You’re awash in a sea of information. How do you pay attention to the vital information you need to? How do you acquire quality new information when the volume on everything is at 11? This is what I’m experimenting with from a GTD perspective to deal with the firehose.
Information overload is an insidious problem. It’s ridiculously easy to rabbit hole digitally. The internet is a vast resource, but it’s also a gigantic attention suck. Between links, email newsletters, messaging, mail, and on-screen information and notifications you still need to research and keep up to date in your métier and get work done. Filtering the signal from the noise is no mean feat with people demanding your attention to monetize eyeballs. Modernity is a constant stream of information shouted at you and you still needing to be productive.
What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.
— Herbert A. Simon
In the vein of David Allen’s GTD workflows, I tried to apply some of those principles to my professional reading and learning (which I felt was starting to lag).
- Limit (what and the ways it comes at you)
- Capture and triage
- Processing and work
Turning down the volume and number of channels helps stem the tide somewhat. Taking cues from the book The Information Diet, I started being more selective about the information I was exposing myself to while also increasing its quality and how my time investment in it. I’m not entirely sure I succeeded, though benefits accrued. Here’s what worked for me.
Killed the TV, particularly network news
I stopped watching network news and subscribed to higher quality information sources (in my case, the Economist and the New York Times) to try to get deeper, thoughtful, and better information sources focused on informing, educating, and analyzing rather than capturing my attention.
At this point, getting any of your news from Facebook should worry you considering all the revelations the last two years. It’s algorithms drive you scrolling, and tend to convey a misshapen world view of more conflictual, more outraged, more divisive, and more horrible than it really is. This in addition to the fact that studies apparently show that Facebook makes you feel horrible about yourself and can cause depression. In fact, cutting back apparently can improve your mood and feelings of self-worth.
Did you need any other reasons? For the longest time I avoided doing this because I truly believed there were people I knew who could only contact me via facebook and we’d lose touch if I was not on it. Well, deleting facebook did not change those people’s cadence of keeping in touch with me.
If you’re still leery, take a first step and merely disable facebook. A trial ahead of taking the nuclear option of deleting it. I almost guarantee you’ll surprise yourself how little you miss it after a couple of weeks.
Replaced cable/satellite TV with Netflix and Apple Movies
Netflix is a time suck given the chance though, and I highly recommend turning off autoplay on Netflix to moderate your consumption and provide some friction on over-watching. Also, binge-watching when I do feel like taking a break or relaxing does compartmentalize the damage. Also, the other thing which is a side benefit of these services is the absence of advertisements. Quietly removes social pressures around conspicuous and unnecessary consumption.
Apple Movies has been pretty good. Keeping a watch list and then having them available when I do feel like watching a film has been pretty ideal (though a bit worried they are going after Netflix’s crown with AppleTV, not to mention Music.).
The key thing here is to somehow find ways to limit your time in front of the screen so you’re not mindlessly burning time you could be using more productively. Focus and even limit entertainment time.
Used a feed reader
For keeping up on quality content on the web I am a big fan of using rss and atom syndication. In fact, I am often a bit miffed at sites that remove it because they want you to subscribe to their newsletters, or worse, visit their site to get an extra visit for their traffic or ad visits.
A feed reader, like Newsboat, the terminal-based one I use, allows you to choose to go through news on your own time and efficiently shred through what is relevant vs what is not to you and save time. Love it.
Reduced email newsletters
Besides making Inbox Zero a more achievable reality, being in a technology management position I often have a lot of FOMO over the fact I need to try to keep abreast of new new tech developments. Taking a hard look at what I needed to focus on and shoring up things in my reading list rather than trying to keep up with the hamster wheel of more content coming in than was feasible to read got me down to five industry newsletters and killed all the rest. I still worry this gives me blind spots since I’m not keeping up with everything I feel I should, but I figure this is an impossibility so it’s something I’m trying to get comfortable with. Also, figuring out the balance between breadth and depth is quite important since one requires much more time to read and grok.
Pruned Reading List
In much the same vein, new books purporting to solve all your problems come along all the time. Having a curated, pruned, tracked reading list (mine is a simple numbered list in emacs I work through and ruthlessly guard). I have “rules” about what gets added to that list since I can read ~45 books a year. Rules around what can jump the queue to be next in line actually makes a big quality difference in my reading time and what I get out of it. I highly recommend throwing a list together based on what you want to read and goal-accomplish in a year. Interspersing fiction and non-fiction is also important. All of these only work if you create cultivate a reading habit (I try to read for an hour every lunchtime during workdays. Helps slam through books and breaks up my day much more nicely.).
2. Capture and Triage
The above techniques help keep the information firehose at bay. They do not solve the problem of what to do when there is information you actually come across you need to consume.
