Fighting Infomania: Why 80% of Your Reading is a Waste of Time

By Nat Eliason in Productivity

I returned to college Junior Fall dissatisfied. I’d just finished a summer internship doing management consulting with a government contracting firm, and in the process, realized that working in a company wasn’t for me.

The original plan had been to leverage it into a better internship somewhere else, and eventually a full-time offer, but with how much I disliked the work I knew something had to change.

Then I hit a snag: I wanted to get into startups or lifestyle businesses, but how was I supposed to get there?

With most corporate work you can go the traditional route of school -> internship -> job, but skill-based jobs at smaller companies don’t have such a clear route. And this lack of a clear route is what stops many students from going after fun work.

Faced with not knowing the way forward, or where to begin with “starting a startup,” I began reading everything.

Over the next 6 months, I read 30+ books on entrepreneurship, startups, marketing, “growth hacking,” and everything tangentially related I could find. And that doesn’t include the countless blog posts, articles, reddit threads, and whatever else I could get my hands on.

A good plan, right? No, 80% of it was a waste of time, and most people make the same mistake with how they consume information every day.

Just in Time vs Just in Case

Toyota’s ability to kill it in the car market came from their (then) revolutionary manufacturing process: just in time manufacturing.

While Detroit and other car companies would pump out cars “just in case” they were purchased, Toyota would make them “just in time” for their orders. This saved them millions of dollars by minimizing unused inventory, and the cost savings allowed them to speed up their manufacturing process significantly with new technology.

What Toyota realized was that by creating cars just in time, they could move faster, respond to market changes quicker, and only make cars that they knew they needed.

You should approach tactical knowledge the same way.

Sidebar: There’s an important distinction here between tactical knowledge (e.g. how to do search engine optimization), and philosophical knowledge (e.g. understanding our tendency towards biased thinking). The first, tactical knowledge, is what we’re concerned with overdosing on.

The school model focuses on just in case knowledge. You take classes and study textbooks that cram knowledge into you hoping that one day you might find it useful. But that’s not how learning works in the real world.

Where We Make “Just In Case” Mistakes in the Real World

When I was working on marketing at SumoMe, I never followed any marketing blogs. I didn’t check my Feedly when I got to work, didn’t look on GrowthHackers or Inbound to see what was trending, and didn’t have any newsletters I was subscribed to.

Conventional wisdom says that you should follow what people in your industry are talking about tactics-wise, but it’s just noise. You should have the strategy and tactics that you’re working on, and then you should execute on them. Constantly listening to and checking what other people are doing doesn’t help you stay focused–it just makes you question yourself.

The exception to this is if you can find a site that publishes articles very infrequently but where they are very high quality (for example, Backlinko for SEO).

The Problem of Frequency

As a general rule, the more frequently a site publishes about tactics (marketing, personal finance, weight loss, etc.), the less you should listen to it.

No topic is sufficiently complex that you need new information on executing on it every day. Getting in shape requires doing a few very simple things every day for months, not finding a new 13 minute 6 step workout every day so you can have a butt like today’s hot celebrity.

That’s part of the reason I’ve deliberately avoided having a narrow theme to my writing. You don’t need an entire site on lasting longer in bed or water fasting, you just need one or a couple really good articles.

The Problem of Recency

Then, there’s the issue with new articles. We tend towards neomania: overly focusing on the new and shiny, when new and shiny things tend to be the quickest to go and the least likely to be valuable.

A safer bet is to see what content has stood the test of time, following the Lindy Rule. Anything that has been around for 50 years will probably be around for another 50 years, but something that’s been around a few days has no proof of staying power.

Will people be reading Aristotle in another 2,000 years? Probably. Will they be reading this week’s pop-business book in another 10 years? Probably not.

Why We Do It

There are three reasons why we feel compelled to constantly consume knowledge about things we’re working on, and I’ll explain the problems with each.

1. Habit

We carry that “just in case” habit with us from school, and feel like we’re not doing our job if we’re not front-loading knowledge.

But it should be clear the fault here now. Just because we were taught that way doesn’t mean it’s the best way, it’s simply the way things have always been done.

2. History

Prior to 20 years ago, you wanted to err on the side of just in case knowledge since getting new information was so difficult.

That’s not the case anymore. Anything you could possibly want to learn you could figure out the basics of in an afternoon with a WiFi connection. You don’t have to worry about front loading everything because you’ll hardly ever be in a situation where you can’t look up the answers.

3. Fauxductivity

Then there’s the fact that doing it makes us feel like we’re being productive when we’re really just slacking off, a phenomenon I’m going to call “Fauxductivity.”

Any time you’re doing something that feels productive but doesn’t directly impact your most important goal, you’re being fauxductive. That includes bingeing on just in case knowledge, as well as checking email, reading the news, trying productivity tools, organizing your desktop, etc.

1 Rule to Fight Infomania

Here’s your new rule for information, especially blogs and popular non-fiction books:

If it doesn’t answer a specific question you’re currently asking, cover philosophical knowledge, or entertain you, then don’t read it.

Unfollow the industry blogs, stop reading the newspaper, don’t go on site aggregators, quit it. It’s all fauxductivity and wasting your time with useless information that will only cause decision paralysis, self-doubt, and decreased confidence in your existing decisions.

When you have a specific question (e.g. how do I grow my Instagram following) that’s when you start digging through the blogs and industry material. But only until you have enough information to answer your question and formulate a plan. Don’t fill up your RSS with every social media and Instagram blog out there hoping you stumble on something else tomorrow.

If you can do this, you’ll spend significantly less time reading things that you never use, and you’ll get more information and mileage out of what you do read.

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