I am, and have been for most of my life, an information glutton.  The internet has made my affliction worse by providing me with the equivalent of an unlimited buffet of both nutritious as well as junk food for my brain which never leaves my side.  A fire hose of data focused straight into my mind's mouth.  If the brain food is mostly high quality, and I'm exercising my grey matter vigorously enough to warrant such high volumes of knowledge, then it's not that much of a problem.  However, I've recently crossed a threshold where I seem to be spending more time navigating this buffet rather than consuming the food.  

Ok, dropping the metaphor and getting to the point, I need to know how I can efficiently minimize the amount of time I spend staying abreast of the things I should now so I can maximizing the time I spend actually learning them and hopefully having ample time left over to be productive at applying that knowledge.  Mind you, I am pretty diligent when it comes to avoiding the frivolous youtube clips, emails, and reddit/slashdot/etc. refreshes.  That isn't the problem.  The problem is figuring out which books, research papers, and blogs to stay aware of, and how to automate such a system.  Any techniques you would like to share?  

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Rather than think about this in terms of technologies, first think about it in terms of scheduling. Every piece of incoming information falls into one of three priority levels; either it's worth an interruption, it's worth putting in a queue where it's guaranteed to be read, or it's something to spend surplus time on but okay to miss entirely. Most technologies span several of these priority levels; for example, emails from whitelisted senders are worth an interruption, emails from strangers which might be spam are only worth handling in batches, and mailing lists can be skipped.

The more information you get through a given channel, the lower that channel's priority must be. For example, most people treat phone calls as worth an interruption, but high-profile figures use secretaries and handle their phone calls in batches. If information from different priority levels can't be separated, then it all ends up at the lower level; for example, people who get too much unfiltered spam check their email less often. Good filters are important.

Some information sources require you to poll them; for example, loading a webcomic's page to see if there's a new comic. This is only worthwhile for high-volume, low-priority information sources - that is, you only load it if you have time to waste, and expect to always see something new. Lower-volume sources are better handled with something like an RSS feed, so that you can group a bunch of them together and see only things you haven't read.

I would suggest that, if you're sufficiently html-knowledgeable, or if you have a fairly good web-page editor, you create a home-page full of links, papers, blogs, rss feeds, whatever, that you want to keep up with.

I have such a home page and it allows me to have some kind of base back to which I can ground myself when I stray too far into the abyss/buffet of internet knowledge. In particular I find that the average screen size is good for such a knowledge cache: if you need a space bigger than this then you're indulging in a buffet too big for your palette.

Isn't that what your Favorites/Bookmarks list is for? Why bother creating a separate page, unless it's a multi-person effort? And in that case wouldn't a wiki work better?

I think the problem with bookmarks is that you are able to create endless lists of them, and it becomes undesirable to revisit or keep up with them all. However the idea of a home page condenses the amount of links to keep up with to a manageable amount, and is also suitable for an individual user.

Likely to have it wherever you go or in case of a computer meltdown. I know the biggest loss for me when my computer died not long ago was my bookmarks and tool bars.

I use del.icio.us partly for this reason, and was glad of it when my last computer died.

My job is to read AND understand information such that I can repeat it back clearly and precisely, often succinctly from 7:30-4:30. 99.9% of this information comes off of computer derived sources. When I am home, at lunch and in the evenings (when I am not exercising or eating) I am either on the computer reading more or reading a hard copy book. On an average day I probably, between work and home, read through 250-300 articles or studies. In general I have about 80-90% retention with comprehension nearly complete - some of the more abstract things obviously take longer.

Here are my tips:

  • If you use the same sources on a daily basis (like LW/OB) then create a hierarchy of visits. I find Firefox really useful for this with the bookmark toolbar and RSS feed - that way I can go left to right sequentially and see what I have read already. That way if I only have a short period of time, I get the most out of it.

  • Open only the articles which you are very interested in, and open them all at once so that you can see them in your tabs. A word of caution though, don't necessarily read them in the order that you open them. There is the tendency to read in order, however I have found that if there is an article I am really excited about, then that is the only one I will think about when I am reading through another one. This method allows you to take your work in chunks rather than burning through one particular source all at once.

  • Continually update your hierarchy of sources, refining which give you the best information

  • If you use aggregators such as reddit - read the comments. Often they distill or give better context than many articles. Contributing to the comments is also very helpful as you can ask questions and get the most out of the information you just read.

