You can’t read the whole internet, so put your energy into something that matters to you

Oliver Burkeman, Treat your to-read pile like a river:

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.

I like to think of it as the productivity technique to beat all productivity techniques: finally internalizing the implications of the fact that what’s genuinely impossible – the clue is in the name! – cannot actually be done.

You cannot actually read, process, and comment upon the whole internet, or even your little corner of interesting discourse. But, you can click “Mark All As Read” and move on. River-of-news style timelines automate marking items unread instead of automating bringing you the good stuff. Reeder and NewsBlur have options for it. I bet others do too. Reclaim your attention!

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. To stretch a metaphor: it’s about reducing the size of the haystack, to make it easier to focus on the needle.

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.

I’m guilty here! All the best in task management, getting things done, note-taking, journal writing, and even saying no won’t get the work done. I have to take the gift of clarity and focus generated by all these routines, and do that “big rock” important thing. I have to find peace with the trade-off of doing one thing instead of all the other exciting things.

Or, maybe generative AIs will provide Walt Disney-like agency to direct and sustain diverse projects outside my expertise with Imagineering-quality output. Wouldn’t it be nice!

Adam Keys @therealadam