The Solution to Information Overload
There's too much information. While perhaps only 1% of people actually create content, and perhaps only 0.01% of content produced is actually interesting to you, that's still orders of magnitude more than you can actually consume.
There is a solution — not to consuming all that's interesting, but to spend your time consuming content that you genuinely enjoy.
First, why is this a problem?
We're bad at short term self-control. We've evolved to take immediate opportunities — eat the sugar, do what's comfortable now, click the clickbait. Many behavior-change protocols exploit this: remove point-in-time decisions.
We have this monkey-mind that honestly and truly can't help itself. We see a ridiculous thumbnail on YouTube with a shocked face and explosion in the background. It more than grabs our attention: it's literally designed to get us to click. And often, it's bad on purpose to make us click. Once we click, we are immediately hit by a spell of amnesia. We forget to even evaluate why we clicked. Our monkey mind has moved on: is this video entertaining right now? Successful channels have quick beats to keep us hooked.
Could I interest you in everything, all of the time? A little bit of everything, all of the time.
I've joked for years that I have "supply-side self control". See, while Now Andrew has a history of pretty bad decisions, Day-Ahead Andrew is more reasonable. For goodness sake, I co-founded a company to help people improve their metabolic health; but if you put chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream in front of me, I'll likely eat it without a second thought. However, at the grocery store, Day-Ahead Andrew doesn't get the immediate dopamine rush of sugar, and seems to truly care for his future self. So, it's easier for him to just not buy the crap.
And this is the key that will lead to the solution: you must separate curation from consumption. The default experience of content consumption pairs curation and consumption directly together. This is bad. It's the informational equivalent of putting you in front of an all-you-can-eat fried food buffet if you're trying to eat healthier.
First rule of curation: there's too much content, so be particular about where you get it. You'll never get to the end of the Internet and need more. It's all there, infinitely. You'll run out of time before running out of entertainment.
This isn't a judgement of curation from Netflix, YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or where ever you go to consume. I've used a few of those in the past week. There are good rules of thumbs to make sure you stack the deck in your favor, though.
Algorithmic feeds are literally designed to keep you consuming. Just like slot machines in a casino, the "best designed" feed lulls you into a mindless state that steals your attention and slowly feeds you ads as you keep scrolling. How often have you gone to Reddit, TikTok, YouTube, or Instagram and the next thing you know, it's an hour later, and you're not completely sure where the time went. Let's flip this on its head: you have limited attention to give, so we'll now be particular about how we curate, being intentional about our intake. It's way easier to make good decisions as Day-Ahead You, instead of Now You.
This is personal for me. I consume a lot, and for years, had tricked myself into believing that "interesting" meant "good". I'd spend hours on Reddit, and besides picking up some weird factoids, the time would just go into a hole. If I actually evaluated whether I was glad I had spent that time on Reddit, it'd nearly always be no. It was a greesy all-you-can-eat buffet that I always felt icky afterwards.
If we're shopping from the Information Grocery Store, let's find good stores to buy from. Where can you get content? It all depends what you're interested in, but here's some of mine:
- There's many people online who spend time curating great finds online, such as Jason Kottke. Alexander Kruel curates links about Machine Learning, philosophy, and politics nearly every day. Tyler Cowen frequently sends out interesting links. Seek these people out. Find people who frequently curate and share content that you enjoy, and they do the heavy lifting for you. If the person has a blog, consider using an RSS reader such as Readwise Reader or Feedly.
- YouTube Subscriptions. We'll talk about YouTube later, but if you find a good channel, subscribe to it!
- Twitter accounts, shared links. For example, this search query will give you recent links people you follow shared (ranked by popularity). Better, filter this search by a Twitter list of your favorite accounts.
