Tried and tested systems to regulate information intake

The internet is an amazing, potentially life-changing tool. From almost anywhere, you can be exposed to amazing ideas from all other the world. This gives us the potential to learn faster than ever before.

However, it can also be a massive time-sink. It is a bottomless pit of opportunities for procrastination. The most popular aspects of the internet hack into evolutionarily-derived cognitive mechanisms to grab our attention and keep it there. There is always more information on our Facebook feeds, Twitter or the news. Our brains crave this continuous stimulation, so we can easily become addicted.

Some procrastination is born with the best of intentions. An educational article or video may be genuinely beneficial, but its benefit is context-dependent — it’s not worth reading an article, no matter how great, if it eats into time available for on an important project. This form of ‘positive procrastination’ must also be managed.

To draw the most benefit from the internet with the least collateral consequences, it is necessary to use a system — this post outlines the systems I use and their rationale.

SHORT READING — into my Pocket

It’s a Thursday afternoon and I’m working on a project. I open Google Chrome to quickly check something for the project. I stumble across an article that looks interesting. I click on it and read the start.. damn, this IS interesting! My instinct is to keep on reading as my attention has been hooked. However, doing so would be costly for the project, as the cognitive switching back and forth is a drain on our cognitive apparatus.

Therefore, when I come across an interesting article or short story that I want to read, which is less than a 10 minute read, I use a great app called ‘Pocket’. I click on the ‘Save To Pocket’ Chrome Extension and the article is saved into my ‘Pocket’ and will automatically sync to my phone and computer.

The next time I have a free 5–10 minutes (waiting for a friend, while I cook, when on the toilet, etc), I will pull out my phone and look at the saved articles.

This also acts as a screening tool: an article may be less appealing when it’s not presenting an attractive alternative to a difficult task. Therefore, I will decide if it’s really worth reading.

It’s important that I check Pocket regularly (at least once a day) for this system to work effectively.

In short, the benefits are:

  • No disruption to work-flow
  • Reading interesting articles and short ideas that I stumble across, and only those that are truly interesting

LONGER READING — Kindling

The same principle follows for longer reading (anything from 10 mins to a book) but I have a different system. Rather than use pocket, I have the following schedule:

  1. Save a pdf/epub version of the longer article to my computer in a folder entitled ‘For Kindle’.
  2. Once a week (batched for maximum efficiency), copy all files from this folder onto my Kindle.
  3. Set daily periods when I read my Kindle, such as lunch time and before bed. (Again, doing so regularly is important for this system to work)

VIDEOS AND SHORTER AUDIO — YTD

Hours of my life have been spent on Youtube. For a long time, it has been my go-to site for procrastination. I have found it difficult to go cold turkey on in the way I have with other sites as there are so many useful videos that I need hosted on it.

My solution is similar. When I get distracted by a video that I really want to watch, I stop watching and save it for later using YouTube Downloader (YTD). It is automatically saved into a folder called ‘For phone’, which again I copy across to my phone once a week.

I will then listen to these short videos and audios in free moments, such as while driving, at the gym or while going for a walk. If the video was fantastic, I will save it on my phone. Anything less and I will delete it (it will still be on Youtube if I later decide I need it..).

AUDIOBOOKS — A phone platter

Audiobooks are an amazing way to increase rate of reading, which equals an increase in rate of learning. Every weekend (in the same weekly batch) I put 3 or 4 new audiobooks on my phone and take off those that I have listened to. During the week, when I have significant stretches of time (morning walk, at the gym, driving my car) I will listen to a chapter or two. Having multiple enables me to select those most worth listening to, so I will almost always have read at least one fantastic book that is applicable to my life by the following weekend.

Common principles

The key principles for all these systems are:

1. When you notice that you are at the risk of procrastination (even before you think ‘I am procrastinating’), immediately stop and enter the item into one of the systems, knowing that you will review it later. Having the system in place beforehand lowers the activation energy required to take the action. It provides peace of mind to know that you will still see/read/listen to it later, but on your own terms.

2. Incorporate the systems into your daily routine. It is necessary to have a specific time or situation in which you will access each form of information in order to ensure the information is consumed. If not, a lag will be created between saving the information and consuming it, which will make it less effective as an anti-procrastination tool as you mind will know if may not be read/watched for weeks.

This maximises rate of learning while minimising ‘positive’ procrastination, enabling you to learn more, in less time and with less frustration.

What do you tend to procrastinate on? What system could you create to capture this information for a later, scheduled period?

I have previously written specifically about benefiting from Facebook without the costs.