This post is the tactical companion to a forthcoming post on how and why I consume so much information. There are several higher order principles that I think are very important for making lifelong learning a consistent part of my life. There are also lots of misconceptions that I see about how to learn, how to choose what to read and listen to, and how to retain it. And, there are a lot of people thinking they’re learning by multi-tasking, but they’re really just doing a bad job at everything they’re doing. But, this is not the place for these kinds of discussions. This is the place for the nitty gritty details.
Even though I know people will just randomly copy some of the ideas in here and apply them without thinking about how they will work for their own specific schedule, habits, and preferred methods of learning – please don’t do that. Use this as a tangible example to build your own systems and methods for your own learning.
There’s three things that I’m trying to accomplish when thinking about how to filter information:
1. Keep track of all of the interesting stuff that I want to someday read, watch, or listen to.
2. Prioritize the things that will help me the most at a given time – or will provide me with the type of entertainment or challenge that I’m looking for (without getting lost in the overwhelming totality of everything I’ve catalogued).
3. Read, watch, or listen to the content that I’ve chosen in a way that maximizes efficiency and minimizes distraction without compromising comprehension, retention, or entertainment.
My systems are also quite complicated and they involve a lot more pieces of software than may seem appropriate or necessary.
This set of behaviors was not built top down as a crazy network of apps and protocols. Rather, it is emergent from constantly trying to reduce friction and increase efficiency, and it is built on habits that I have already developed and refined.
I also like being able to “separate” certain types of content and tasks. There’s an interesting balance to be found between having one inbox for everything, and fighting for separation between different areas of focus and priority. You don’t want to have random assortment of scraps of paper, e-mails, to-do lists, and stacks of mail all over the place, nor do you want to have to filter through everything on your list every time you need to find something.
So, with that disclaimer, here’s how I consume an unreasonable amount of information content and actually remember it.
One of the best investments that I’ve made is an iPad mini and Bluetooth headphones. This allows me to listen to my weird sped up content without triggering everyone around me.
I also love using the iPad instead of my phone for reading and listening since it’s much harder for me to get distracted on the iPad. I have my work e-mail and text messages disabled on the iPad and notifications are turned off for everything. I also don’t have social media apps or – if I do – they stay logged off unless I’m using them for a specific purpose.
I think a lot of people imagine that they’re using their smartphone to read the news, check articles, and watch interesting videos – but they’re really just flipping back and forth between whatever they think they’re doing and their social media, e-mail, and text messages.
Here’s how this works.
I use Overcast at ~1.85x speed with “Smart Speed” enabled
I strongly prefer Overcast to other podcast players since it allows a sliding scale speed option as well as a little button called “smart speed” that shortens silences.
To a lot of normal people, listening at 1.85x speed is an insane thing to do and it sounds horrible and awful. For me, however, I can follow most speakers at this speed without losing comprehension.
At this point, listening to podcasts at normal speed makes me antsy and impatient – and it reminds me of being really bored and upset in high school, which probably says something about my personality, my character, and my fundamental disposition.
I listen to podcasts while commuting, doing chores or doing easy exercise – but never attempt to “multi-task” while doing anything cognitively demanding.
I think the fact that multi-tasking is really switch-tasking is well-known by now, but people don’t behave as if it is. This article seems to convey the gist of it pretty well. Quit trying to multi-task. It just makes you bad at everything.
I only subscribe to a subset of podcasts that are consistently interesting, entertaining, or educational.
I keep up with these as they arrive. I check everything else on a monthly basis (the first week of the month for me).
Overcast allows you to have podcasts “saved” in your list that you are not actually subscribed to, so I simply scroll through, look at their feeds, and download any episodes that I want to hear. It usually takes me about two weeks to listen to all of the “non-subscribed” podcasts that I download on a monthly basis.
Most of what I listen to is centered on – surprisingly – fitness and business.
I categorize the podcasts I listen to into two categories:
Those that I subscribe to and those that I check on a monthly basis.
By only subscribing to a smaller subset of podcasts, I can avoid recency bias and letting my podcasts app get cluttered (although that still often happens). I can prioritize the new stuff from content creators who I hold in extra high regard, and sort through everything else on my own timeline.
I have a pretty high bar for podcasts that I subscribe to. I only subscribe to things that I feel like I will learn from every episode.
An example here would be something like “Mastering Nutrition” with Chris Masterjohn, since I feel like almost every episode is over my head (in a good way) and I’m always struggling to keep up with the biochemistry.
Or, something like “EconTalk” with Russ Roberts since he consistently has interesting guests and regularly challenges my intuitions with his libertarian leanings. And, he spends a lot of time talking about complex emergent phenomena, creating incentives for specific types of behavior, and understanding the unintended consequences of incentive structures.
Or, “This American Life” since my logical, systematic brain needs all the help it can get with narrative structure and connecting emotionally to an audience. These folks are some of the best of all time in that capacity (and the stories are really, really nice and I regularly learn new things, laugh, or become emotional).
The podcasts that I check monthly often have interesting content, but are either released so frequently that I am not interested in trying to keep up, they have a host who is kind of annoying, or they’re produced in a way that uses so many fast edits and narrative tricks that I become upset and triggered while listening to them.
