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Reading: Oliver Burkeman on information overload, big rocks and the British Library

DriverlessCrocodile on Oliver Burkeman

Warning: “Recovering perfectionist” Oliver Burkeman is about to be everyone’s new favourite (anti) guru.

With apologies (to you and him) for the possibility that I may be setting him up for a fall by saying this, he’s a fantastic writer – really fantastic – and I’ve rarely read anyone with this combination of helpful ideas, erudition, compassion and awareness, and self-effacing humour. Highly Recommended.

The Problem of Your To-Read Pile

… the problem of your to-read pile is very much not one of filter failure. It’s not that you’re deluged with things you don’t care about, and need help figuring out what’s truly of interest. It’s that you’re overwhelmed by things you do want to read. All the books on your bedside table, all those bookmarks in your browser, or articles saved to Instapaper – all of them seem like they might be right up your street, or crucial to your professional success, or might contain some nugget of wisdom you’d benefit from absorbing. The problem, as the critic Nicholas Carr explained, isn’t filter failure. It’s filter success. In a world of effectively infinite information, the better you get at sifting the wheat from the chaff, the more you end up crushed beneath a never-ending avalanche of wheat.

And so, for example, the reading recommendations I encounter via Twitter are much more tailored to my concerns than those I might encounter via a newspaper, because I choose who I follow on Twitter; it’s like having a thousand assistants scouring the infoverse for whatever might pique my interest. My challenge, information-wise, isn’t about finding a needle in a haystack. It’s that I’m confronted on a daily basis, in Carr’s words, by “haystack-sized piles of needles.” 

Information overload, Big Rocks and the British Library

Unfortunately, most advice on productivity and time management takes the needle-in-a-haystack approach instead. It’s about becoming more efficient and organised, or better at prioritising, with the implied promise that you might thereby eliminate or disregard enough of life’s unimportant nonsense to make time for the meaningful stuff…

There’s definitely a role for such techniques; but in the end, the only way to deal with a too-many-needles problem is to confront the fact that it’s insoluble – that you definitely won’t be fitting everything in…. It’s not a question of rearranging your to-do list so as to make space for all your “big rocks”, but of accepting that there are simply too many rocks to fit in the jar. You have to take a stab at deciding what matters most, among your various creative passions/life goals/responsibilities – and then do that, while acknowledging that you’ll inevitably be neglecting many other things that matter too.

To return to information overload: this means treating your “to read” pile like a river (a stream that flows past you, and from which you pluck a few choice items, here and there) instead of a bucket (which demands that you empty it). After all, you presumably don’t feel overwhelmed by all the unread books in the British Library – and not because there aren’t an overwhelming number of them, but because it never occurred to you that it might be your job to get through them all.

Oliver Burkeman – Treat your to-read pile like a river, not a bucket

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