One Thing You Need to Learn to Fight Information Overload

Except information overload isn't the problem, good books don't guarantee good learning, and learning too much is a thing.

When people value their attention and energy, they become valuable.

The thing is, we can only do rare and valuable work when we pay attention to our attention. (Let’s call that paying meta-attention.)

Only when you pay meta-attention can you become more productive, more informed, make smarter decisions, and see the world differently. It’s literally a jumbo package, and it only requires knowing what information to pay attention to.

But that’s difficult now, right? The plague of context-free, garbage content not only makes good information a needle in a haystack, but also severs the link between information and insight.

To make things worse, when we find good content online, we stuff our faces with it, because we believe it means reading better. But is that really any different? Consuming too much also severs the link between information and insight because you’re leaving no space left to think!

You see, it’s not too much information that’s the problem; it’s consuming too much junk. When you finally filter out the junk, the problem becomes consuming too much — leading to a sort of mental indigestion. Both of the above happens because we are not deliberate about our attention. Put simply, the real problem isn’t information overload, but rather attention overload.

And since we’re talking about indigestion, we can say that the root cause of it is one of the three:

  1. You consumed too much junk

  2. You consumed too much

  3. Both of the above

To solve that, my assumption is that we should do three things:

  1. Manage what we pay attention to

  2. Manage how we pay attention

  3. Process them deeply

In other words, to solve information overload — or more appropriately, attention overload — we need to create a reading workflow. Based on out assumptions above and a bit of common sense, we can deduce three rules that will instantly stop this problem, increase the quality of what you consume, and ultimately, improve the quality of ideas you generate.

The first rule is you should not consume content just because it’s handed to you. Not even “personalized” news feeds care about your attention, unless you personalize them. But the more serious issue is that mass-producers of content don’t care one bit about your attention. They often only write for the money, rather than for your best interests.

I admit, I was guilty of writing for money in the past. I even started this blog just to make money. But I’ve outgrown that kind of madness. (I’m making this guide to somehow make up for it.)

The second rule is you should not read passively, because you’re going to read anyway. If you want to become better at learning, you have to become better at reading first.

The third rule is you should always make what you read your own. That happens by deeply processing what you read, not by accumulating the number of books you’ve finished.

“Al, you ramble a lot, just give me the solution!”

Here’s a short version of it: Create a reading workflow. Three parts make it up:

  1. The Reading Funnel

    • The Inbox. Creating a reading inbox ensures that you only read a proportion of “love-at-first-sight” content. It’s also the easiest way to become more deliberate at reading, rather than just reading what’s in front of you already. You can do this using Web Clippers and your note-taking app of choice. I use Notion for this.

    • The Filters. Of course, simply creating a buffer isn’t enough. You still have to discern good content quickly and tell what’s really worth paying attention to. The best criteria is if the information will be useful for a long time. The others are heuristics, so they’re expected to be imperfect, but the longer and the more difficult the piece is, the more likely it’s good; it takes mastery to create such a piece, after all.

  2. Reading itself. Reading is also a skill we always do, but don’t pay attention to. (Woah, that’s against the Improveism philosophy!) As Mortimer Adler says, only when the writer’s and the reader’s skill converge can you have successful communication. By learning how to read better, you’re able to learn better (and with more difficult books, too) and understand better. That opens more doors for learning.

  3. Processing the takeaways. In a way, good information is like vegetables — they feel crappy to consume sometimes, but they’re actually good for you. However, no matter how good brain food is, if you don’t digest it, you’re bound to information overload. One way I digest what I learn is by using Anki. But lately, since I also mostly write content, I only work on my Zettelkasten.

(All of my workflows are similar to the Getting Things Done productivity system, but this one is just applied to reading.)

Anyway, if you want the extended version, you can click here to read more.

Otherwise, thanks for reading all the way down here!

Have a great day ahead!

P.S. Regarding the Zettelkasten, I’m currently processing what I know on the Zettelkasten method (that’s so meta, I know—like, two times meta) of note taking, but I left the link above if you want to take a look at it. Anyway, I’m trying my best to explain it in simpler words and with more analogies so you can grasp them better. To put it in perspective, I spent almost 2 weeks learning the basics of this method alone. But it’s totally worth it, I’d say.