Combatting Information Overflow: Books

Movies and documentaries about drug problems are common these days. They seek to create awareness for the afflicted, and rightfully so. It can be hard to make an empathic connection though: as the junkie goes for his next shot, you can’t help but wonder if he or she doesn’t realize what he’s doing.
Yet all of us have many negative patterns (and arguably addictions) that we often ignore.
Here’s a big drug for me: information. I frickin’ luuuv consuming information. Reddit, Twitter, Youtube, podcasts,… I take in a huge amount of them every day. An ongoing project for me is to limit this intake to what is actually useful and what I can retain -lest it become an actual addiction.

And today I want to talk about the information overload from an almost universally exalted source: books.

Old books

From childhood we are taught that reading books is a uniquely honorable activity: it develops our vocabulary, expands our world, can make us inhabit the experiences of others, and helps us learn from those who came before came before you. And who could disagree?
But still: think of a book you finished about 6 months ago. How much of it do you remember? What were your main learning points? Can you recall the main experiments and lines of argumentation? If your answer to these questions is a muffled silence, then your effort of reading all those pages (150 up to God knows what) seems to have yielded a paltry reward. That’s not to say that momentary recollection is everything; certainly some memes got stuck into your mind and will emerge once prompted. At the very least though, it seems you’re not getting as much out of your reading time as you could.

I should state upfront that this isn’t all that applicable to people who only read recreationally or therapeutically. If you mainly read romantic novels in order to relax and feel good, then OK, you’re probably not that interested in abilities of recall and reproducibility.
For me that doesn’t really apply. There are many things I enjoy much more than reading, and have greater recreational value to me. So when I choose to read, I’m looking for some intellectual value as well. And if you stumbled upon this blog, I’m going to assume you’re a bit of a productivity junkie, and that you do have some larger purpose behind a large chunk of your reading activity.

Reading versus Retention

When reading to learn and develop yourself, your reading goals should really be measured in terms of their impact on your life (whether mental or practical).
Ultimately we would prefer not to read copious amounts of increasingly obscure tomes, but rather read less and try to apply more learning points to our lives.
In this sense, I see three broad stages of lasting impact that a book can have:

Familiarity – this is the lowest form of lasting impact. It basically means that you remember having read about a topic, and would recognize the ideas if you saw them again, but you haven’t assimilated the points in any meaninful way.

For instance: several years ago I read Friedman’s “The World is Flat” as a task in a university course. I remember it as a great book, and remember the main topics of  globalization and outsourcing. I also vaguely recall some arguments related to the virtues of globalization in general, how terrorism takes hold among the malcontents in the world order… that’s about it.

If I read again about globalisation, I’ll surely remember reading similar sentences in Friedman (and I may feel comfortable discussing the topic in public), but the ideas haven’t permeated into my working memory. For a 450-page book, that’s really a pity.

Assimilation – this is when you have liked and studied a book to such an extent, that its learning points become part of your mental repertoire. You’re able to recall and use specific arguments, and overall its ideas are with you on a continuous basis.

For many people, their favorite novels and political treatises are on this level. People identify that these books “changed my beliefs” and see them as a cornerstone in their thought.

Application – The highest form of impact a book can have on you. If it’s a practical book, it means you really take time to apply each element to your life. If it’s a philosophical book, you research and check its ideas, and outline how it fits into the rest of your thoughts.

I’m in this stage now with Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done. During my consumption of it I continuously made notes and drafted notes, and afterwards I used my outcomes to fully remodel my workflow. The effort of reading repays itself daily.
(Not all favorite books get to this stage. There are many old books that I really liked and whose precepts I believe, but I’ve not gone through the effort of extracting specific actions or learning points.)

brain-on-books

Getting More out of your Reading

When preventing an informationoverflow of books, the name of the game is trying to get more books from mere familiarity to assimiliation -and ideally application.

I’m playing around with a few ideas to consistently do this.

1) One daily ‘application’

You need coffee break conversation topics every day anyway, so why not try to bring an idea from the book you’re reading, into daily conversation. This hugely helps retention and gets your brain more engaged in making the idea part of your mental network.

If you’re reading a more practical book, the application doesn’t have to be strictly conversational. For instance, a salesman can strive to use a small element of the marketing book he’s reading, or the manager can test a subtle leadership tip. And voila, application has started.

2) Creating summaries

Plenty of research now shows that even a single act of repetition after learning, has a significant effect on the extent to which information anchors itself into our subconscious.

The easiest way to do this is by creating a short summary for every book you read.
And this can be done incrementally: as I read my books before going to bed, I try to summarize what I read the next morning. The first instance of recollection hopefully encourages future ones.

And a summary doesn’t go to waste:

3) Scheduled Reflection

Perhaps those with eidetic memory are fine with a single reading session, but for us mere mortals, I’m convinced that repeating previously learned information is what makes or breaks retention.

My current plan is to review all my book summaries within a timespace of 6 months.
Doing a single revision per day isn’t much work, and this habit will scale all the way up to 180 books per halfyear (or about 6 years of reading at my current pace). At that point I hope to find something else 🙂

To faciliate this I’m testing an app called Reflect, which was originally designed as a flashcard learning app. However, you can also configure it to ask you to review x amount of notes every week or month.


Let me know if this works for you, or if you have any better system!

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