoring these streams makes it much easier to pay attention to others that I find more valuable - like reading great books.

8: The best way to start getting your bits under control is to empty your inbox.

Bit Literacy starts in your e-mail inbox. If you’ve been following the latest research and expert thinking about productivity for the past few years, you’ve almost certainly heard of the importance of “Inbox Zero" - keeping your e-mail inbox empty. E-mails have a nasty habit of accumulating, to the point it’s not uncommon to have hundreds (or thousands) of unread messages crying out to be processed.

If you’re new to bit literacy, the e-mail inbox represents low hanging fruit - by clearing it out and establishing a few simple rules to keep it empty, you can start to feel better and be more productive immediately. There are two simple rules: when you read a message, it can’t stay in the inbox - it must be replied to, deleted, delegated, or archived immediately. The second is to empty your inbox by the end of every day - no exceptions.

One of the biggest reasons people keep read messages in their inbox is to serve as a reminder. Hurst came up with an innovative way to handle that issue: a service called GoodTodo.com that allows you to forward e-mails to a system that will mail them back to you at a time you specify. Using systems like these allow you to defer action on certain e-mails effectively while keeping your inbox empty. (GoodTodo is a paid service; FollowUpThen.com provides the same functionality for free.)

9: The media diet - choose your bitstreams wisely.

Another way to start feeling less overwhelmed immediately is to prune your bitstreams. Eliminate information that’s no longer relevant. Cancel your cable TV. Throw away the pile of unread magazines, and cancel the subscription. Unsubscribe from junk e-mail, and get a better spam filter.

By reducing your exposure to low-value bitstreams, you’re preserving your attention and energy for bitstreams that are more useful and meaningful - like reading good books, catching up with friends, and finally enjoying the pictures you took on your last vacation.

10: Eliminate friction in input and processing to manage your bitstreams most effectively.

Here’s where bit literacy can reach ninja master levels - by learning how to increase the amount of output while minimizing effort, you can fly through your technology tasks.

A good example is using keyboard shortcuts in software you use often - they only take a minute to discover, practice, and learn, but the time and effort savings they enable add up to huge productivity gains over time. (If you’re still copying and pasting text using the mouse and menu dialog, you’re seriously missing out.)

The same principle applies to a skill as straightforward as touch typing - if you’re hunting and pecking on the keyboard with one finger, you’re never going to be as productive as someone who can type 100+ words per minute without effort. If you use the computer a lot, learning to touch time will drastically improve your productivity. (I recommend this game to get you started - it’s simple, but fun.)

There are also tools - Hurst calls them “bit levers" - that can help you automate everything from typing to complex sequences of commands. One of my favorites is an application called TextExpander , which can automatically insert pre-defined blocks of text when you type certain abbreviations.

For many of the tasks required in my work, like programming e-mail newsletters, tools like TextExpander are a godsend - all it takes to create a basic e-mail template is three keystrokes in a text editor, not hours of programming. Macros and automation programs can save you hours of unnecessary effort.

Anything that you can do to reduce the amount of time or effort it takes you to accomplish your technology task is a great investment. Make it a priority to master the art of bit literacy, and you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish in the time and effort you have available.


Published: October 1, 2010 Last updated: October 1, 2010

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