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Fighting content overload

January 5, 2020
reading

The abundance of books is a distraction.

Seneca, 1st centruy AD

The problem with reading too much is remembering too little. What's the point of reading a book, if after reading it, the only thing remembered is a sentence or two? Is there a better way to read than simply going through the book line by line? Is there a way to get more value out of the book?

Turns out there is.

This post will:

  • explain what's wrong with simply consuming books or any other content
  • describe how to get more out of consumed information
  • suggest an approach for fighting the overwhelming with content

The problem with consumption

We are biased towards novelty. Our brains have evolved to seek it and we get a dopamine response to it. Every social network is exploiting this in an extreme way [1]. This craving for new things, in addition with intelectual signaling with quantity of books we have read, leads us to read new books. We think that the way to getting smarter is to read a new book. That the next book we will read will give us that missing part of the puzzle.

There is a trend that is a result of this effect: speed reading. And it is missing the point completely. Speed is not the goal. Comprehension and understanding is. You don't need to speed up; you need to slow down.

Lindy effect is perhaps a good strategy to try to fight this craving. If a book has been around for a long time and is regarded a great book, there's a really good chance it's a must-read book and will survive for a long time.[2] In contrast, how many books that were published in the past ten years do you think will survive for the next hundred and how many of them will be forgotten in the next ten? This should be a guiding principle when choosing a book to read. It's better to re-read a classic, than to waste time on some current best seller that will be forgotten in five years.

Start more books. Quit most of them. Read the great ones twice.

James Clear

The biggest problem with simply consuming is the problem of "transmissionism", a belief that simply consuming content (in this case reading a book line by line) leads to attaining knowledge. This problem is present in any form of content consumption, wether it's a TED talk, podcast, interesting talk in your local conference or the university lecture. Knowledge can't be transferred that simply. Attaining knowledge requires much more effort than basic understanding of words or sentences. [3]

Getting more out of consumed information

Digesting information, thinking deeply and connecting the dots is a path to knowledge and wisdom. Synthesis, connecting and remixing ideas from multiple disciplines is the goal. Knowledge management tools help here by providing the bits and pieces of this knowledge in a searchable, digital form. These tools help us offload the burden of remembering off of our imperfect biological brain, so it can focus on the more creative work. Like finding connections.

There are variety of systems that can be used for intelectual progress and it's probably best to start with small changes to your information consumption workflow. The first step above just reading anything that comes your way is saving content. Apps like "Pocket" or "Instapaper" can help with this. Doing this, however, doesn't help with the progress much. Start highlighting and adding notes in order to climb the first step. What's the point of reading that Medium article you have saved? What parts resonated with you?

Fighting the overload

Reading feeds the mind and replenishes it when it is worn from studying — even though it is not without work itself. We should not restrict ourselves to writing or to reading: endless writing saps our strength and then exhausts it. Too much reading can puff up or dilute our ability. Most commendable is to take them in their turn, to mix one with the other, so that the seeds of one’s reading may be grown anew with the pen.

Seneca

This process of highlighting and bolding content is known as "progressive summarization". And I've found it really helps with remembering content. Writing a summary of an article that resonated with you makes it rememberable in the future.

I think having a balance with reading and writing is essential. Too much reading, without writing makes one forget oneself. Foucault argues that reading too much leads to "stultitia" - mental agitation and constant change of opinions.

By going constantly from book to book, without ever stopping, without returning to the hive now and then with one’s supply of nectar —hence without taking notes or constituting a treasure store of reading— one is liable to retain nothing, to spread oneself across different thoughts, and to forget oneself.

Michael Foucault - Self Writing

Storing notes and actively working on them builds a network of knowledge, a brain outside of our organic brain.

Gradation of learning per reading style

I've found out, since I'm mostly reading non-fiction, that my goal is always learning something from the book. In order to learn, I've come up with a list of reading techniques sorted by quality of learning:

  1. speed reading - the worst for learning
  2. listening a book as an audiobook
  3. normal reading
  4. reading and higlighting text that's interesting
  5. reading and copying text from the book as notes
  6. reading and copying text from the book as notes and working on notes with progressive summarization
  7. reading and writing a summary in your own words at the end of each chapter
  8. reading with Cornell note-taking system and Feynman technique - asking questions while reading and then answering them in your own words at the end of each chapter

Using the last technique instead of just reading the book has had a dramatic effect on the quality of retained information for me. I think more about the content. Writing questions like this challenges the presumption that I know everything that I read and makes me test myself. If I don't know the answer, I'm forced to re-read the chapter and try again.

This approach leads to remembering a lot more than just a single most important point from the book and I've been using it for a while. It helps a lot. If you're having problems with remembering what you read try giving the Cornell technique a shot. Let me know if it helped on Twitter. I'm @shime_sh.


  1. Social networks are using supernormal stimulus in order to exploit this dopamine response of our reptile brain. This fantastic comic explains the concept in a visual way: Supernormal Stimuli: Your Brain on Porn, Junk Food, and the Internet

  2. "How to win friends and influence people" by Dale Carnegie and "Meditations" by Marcus Aurelius are great examples of "Lindy books".

  3. This concept is explained in detail in a must-read article titled "Why books don't work" that argues that transmissionism is the biggest problem with books.