This is a follow-up to my original post about cognitive traps that hinder learning and stunt professional growth. Information junk food refers to any information gathering activity that prematurely satisfies your hunger to learn and provides fleeting emotional pleasure in lieu of actual intellectual nourishment.
Some information junk foods to avoid:
Fattening Abstractions - There is great power in naming things, which is why it is an integral part of nearly all creation stories (i.e. Adam naming all the animals in the Christian Bible). Unfortunately, learning acronyms, buzzwords, and high level abstractions often fools us into thinking we know more than we really do. This is why I've interviewed candidates who could talk for hours on end about service oriented architecture, but failed miserably when it came to a simple fizzbuzz programming test.
High Calorie Public Opinions - The blogosphere is full of brilliant people who passionately articulate their beliefs. Unfortunately, the human need to fit into a community (open source, java, ruby, agile, alt.net) often trumps the desire to keep an open mind. While the person who originally formed the opinion derived great value from the decision making process, the casual reader who easily adopts opinions like a new piece of trendy clothing gains nothing but unfounded and potentially misapplied biases.
Sugary old Habits - Paradoxically, the better you become at something, the more difficult it can be to learn new things. Once a habit becomes second nature, we forget that there are other alternatives and that we probably made our original choice at at a time in our careers when we knew less than we do now. This human propensity to stick with things that are comfortable and have worked well in the past is why the most experienced people in our profession are so often dismissed as irrelevant rather than respected.
Some Healthy Alternatives:
Just one more block - The most helpful habit I've adopted while running is to respond to my first impulse to stop running with the mantra, "just one more block". I think this also works well with learning. The next time you feel the urge to fall back on that same worn-out API or unproductive GUI-oriented approach, discipline yourself to take a minute and learn just one new method or one new keyboard shortcut. The investment will pay great dividends down the road.
Empty your Cup - This is a phrase that I remember from some zen book that I read in high school. The idea is that in order to learn something more deeply, you often have to intentionally forget what you already know so that you can approach things with fresh eyes. The next time you catch yourself dismissing a learning opportunity because it pertains to something you think you already know or have a strong opinion about, pretend that you are a newbie and see if you can glean an new tidbit or perspective.
Bite your tongue - Every once in a while, I'll catch myself talking about or recommending a technology or tools that I've only read about but never used. I am now trying to get into the habit of not letting myself talk about anything unless I've at least downloaded the technology and done a proof of concept for myself. For me, this serves as extra motivation to take the next step in learning.
Approach documentation like a scientist - Treat techniques you read about like an hypothesis that you must scientifically prove with a unit test before you can confirm that it is true. I've caught myself several times regurgitating something I've read that I thought was very straight-forward only to discover later that I've slightly misinterpreted how it works. Documentation and resource sites are subject to the same ambiguousness and misinterpretation as requirements. Don't trust your understanding until you've seen it with your own eyes.