Imagine you’re an international spy. Like James Bond, only cooler.
You’re on an important mission and you’re making your way through the crowds of a big city. Suddenly, you notice a stranger following you. But just to be sure, you make a few turns. Left into an alley. Right onto the main street. Stop to tie your shoe. Yup, someone is definitely following your every move.
This is not good. You can’t complete your mission with enemies on your tail. You need to ditch them and do it quickly, because you don’t have a second to waste.
Now, a question for you: How would you do that?
You might think to run and put some distance between you and the enemy. Maybe run into a building a hide until they pass you by. But these are not good solutions because as soon as you come out of hiding, you will be spotted again.
The solution to this conundrum is actually quite simple. Instead of thinking of elaborate escape plans, the only thing you need to do is exploit something known as selective attention. It’s a cognitive bias all humans have: when you focus on something specific, you lose focus of everything else.
Think about it. If somebody is following you, how can they spot you in the middle of a crowd? By creating a simplified version of you to focus on. They’re looking for “a tall man with a baseball cap and a black jacket” or “a blonde woman in a pink dress”. They scan the crowd for this simplified criteria and ignore everybody else.
As I often like to say on this blog, “it’s just how your brain works and you can’t change it”. What you can do is use this knowledge to improve other areas of your life.
The First World Problem of Knowing Too Much
About a hundred years ago, the problem most people had was getting access to information. Nowadays, we have the opposite problem. We have access to too much information. And most of us have no idea what to do with it.
I mean, just take a look at how many options you have to consume content:
- News (TV, radio, the Internet)
- Social Media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)
- Blogs (articles, posts, listicles, op-eds)
- Books (physical, digital, audio)
- Video streaming (YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, etc.)
- Audio (podcasts, audiobooks, interviews)
- Courses (Coursera, Khan Academy, etc.)
- Dedicated websites for niche content
- + Many more than I’m forgetting
Yet despite all of this, what is the one message we keep hearing?
“IT IS NOT ENOUGH!”
You need to watch another video. Listen to another episode. Stream another show. Subscribe to a new website. Read another article.
And you do it. Time and time again.
But do you notice something interesting?
Despite consuming more content, you aren’t getting any real value from it. I mean, sure, you learn some cool facts to throw around, but as far as real, long-term, and applicable knowledge goes, you might as well be watching Family Guy.
The only thing you’re becoming better at is consuming more content.
You procrastinate by watching videos on beating procrastination. You spend your energy googling random facts you will never use. You stream endless videos and podcasts under the guise of learning. Yet, if I ask you to summarize what you actually learned last week, you would probably throw some smoke pellets to create a diversion, then disappear into the night like Batman.
So what’s my point?
My point is that like it or not, all of us have selective attention. When you focus on one thing, everything else becomes less important. And if you choose to divide your attention between 7 blogs, 3 podcasts, 50 YouTube channels, 6 social media networks, and all the hottest shows on Netflix, the information you consume never leaves your short-term memory. You “learn” a lot, but remember very little.
To amend this, I’ve constructed a plan to get the most out of your limited attention.
How to Learn More By Consuming Less
In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown talks about how the idea that “you can have it all and do it all” is a myth. It cannot be done. And people who pursue it often end up miserable because they are making “a millimeter of progress in a million directions”. Near the beginning of the book, he says: “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will”.
And you know what? He’s right.
I’m the prime example of what happens when you want to learn everything at once: you end up knowing a little bit about everything. At first glance, this sounds cool… until you realize that doing anything worthwhile requires you to know more than “just a little bit”.
In my grandiose scheme to know everything, my bad approach led me to become nothing more than the “fun fact” guy.
Now, of course, this is not completely true. There are fields, like psychology, where I know a lot more than most people and can actually use that knowledge to write articles like these. And that’s exactly my point — that knowledge came through a lot of dedicated learning and practicing. It didn’t come from watching videos or listening to podcasts. It came from good ol’-fashioned studying.
As Greg McKeown would say, it’s much better to make a millimeter progress in the same direction.
By focusing most of your energy on things that actually matter to you, you will propel yourself forward much faster. Then, if you choose to, you can always do the same thing for other fields. For example, if I spend six months learning about Field A in-depth, I can spend the following six months on learning Field B in-depth. This way, I will be knowledgable in both of these fields and have information I can recall easily and use in my life.
On the other hand, if I spend a year learning about Fields A, B, C, D, E, F and G simultaneously, I will be mediocre at all of them and will forget 90% of the information I consumed.
Don’t get me wrong, having diverse interests is great. Learning about multiple subjects is great. But if you want to become knowledgable, you need to focus on one thing at a time.
Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work, differentiated two types of work you can do: “deep work” and “shallow work”.
Deep work requires immense focus to be done right, without distractions. This includes problem-solving, practicing a skill, and yes, learning new things.
Shallow work is everything else. These are tasks that don’t require so dedicated focus. They include everything from doing the dishes and checking social media to answering emails and attending meetings.
The healthy balance consists of both deep and shallow work, used in the right intervals. Below is a plan for how you can implement this balance in your own life.
Creating Your Life Balance System: Deep Work vs Shallow Work
As I already mentioned, both deep and shallow work are important. It’s about finding the right balance based on your own goals and interests.
I’ve broken the process of finding this balance into three steps.
1. Determining deep work to be done
It’s been long known that multitasking Is a myth. While it is possible to interact with multiple things at once, your attention is splattered across the map. None of the things you do get your full attention, resulting in mediocre results.
Deep work is all about focusing on ONE thing: spending an hour, or several hours, deeply engaged with whatever you’re doing. You block out all distractions that might eat away at your focus. This produces maximum results and actually saves time, as you complete the task faster than if your attention was all over the place.
So how does that apply to learning and consuming better content?
Deep work solution: Read books.
You see, books are great. There’s a reason people still read books even though they have access to faster forms of getting information. Books are a great format because deep work is not about getting more things done faster, but getting the right things done in the best possible way.
It’s been said that reading a book is like borrowing someone else’s brain for a while: learning what they know, seeing what they experienced, and understanding what they believe. And it’s true. I’m sure you’ve gotten deeply engaged with a good book at least once in your life.
What makes books a great source for deep work learning is:
- Quality: Whatever the topic, books cover it in greater depth that any article or a post. You can make the case that “articles can be good and books can be bad”, but when you compare “good article vs good book”, books win every time. Hell, even in “bad article vs bad book” situation, books come out on top.
- Interactivity: Books require more of your time and energy that other mediums, but that’s a good thing. This is deep work we’re talking about, remember? Reading something yourself requires you to engage with the content: to visualize, interpret, and analyze. The more engaged you are with the content, the more benefit you get from it. And when you start taking notes, the value gets even greater.
- Knowledge: Books allow you to learn new ideas and expand your mind. By forcing you to be present in the moment, author’s thoughts and ideas will affect you as you consume them. Even a bad book can help you think in a new way and develop better arguments for your own beliefs.
The same criteria can be applied to any good source of learning. Courses are another example. Any course that combines quality, interactivity, and knowledge will be a good way to learn things the right way.
Audiobooks, on the other hand, are a bad substitute. Even though they offer the same information, their main benefit is their greatest disadvantage. You will listen to them in situations where your focus is divided (doing the dishes, at the gym, driving). I don’t think anybody will choose to sit down and do nothing else but intensely listen to an audiobook. Because of this, you are not interacting with the content, you are just a passive consumer of it.
While audio content has many benefits (will be discussed in a moment), it is usually not a good option for deep work learning.
2. Limiting the temptations of shallow work
For this step, I am going to use principles from James Clear’s amazing book Atomic Habits. The basic idea behind how our habits form is that you need to make good habits easy and bad habits hard to complete.
The more friction between you and the activity, the less likely you are to perform it.
As James Clear says: “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” So in order to increase friction between me and activities I wanted to do less, here are the system I set up for myself.
- Asking for advice less: When I am facing a dilemma, no matter how big or small, I often ask friends for advice, google solutions, explore reddit, watch videos… I lose myself down the rabbit hole for no good reason. To prevent this, I installed a reddit-blocker on my computer and archived conversations with friends in WhatsApp/Messenger. I also made it a habit to make decisions as quickly and as often as I can (e.g. whenever I watch a YouTube video, I must rate it).
- Prevent YouTube binges: To stop myself from getting lost in endless videos, I created a new account and cut down my subscriptions from about 150 to about six channels. I also use a plugin to block my feed, so I don’t get distracted with “popular” or “recommended” videos. I either check my limited subscriptions or know exactly what I want to watch. No more random browsing.
- Deleting saved articles: There is a great app called Pocket. Easily one of my top five most useful apps. It allows you to save any link with just one click. Articles, videos, websites, one click and it’s saved and tagged. The problem is, I save too many things. At one point, I had about 500 (!) links I never checked again. It was insane. So I went through and manually archived everything except the last ten links (took me several days). Every week, I go through my account and remove anything I have not read. If I want to save a link for reference, I archive it instead.