  • Give yourself a break. After a half dozen or dozen articles, depending on their weight, go look at something completely non-demanding or get away from the computer all together. I have found that over the years, with increasingly complex subjects my "breaks" become less and less complex eg: after reading two PLOS studies I take a 10 minute 4chan break.

  • Get rid of distractions. That includes Instant Messengers, open programs and other things which draw you away from the text. I have found that if I get pulled out in the middle of a story or article, my comprehension drops dramatically.

  • If there are parts of whatever you are reading that you don't understand - look them up immediately. This is a huge part of the comprehension aspect. Yes, it will slow you down considerably. However once having a good understanding, you will have better context for the rest of the article and can better frame whatever fact you just learned.

  • Lastly. Don't worry about your eyes going bad. They wont.

A comment said one needs a goal first, which is true. I'll call that goal a "question".

Doing so partially solves the problem of what I call the Delegation of Curiosity: when someone or something implants a question in your head that you feel compelled to have the answer to by passively consuming the contents proposed by the invader.

This happens because you delegate your curiosity to something external; your questions/curiosity controls you, and so delegating it means someone else controlling you.

Moreover, discovering an answer by oneself through active efforts means you'll be more grateful for it, be more likely to apply it and remember it better.


Moreover, when in a state of boredom you're susceptible to the Delegation.

It's then a good idea to exit the web browser or internet instantly. Make it a habit to be done upon Noticing. This can be done physically (preferable), by walking away from the device, or virtually, by closing it.

Beforehand, make sure the browser is as distant as possible from access, and disable any features or facilitators of access that might shorten that gap. Example, by putting it inside many folders with no shortcuts that lead there.


There's still the problem of Potentially Relevant Information, when you don't know whether info that lies beyond a question is relevant; it might be.

I found that generalizing the question and getting a grip on the terminology and history of the things involved with it help to predict whether you'll find what you seek and which words to use. Encyclopedias, such as those of Philosophy like Stanford Plato, help.

It must be media in text format, preferably with an index, so you can more easily find what you need by reading just the headers or first lines of the paragraphs.

Instapaper. It puts a button into your bookmarks toolbar. When you find something you want to read, click the button. Later, you go to Instapaper where all those pages are saved for you. For bonus points, subscribe to your Instapaper RSS feed. Use a feed reader with good organizing tools that let you prioritize and highlight items. This, of course, is because you will quickly realize how few saved items you are actually interested in returning to.

I've tried many tricks (my favourite for a while was Google Notebook) and Instapaper is far and away the one that saves me the most time - and saves me from a lot of information I really don't need.

I consume 90% of my incoming information via several hundred RSS feeds.

I read these feeds in Google Reader.

I organize these feeds into 3 folders labeled 0, 1, and 2. 0 contains feeds I feel I must read. 1 contains feeds I'd like to read. 2 contains feeds that are less important, but I'll read if I'm bored or have free time. (Be sure to somewhat frequently reevaluate each feed. Move it to the appropriate folder or unsubscribe.)

When I start reading, I make sure I read everything in folder 0. Time permitting, I cascade through the remaining two folders.

As I go through my feeds, I read ones that are fairly short and star ones that require more time from me (like most LW posts). At a later time, I go through my starred posts and make a quick judgment on each one to decide if I want to invest the time reading it. Unstar and forget about the ones which don't pass. Read the ones which do.

Familiarize yourself with the keyboard shortcuts for Reader. It makes the experience of using it more enjoyable.

I think that you need an actual goal to be effective. If it's keeping yourself amused, a sorting algorithm is hardly necessary. If it's keeping abreast of cutting-edge research in a few specific fields, it's going to be very different than trying to learn the basics in a large number of diverse fields. It also depends heavily on if you're working with a set amount of stuff to read or a set timeframe to read it in (I'm guessing the former). This is an interesting hypothetical problem, but it's hard to specify a real solution without some idea of what type of efficiency you are trying to maximize.

That said, I heartily recommend bookmarking all of the websites you frequent and then putting all those bookmarks into a folder on your toolbar in Firefox; you can then simply right-click "open all in tabs" and have one window window with everything you want to read, and you can easily close anything without new or interesting content.

open all in tabs

I've certainly used this to keep abreast of, say, webcomics. However, it has not helped me much in my professional life.

For me, developing heuristics for how to spend my time and energy in a valuable fashion seems to be best done in a piecemeal fashion, and requires constant effort.