An obvious example here would be something like Joe Rogan’s podcast. Joe is insanely prolific and his podcasts can either be very interesting or totally lame unstructured ramblings. Sometimes he interviews people who I really want to hear from like Robert Sapolsky. Or Pauly Shore. Other times, he has people on who have a lot of opinions about MMA or want to ramble about conspiracy theories. I don’t care about that stuff.
My Audible subscription delivers my credit on the third week of the month.
I wish Audible had a sliding scale for speed, but most audiobooks are narrated so slowly that 2x speed is about right for most narrators. I select my audiobook based upon current challenges that I’m working through (learning how to manage people at South Loop Strength & Conditioning has had me listening to a lot of books focusing on that problem: “Work Rules!” by Laszlo Bock has been particularly helpful) or based upon strong recommendations from people I trust (“The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt was a real mind-blower on the roots of conservative vs liberal moral thinking, for example).
Scroll down a bit to the section on “Bookmarks” to see how I save and categorize things that I want to read.
I bookmark and categorize interesting video lectures in Pinboard when I come across them.
Once per month (the fourth week of the month for me), I rip about 10 of those videos to audio using 4k Video Downloader, and I upload them to Overcast using the paid “Uploads” feature.
I also use the app Overdrive to rent audiobooks from the public library.
Chicago Public Library has some pretty good stuff available, although that’s more of a “browse and see what’s available” type of situation rather than looking for a specific book since the selection is somewhat limited.
Here’s how this works:
I prefer tagging for bookmarks rather than folders so that I can make connections between different content, so I use Pinboard.
Given that I’ve been focusing on learning about “management,” I want to be able to click my “management” tag and see books, videos, and articles that I’ve saved to read on this topic – rather than navigating a folder tree that inevitably becomes disorganized and messy.
I will use Google Chrome on my mobile devices as a repository for “things to look up.”
Since I listen to so much audio content, I will pull up a browser tab with something that I want to investigate further or the Amazon page for a book I want to read. Since Google Chrome allows you to sync open tabs across devices, I will pull open all of the browser tabs on my laptop (theoretically) once per week and either bookmark or read the things I’ve collected.
Once you have more than 99 tabs open in Chrome, the tab counter turns into a smiley face to let you know that you’re an idiot loser and everyone is laughing at you.
I use the app SimplePin to save and categorize bookmarks on mobile.
This has an integration that allows you to send things from other apps to Pinboard on mobile. So yes, I’m the freak who will send things from Instapaper to Pinboard, and I recognize this is ridiculous.
I save most articles to Instapaper rather than reading them in the browser.
I don’t like the distractions, advertisements, and clickbait on most websites, and I also like to separate “reading” time from “content sorting” time.
Instapaper conveniently has bookmarklets that allow you to save things while using a mobile browser as well.
Here’s how this works:
If a video is of a lecture that doesn’t require slides, I prefer to rip the audio and listen in Overcast.
See above in the podcasts section. I don’t sit still well.
If a video is on YouTube, I will often use the built-in YouTube speed controls to speed it up.
If the video is longer or not hosted on YouTube, I have an app called MySpeed that allows me to increase the speed of most embedded videos (although this no longer works in Google Chrome).
I have a Chrome browser extension called Options from Smart People on Ice that allows you to disable and hide a lot of the clutter on the YouTube page (like related videos, comments, etc.).
While this related content can occasionally be helpful, it usually just results in distraction.
I am always aware that the incentives of services that are supported by ads are not necessarily in alignment with my goals – they want to keep me on their site so they can learn about my customer behavior and display appropriately targeted advertisements to me.
I don’t have a problem being advertised to, but I do want to prioritize my own learning over being distracted by psychological hacks.
I will add videos that I want to watch as entertainment (rather than learning) to a YouTube playlist and watch them on Apple TV during the rare times that I “watch a show” so to speak.
An example would be the pre-Monty Python “At Last the 1948 Show” which was both satisfyingly silly, and a really interesting fossil record in the development of transcendent comedic talent.
I rarely watch video on my iPad, but, if I do, I will often use an app called Speedeo to increase playback speed since the video speed controls that work in a desktop browser don’t work in mobile.
I will sometimes watch lectures while doing easy aerobic work on an Assault Bike.
I save movies that I want to watch to my Netflix DVD queue or to Pinboard.
I wish I had more bandwidth for and interest in films, but my behavior indicates that this is simply not much of a priority for me.
Here’s how this works:
I prefer to save articles to Instapaper rather than reading them as they come up.
I (theoretically) keep my Instapaper pretty clean, so I don’t do much sorting of the articles I have saved. If I did, I would prefer tagging over folders and would potentially seek out a different service. I prefer keeping my bookmarks (Pinboard) separate from my “articles to-read” (Instapaper).
I save PDFs to a folder called “To Read” in my Dropbox.
These are typically scientific papers and “lead magnets” from various websites. PDFs are tricky, since most ways of reading them are clunky and don’t allow you to save your spot. The Adobe Acrobat app works quite well for this. I will import the PDF that I want to read into the Acrobat app from my Dropbox folder and save it locally on my iPad.