- Hacker News, Reddit, etc. See if you can beat "infinite feeds" by not using algorithmically ranked feeds. For example, I stay on top of tech news using hckr news, a site that orders posts that made the Hacker News front page by time (instead of popularity). There's a handy "top 20" button that ensures I only ever see the top 20 posts in a day. This is entirely reasonable to stay on top of, and I am never falling down content holes.
- Netflix recommendations, or whatever similar entertainment service you prefer. Pick stuff you'd like to watch in the future.
- Substacks and other email newsletters filled with great medium form content.
Think of processing information intake as gardening: you're setting your future self up for success. This doesn't have to be a chore; curating is fun and relaxing. The only commitment you should make to yourself is to not immediate consume whatever you're curating.
I literally never watch a YouTube recommended video. If a video is linked in the description of a video that I want to also watch, it goes into my playlist. If I see a video shared on Twitter, it goes on a list.
This also makes it easier to do a good job curating. For example, when I have a few minutes, I go to my YouTube Subscriptions and catch up to the last time I went to them — I usually have ~20 new videos per day in my Subscription feed, so it's easy to skim through them. I do not scroll an endless recommended list of videos. I also see what links people I like on Twitter posted in the past day, and queue up email newsletters to read later. Once a day, or so, I check what the top posts on Hacker News were (not are).
Whatever habits you develop here, you're choosing your defaults — where you genuinely enjoy to get content from. This doesn't mean all of your sources need to be educational. In fact, this is a false loop: a trap where interesting things feel more valuable, and it feels like we're getting something from being "interested". Entertainment is great, but you may find that when you're not stuck in a tight curate-consume loop, you make better decisions.
Curating for yourself
When you find something to consume later, queue it in a reasonable way. For example, YouTube has a Watch Later list that you can easily add videos to. Or perhaps you make a few different playlists for different types of content. Netflix also has a "My List". For articles, use a read-later service (I highly recommend Readwise Reader). Amazon has Wish Lists. You can even use open tabs in your browser. For each type of content, just pick a reasonable place to queue it. And don't worry about creating a never-ending read-later backlog — I'll address this shortly.
Words of caution: be punitive about pruning bad information sources. Remember you don't get the dopamine hits during curation. Be honest with yourself: is this what you want to be consuming? This is a great place to filter out all news, any sources of toxoplasma of rage, and anything else that is just not useful to you and your goals. Remember that it's easiest to cut out bad information intake at the source.
Consume what you curated
You now have several lists of things to consume. When you're seeking consumption, make your default to consume from your own curations first. When I want to watch YouTube, I immediately go to a playlist that I've already curated. In fact, this Chrome extension hides the homepage and all recommended feeds. Remove temptation! When I want to read, I go to Readwise Reader.
Then, pick something to consume. Usually, lists are often sorted by recency, which is a fairly reasonable sorting since recent things may be more relevant. Notice what's happened: you already curated this content once, already separated from the immediate dopamine loop. Now you get to pick again — is that article actually worth reading? is that video actually worth watching? This is a feature: all your consumption passed two rounds of deciding. This works better than you'd expect, and saves time because you watch less crap.
Doesn't this cause a stress-inducing ever-growing series of lists? Here's the trick: let that go, these aren't todo lists! They're literally your own curated feed of content to consume. It's okay if you only actually consume a quarter of it. When you consume something, clear it from your list. As you do this, old things will float away, though you may enjoy digging through old unconsumed items for things you missed.
Over time, something pretty magical will happen: you'll still have access to nearly infinite amounts of content to consume whenever you want to learn or be entertained, but it's all things that at one time you thought would be worthwhile. No more mindless scrolling.
And you'll be shocked by how much you later decide isn't worth consuming, which means you do get to consume the stuff you really like. You are no longer subject to an algorithmic feed to deliver valuable content.
- Pick good information sources when you have reserves of good judgement available. Be critical, prune regularly!
- Curate information into lists to consume later. No mindless scrolling to hunt for content to consume.
- Consume from your lists. These are not todo lists, don't worry about them growing long.