[-][anonymous]13y 0

I think that you need an actual goal to be effective. If it's keeping yourself amused, a sorting algorithm is hardly necessary. If it's keeping abreast of cutting-edge research in a few specific fields, it's going to be very different than trying to learn the basics in a large number of diverse fields. It also depends heavily on if you're working with a set amount of stuff to read or a set timeframe to read it in (I'm guessing the former). This is an interesting hypothetical problem, but it's hard to specify a real solution without some idea of what type of efficiency you are trying to maximize.

I suffer from the same problem but on a lower quality level, I mainly consume news of various kinds. The main problem here is to identify those parts which actually contain information I do not as of yet know.

If some delay is acceptable (as it seems to be the case with your sources) maybe an automated filter based upon citations (or something equivalent) might be possible. Of course you would import all biases of the people who put the citations, then again it might work as a simple crowd-sourcing mechanism.

I think this post is pretty off-topic...

There's been so much here lately on things like Newcomb and whatnot, we could do with some more normal threads...

I think there should be MORE Newcomb threads! It has very important real-world implications, which are left as an exercise for the reader.

Newcomb's problem is applicable to the general class of game-type problems where the other players try to guess your actions. As far as I can tell, the only reason to introduce Omega is to avoid having to deal with messy, complicated probability estimates from the other players.

Unfortunately, in a forum where the idea that Omega could actually exist is widely accepted, people get caught up in trying to predict Omega's actions instead of focusing on the problem of decision-making under prediction.

I used to ignore Newcomb's problem for exactly that reason, until someone pointed out that there's a mapping to the issue of retaliation. (I called it revenge in the link, but that connotes vigilantism, so retaliation is a better term.) The problem doesn't require an all-knowing superintelligence, just some predictor with a "pretty darn good" chance of correctly guessing what you'll do.

In general, it's applicable to any problem where:

a) Someone else chooses actions based on how they predict you'll act, and they're pretty good at predicting.

b) If the predictor predicts you taking the seemingly dominant strategy, they treat you worse.

c) You have to make a choice after "the die is cast" (i.e. the predictor can't take back their treatment).

Note that in real life, it actually is common for people to a) predict your decisions well, and b) base their treatment of you on that prediction.

ETA: Well, in fairness I should add that life is, shall we say, an iterated game, which takes away a lot of the "die is cast" aspect of it...

Newcomb's problem is widely accepted as being related to the prisoner's dilemma. If you 2-box in Newcomb's problem, you'll never cooperate in (one-shot) PD, which is generally considered to have real-world applications.

[-][anonymous]13y 0

Omega has much better mind-reading abilities than most PD participants I would think.

This seems strange to me. It seems that someone sufficiently altruistic or utilitarian would cooperate on a one-shot PD, since it's not a zero-sum game (except in weird hypothetical land) and that would have no bearing on what choice one might make on Newcomb's.

ETA: for some payoff matrices.

After all, working them out yourself is equivalent to oneboxing.

I agree, but "normal" threads on LW are not supposed to be just normal threads.

The post was supposed to be in the spirit of much of the self-improvement posts regarding akrasia, rationality, etc. It seemed logical that managing your information is an important component with the rest of the mental hygiene practices discussed here. It I was mistaken I apologize.

There's nothing wrong with the topic. Whether it turns out to be a good LW post probably depends on whether anyone contributes any substantially non-obvious advice.

[-][anonymous]13y 0

I think the original question is valid as such, but there are tons of valid questions that could be asked in similar manner. What I think the article lacks is some insight or just some effort in trying to understand the problem more deeply. Insights don't have to be ground-breaking, but I think articles around here should provide some value to the reader. Now it seems more like a "hey guys, what do you think of free will?" type of query.

I suspect that if you would spend some time and effort to try to pin-point the exact problem or perhaps to generalize the problem (or whatever), it might lead you into interesting insights. Let's say through this process you come up with a heuristic or principle for this problem. If the article provided that, it might have some value to the reader and by the virtue of being more specific, it could also spark up interesting discussion. Now it just seems way too open-ended question. Not that it cannot be answered, but that it doesn't inspire commentary.

(As an example, perhaps you could have expanded on the opening metaphor. I don't know if it would have lead anywhere interesting, but one never knows.)

I agree and admit laziness on my part for hoping someone else to insightfully reflect on my problem instead of offering at least a minimum of a solution to start things off. Ironically, I can't seem t make time to analyze how I can make more time!

I disagree.