Having set aside scheduled time in my day to try to go over newsletters or newsfeeds “inbox zero”-style has worked but effectively, both those techniques get you to the point where you have a bunch of tabs in your browser open and eventually need to set aside time to actually consume and digest what you’ve opened. This is where the processing part comes in. I’ll tell you what didn’t work for me and then give you a preview of what I’m trying now though I sometimes feel most of my techniques are simply… get it into a list, curate the list ruthlessly, work through and find time for the list.
What Didn’t Work
Strangely, browser bookmarking, Safari’s Reading List function, and the (excellent) One Tab extension are not working for me like I’d hoped. While they declutter Marie Kondo-style, they’ve tended to become “junk drawer” tools for me which is the opposite of what I need them to be. They are not “sparking joy” 😆. I get things out of the way so I can focus but then never get back to digging down on more time consuming articles or technical treatments.
What would happen would be that I would process a bunch of links from newsletters and the like, they would be open in the browser and then at some point, I’d declare tab bankruptcy on the horizontal sprawl and would either use the “Bookmark All Tabs” feature in Firefox or Safari and save them all under a directory called “sesh” (short for session in case that’s not obvious) and the date in
yyyy mm dd format. One Tab was even better since it just threw everything into a universal tab one-page list organized by a heading date. Out of the way, the links would rot away in this directory or page to the point they and any value or learning I could derive from them was stale. aAs I was just migrating over to my new laptop this past weekend and consolidating bookmarks (for the precise reason of this post) I realized I’d orphaned a whack of bookmarks from as far back as mid 2018.
The lack of progress on these links was actually the inspiration for revisiting this and the blog post. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the
seshes bookmarks was that I had oft re-bookmarked posts and noticed there was a bunch of common links repeated and duplicated between browsers. Many of which had not been read. Others were dross. Consolidating the list, I’ve cleaned up everything while migrating systems do that I have an interesting list of things now that I’ve killed a number of things which were clearly aspirational versus realistic.
I am curious what has worked for other people here on reading deeply technical posts or coding that requires learning new techniques or information. Ping me on @awws if you’ve got a technique that works for you and you’re a reasonably busy person as well.
Better triage - what I’m trying to do now
The problem is that I generally need to get some sort of idea on whether what I’ve opened is in any way something useful to read. I’m trying to apply more rigour and less FOMO on what I’m opening and be realistic about how much time I actually have to read up and grok complex pieces which require
#longreads or deep code-along work.
Strangely, something that has been working better than I thought has been Firefox’s Pocket. Direct Firefox integration and having handy mobile share extensions and its own app, has meant I have it available everywhere and its ability to tag bookmarks is super handy (though firefox provides thids in-browser).
I’m trying a system now where for articles I want to read I tag them
#2read and then have a list of those that I process through (as well as other tags – dev, management, etc – to denote the type of read.). The other tag I am starting to use is taken directly from David Allen and is
#someday from his Someday/Maybe idea of things you will get to when you have the possibility.
The idea of the flow now is that when I open links I’ll do a Decide, Delete, Defer on them (obviously I can’t delegate them) and Delete the bookmark as not being useful (it’s sad how many are actually like this in retrospect), Defer it if it required more considered digestion or time and mark it with a
#2read tag. If it’s something I can take my time getting to, I’ll tag it
Then, I’m hoping the idea will just be scheduling time to work through the list of articles each week with some dedicated deep time on the
To help this I’ve also put a nice bright red Pocket icon link into the far left of my Bookmark bar on Firefox which is linked to the
#2read tag (https://app.getpocket.com/tags/2read/all) with the idea being I’ll hit that a lot more often than I do other things. As another attention hack, I’ve also changed Firefox’s default startup page for new windows to the Pocket
#2read page rather than the FF home or Recently Visited page that kicks up opening a new window or tab. Hopefully this will encourage me working through the list a bit more diligently and focus attention on it by keeping it more top of mind. My key issue would seem to be avoiding the junk drawer phenomenon.
3. Processing and Work
The processing part of the list is merely finding which thing I need to pick off the list and work through.
The issue in most cases is that the reads are not trivial, or in some cases require coding and deep concentration to gain from (as well as more than likely some learning or followups in topic areas in the future). So, trying to put aside time at least once a week to slam through the things for a good half day a week on this and scheduling something regularly.
My biggest concern is about monitoring the queue and putting some metrics around whether I am getting better. I have this feeling the bigger issue here is that I have not been tracking closely how much new material I digest, even after processing, compared to new material hitting the inbox. So, that’s something I’ll need to monitor the next few weeks and determine if I have to be even more ruthless about what I let hit the
Overall, I’m hoping this process will work better, but I’d love to hear what’s worked for other people getting through substantive material rather than skimming reads and feeling FOMO on why you’re not a better engineer, data scientist, or leader. I’m even considering cycling between major categories each week to ensure coverage (eg. one week engineering, another week management, another week data science, etc) and make sure I am not neglecting areas and not merely looking at simply the latest thing I’ve bookmarked. Do let me know on what may have worked for you. You can always @mention me @awws on twitter.