I use Netvibes for my RSS feed.
RSS seems to be disappearing, but I have always loved it. I’m still saddened by the demise of Google Reader.
I have a separate inbox for e-mail newsletters and blogs that I like, since mixing that in with work and personal e-mail creates clutter.
I prefer to read these newsletters on my iPad like I would any other articles.
I use Google Inbox, and I have some newsletters automatically go into a “Low Priority” folder that I check once per week, while I allow the ones from people who I want to read regularly (Ramit Sethi, Seth Godin, Bryan Harris, etc.) to show up “unfoldered” so to speak.
Here’s how this works:
I have hundreds and hundreds of books bookmarked in Pinboard.
They are all categorized under the “books” tag and include other tags like “management,” “biography,” “economics,” etc. that allow me to filter them by topic when choosing my next book to read.
Just as with audiobooks, I choose my next read based upon whatever problems I am currently prioritizing as well as salient recommendations from people who I trust.
I think of books as being either “mentally challenging” or “easy reads.”
I will usually be reading two or three books at once – ideally at least one that is “mentally challenging” and one that is an “easy read.” I will read the “mentally challenging” books in the morning, and the “easy reads” in the evening.
“Mentally challenging” books are books that require a significant amount of mental energy or focus to take something out of them. Something like my DNS textbook “Clinical Rehabilitation” by Pavel Kolar would certainly be considered something like “mentally challenging.”
Some very tactical business books like “SPIN Selling” would also be in the “mentally challenging” category for me. Even though the book is not written in a way that makes it difficult to read, thinking through the tactical implications of various sales processes is probably not great preparation for sleep.
“Easy reads” are typically something more conversational like biographies or something more story-based like various pop psychology books.
Even something somewhat challenging like Robert Sapolsky’s “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” can still be an “easy reading” book for me since it is written in a very easy to follow conversational tone – even though the content can sometimes be very dense and heavy with biological concepts.
I do occasionally purchase Kindle books, but usually only when there is no paper or audio version available. I will read these in the Kindle app.
I have no specific reason for this other than preferring to get away from reading on a screen when possible.
Here’s how this works:
I love the YouTube music app.
I can almost always find what I’m looking for on there, unlike with other streaming services. This isn’t meant to be an elitist, cool guy statement, but I like a lot of weird stuff that is probably never going to be part of the licensing agreements that get things on major streaming services.
I have a “To Listen” playlist to which I will save anything that I want to check out. I will usually listen to new music while doing “chores” on my computer like e-mails and minor administrative tasks.
While the days of downloading gigs and gigs and gigs of mp3s are mostly gone, I still do have a “To Listen” folder in my Dropbox.
I could write an article similar in length to this one about my former music downloading and organizing habits, but most of that is no longer relevant. Anything that I can’t find on YouTube that I want to check out gets downloaded here, and I listen to it during my “new music” times.
I am certainly not a Record Collector with a capital R, but I do like owning physical copies of music that I really enjoy.
Albums that I like enough to want to own get saved to my wantlist on Discogs. When browsing in a record store, I will often pull up that list to get an idea of which crates to dig in.
I was never a huge note-taker growing up, and I would scoff at the nerds with their perfectly highlighted notebooks and their precious color-coded tabs sticking out their textbooks. I was like, “are you actually going to look at that stuff?”
And for them, the answer may have been, “Yes. Yes I am.” But for me, the answer would have been, “Definitely not.”
At this point, though, I see the value in note-taking not so much for learning and recall, but for connecting ideas.
I’m not sure what exactly changed my mind, but I was definitely at least partially swayed by Ryan Holiday’s article on his notecard system and the concept of a Zettelkasten.
Here’s how this works:
I have several notebooks in Evernote for different types of content from which I may be taking notes: Article Notes, Book Notes, Lecture Notes, Podcast Notes, etc.
I will type, write (with a stylus), or dictate a brief summary of the key idea in a given note and title it with something that hopefully makes sense and gets across the key point.
I will tag the note with tags for the author/speaker/etc., the name of the book or podcast, and big picture key concepts like “management,” “marketing,” “stress,” “Google,” “effectiveness,” etc.
I don’t study my notes by any means, but I will click through tags when attempting to solve a specific type of problem (say “lead capture”) or when writing an article or newsletter and looking for interesting anecdotes or examples – or simply hoping to come across seemingly disparate concepts that I can unite and draw insight from.
I used to save full articles to my notes, but I found that I almost never look at these. The cognitive effort required to go back through and parse out what I found interesting originally simply doesn’t happen most of the time.
I will, however, save full examples of pages for things like sales page layouts, opt-in forms, article formatting, etc.
So, that’s what I do.
Woe to any who attempt to copy my bizarre and eccentric information behaviors…
But please let me know if you have any similar systems or have any recommendations on apps, tips or tricks that make collecting, sorting, learning and synthesizing better, more efficient, and – last but not least – more FUN.
See you at all the parties!
Another great forum to learn from you, Todd. I’ll have to incorporate some of these tools into memory flow.
Keep up the good work!