- Reducing negativity of social media: I reduced the number of people/pages I follow to a bare minimum (usually around 20). I either unfriend or unfollow negative people and make sure that my feed is either empty or boring. This prevents me from endlessly scrolling whenever I open the app. A few times in the past, I also disabled my social media for up to a year (will talk about the benefits of this in another article).
- No news of any kind: This topic is getting more popular lately, but I’ve had this policy for a long time. I don’t watch TV, listen to radio, or follow any news outlets. And guess what? I have never missed anything important that’s going on in the world. For more information on the benefits of the no-news diet, check out the Low-Information Diet by Tim Ferriss and Why You Should Quit the News by Mark Manson. (He also talked about similar concepts in The Attention Diet.)
- Inbox zero: I’ve had inbox zero for several years now. The way I got there was that I archived every single email I had in my inbox. Simple as that. When a new email comes, I resolve it as soon as possible (respond, archive, delete or mark as spam). All of my emails are archived, not deleted, so I can easily search for any email I might need. But my inbox always stays clean and distraction-free.
- TV shows and movies: If I’m being honest, this is my biggest struggle. I simply love watching movies and shows. It’s one of my favorite activities, which makes it the hardest to control. So this is what I did: I pre-selected a few shows I already watched, that also have sitcom-length episodes (about 20 min per episode). This is the only thing I can watch during the day, so I don’t get the urge to binge because of “What happens next?” I am also forbidden from watching two episodes in a row.
- Play less video games: I was never a big gamer, but I have been known to use video games as a way of avoiding doing meaningful work. Since I usually play on my desktop PC, I decided to hide my peripherals. I disconnected my monitor and put it in the closet, put the wires in another place, the mouse and keyboard in a third place. I also deleted all games from the computer. When I think about finding all the parts, connecting them, and waiting hours to download a game, my will to play usually passes.
Now, having these systems won’t magically make you stick to them. You can always choose to open blocked websites in incognito mode or watch a show you’re not supposed to watch. But the harder you make those steps, the easier it will be to follow your original plan.
Finally, this brings me to the third and final step.
3. Choosing which shallow work you will allow (and when)
In The Shining, Jack Nicholson was working so much that he went completely berserk. In his own words: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
Having systems in place is necessary if you want to get meaningful things done. But you also need system for letting lose once in a while. (Or you will go crazy.)
This may sound counterintuitive: how can you have a predefined system for having fun? The problem isn’t with having fun, it’s that unless you have a system to limit fun activities, you will have fun all day and never get anything done. Bye bye, deep work.
That being said, here are some ways I keep myself “normal”:
- Leisure time is allowed after finishing deep work. If I finish the most important things for the day, I can spend my free time however I want, whether it’s going out for drinks with friends, watching a new show on Netflix, or playing video games.
- Blogs and audio formats are still allowed, but limited. The irony that this is an article telling you to read less articles is not lost on me. After all, I do still read blogs and articles myself. The format itself is not inherently bad. The key here is that I don’t see them as learning, but simply exposing myself to new ideas. I have limited myself to only a few bloggers and podcasters that produce quality content. So if I’m waiting at the doctor’s office or doing the dishes, I will have no problem reading a saved article or listening to a podcast. After all, I’m not wasting time, just sprucing up the time I’m already using.
- I still ask for advice, but in specific situations. I made it a goal not to ask anybody for advice unless I have to. When I do, I am not going to get everybody’s opinion on the subject, but ask only a few people whose opinion I trust on this particular subject. When I hear what they have to say, I consider all inputs, make the decision myself, and move on.
This is how I have set up my own personal systems. I would love to see how you will apply this to your own life, so feel free to send me a message.
One last note before I go. It’s no secret that, since I’m a blogger, it’s in my interest that you read more of my articles. After all, I do my best to make sure they are very useful for you. However, if you’re just reading a bunch of my articles without implementing any of the advice, I urge you to limit the consumption. It’s better to read only one article a week and use that information than it is to use reading my site as a way of avoiding getting things done.
Also… if you remember the spy story from the beginning, you may be wondering what is the best way to lose an enemy tail. Don’t worry, I didn’t forget.
If you’re an international spy and want to lose your tail, you simply need to become somebody they wouldn’t notice from a quick scan. Take off the hat, lose the jacket, change your hair. When they notice you’ve gone, they’ll keep looking for you — or, at least, somebody matching your description.
The same is true for your media consumption. If you don’t create a system for doing meaningful work, your attention will always be splattered in a million different directions. While you’ll be looking for successful people in a crowd, they will have already completed their mission and disappeared without a trace.
And you’ll be left behind, scratching your head, wondering how they did it.
Feeling overwhelmed? If you feel like your digital life is getting out of control, check out the book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.