Escape from information overload and just read what you want to. It works

February 15, 2008 by Jared Goralnick

At the end of this I list specific tips for escaping from information overload, but first I address why and how I’ve chosen what I personally read.

For the last few years I was in two book clubs, before that I ran my own, and my yearly resolutions have usually had a “read more” clause. Not this year. I still love reading, but I’ve decided that it must be either a pleasant escape or practical for work. Cutting back has been tough for me, because I enjoy the newspaper, classic fiction, contemporary nonfiction, philosophy… I could read for days and days . But I’ve canceled my Washington Post subscription, I’m focusing on the authors I enjoy most, and constantly trimming my RSS.

One of the reasons why I’m so into “productivity” is because I usually feel I have too much to do. There’s nothing more daunting than a pile of unread books and periodicals that grows ever larger. So I’ve cut back on my inputs and focused on leaving time for reading things I truly enjoy. Never letting too much material get in front of me in the first place has been the key.

For fiction I’m trying to make it through all the Milan Kundera, Alain de Botton, Haruki Murakami, and Mark Helprin (with only occasional speckles of Fitzgerald and Tolstoy) before I venture too far off. They all appeal to the same thing in me–brilliant prose, powerful narrative, different perspective, somewhat educational, usually only somewhat heavy. While I might enjoy Nabokov or Joyce, they’re just not a pleasant enough read for me anymore. And I’m trying to lay low on the nonfiction, since I haven’t figured out the magic formula yet (though these are some of the most worthwhile reads, imnsho).

All the links in the last paragraph may not seem in the same spirit as my advice. But the point for me isn’t to stop reading, it’s to be wiser about it. Dieting isn’t being hungry all the time, it means being conscious of what you consume.

Here are some specific tactics:

  • When a book sounds really good, don’t just buy it–consider what else you have to read. Add it to your Amazon Wish List first
  • When a book isn’t that good, put it down and move on. (Accept the book as a sunk cost)
  • Try another book by a favorite author (and check the reviews) before taking a friend’s recommendation
  • (Similar thought to the last one:) a movie may be hit-or-miss and last 2 hours…but a book is a heck of a time commitment; be discriminate
  • Ditch the subscriptions to magazines you don’t absolutely need
  • Try out or subscribe to Brijit [via 4HWW]– a 100-word summary of articles from major periodicals like the Times, Journal, Wired, The Economist, etc. Just be sure to stop after reading their summaries
  • With newspaper articles, just read the first few paragraphs. If you must continue, read the first and last sentences of paragraphs thereafter. Good news writers use the inverted pyramid
  • Trim your RSS feeds every month

Much of the advice in this article was inspired by Tim Ferriss‘ concept of the information diet. One of his guest bloggers, Zen Habits, also had a great post on the elimination of email inputs that’s along the same vein.

Any other tips for slashing inputs from your life?

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8 Responses to “Escape from information overload and just read what you want to. It works”

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  1. Brick Andrews

    “When a book isn’t that good, put it down and move on.” This is excellent advice, and up until now, has been the hardest thing for me to do. In the past I found it hard to put a book down that I really wasn’t enjoying because I had usually made some kind of investment in it (e.g. monetary – I bought the book, social – everybody who is anybody recommends the book, or time – I already read half the thing before I decided it was not that great). But you are so right, it is a sunk cost. Be honest with yourself and if you don’t like the book for any reason stop wasting time on it!

    I also want to add a tactic to your list: don’t be afraid of going to the local library if your local library is any good. You can borrow the book and start reading it before deciding if you need to buy it or even continue reading it. If it is truly that great a book, you will be done with it before it is due back anyway!

  2. Jared Goralnick

    Great tip, Brick! Ever since Amazon Prime I haven’t really made it to the library…but shame on me! Though the reason I do want to mention it is that the most expensive part of a reading book is definitely the reader’s time. To that end, Amazon Prime (and similar online shopping) has helped me to cut out traffic from my day.

    I continue to enjoy your blog, too, Brick!

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