The catch-up obligation

I subscribe to one daily newspaper, two weekly magazines, three monthly magazines and 42 RSS feeds. I receive about 100 non-spam emails per day on my personal account and 50-75 on my work account. I have more than 50 books on my bookcase at home waiting to be read.

I spend an inordinate amount of time reading, and yet I’m never done. I am always playing catch up.

Catch up is defined as “to learn belatedly; find out about something after it happened” or “to make a special effort to overcome a late start, a liability, or the advantage a competitor has.” The integral word here is late.

The Internet has created a culture in which all information is instantaneously accessible, causing many of us to believe that it must also be instantaneously absorbed. It’s an unfair expectation that I know many of us put on ourselves. But like the definition above says, it’s in the spirit of competition. When the information is accessible to everyone, we can’t help but feel the pressure to know everything immediately. In the age of BlackBerrys and iPhones, time no longer exists.

Previously, the printing process naturally added a significant period of time between an incident occurring and the information being disseminated. It wasn’t that long ago that the Sunday edition of the New York Times wasn’t available in California until Monday.

But today, with the popularity of live-blogging and live-tweeting, there is now mere seconds between occurrence and record. I constantly feel like I’m behind and, as a result, none of the reading that I do feels pleasurable. Instead it feels harried, desperate, necessary. I think to myself, If I don’t read this article then I won’t have the additional knowledge to pull from when the topic arises. I imagine myself in hypothetical situations with colleagues/friends/luminaries in which I won’t have the context to understand their argument or won’t be able to provide a counterpoint because I don’t have the necessary bits of information to access.

This is probably sounding a lot like Bit Literacy right now. Well, it should. I deeply believe in minimizing clutter, organizing information in a simple and easily accessible way, purging frequently, and giving yourself the space to create. New information comes in faster than we can get rid of the old, and the only way to overcome the overload is to cut down on what we allow to enter our universe.

But that is my biggest problem — letting go. I’m having a very difficult time accepting that I can’t digest everything I read and can’t get my eyes on every important piece of data that comes my way. And moreover, that I need to stop seeking out more sources of information and instead spend the time digging deeper into the ones I already have. Or to put it another way: I need to start getting smart about my information approach.

I grew up in New York City. I’m used to an impossibly high level of sensory input and I’ve gotten pretty good at putting on blinders and seeing what I want to see. In training myself to swim in a sea of limitless options, I have had to make tough personal choices about the places I want to go, the people I want to be surrounded by, the situations and environments I want to experience. Essentially, I had to define myself and seek out the experiences that would strengthen that definition.

I suppose I’m realizing now that I’m at a point in my career where I need to do something similar. If the web is like New York City, and there are endless possible paths to take and innumerable people to come into contact with, you have to decide on a destination before leaving the house, but leave plenty of time to wander should something perchance catch your eye. Or you have to be strategic about what information you need and what you really don’t. If I reduce my expectations of how much I am capable of taking in, I’ll probably end up learning more and have more fun doing it. You’ve gotta leave room for serendipity after all.

Now let me see what’s waiting for me on DVR…

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  1. says

    Being another ‘information junkie’, it’s a difficult addiction. Even during a yoga session, it’s hard to turn off that little nudge in the back of your head. The only way to really get away from it is nature; a weekend camping trip, 10 day adventure. But even then, I’m thinking, “This scene would be so good on my flickr.”

    Maybe we’ve all reverted back to being 2 years old again; “Input, Input”.

  2. says

    Just subscribed to your blog a few days ago and I’m already so glad I did. You probably speak for many of us in this post, but certainly it’s something I’m constantly aware of — can’t keep up, can’t keep up, there’s so much everywhere.

    But then I have to remember that being set free in an intellectual amusement park is really a good thing. It just takes discipline.

    I’m learning.

  3. says

    As a fellow lifelong New Yorker, I can very much empathize with what you’re saying. I find it also interesting that the overload comes both on the input side (as you describe) but also on the output side (photos with my iPhone vs. digicam vs. digital SLR, blogging, twittering, etc.)

    There’s so much good stuff out there and I would be remiss if I didn’t trying and do it all! :)

    I go back and forth a lot about trying to “fix” it and just embracing it. Needless to say, I tend to go with the latter.


    ps: How do you only have 42 RSS feeds? I’m jealous, I just pared down my list to about 210 feeds and that felt significant.

  4. says

    Danny, I know exactly what you mean. Even when I’m doing yoga or getting a massage, I’m thinking about the stuff I’m “supposed to” be doing. It’s like we’re still children and going to get in trouble if we don’t finish our homework. Yes, vacations help, but I usually bring reading with me so that I can catch up. And when you get back, there’s always a huge pile of crap waiting for you.

    Clive, I’m really touched by your comment. Thank you so much. And you’re right, it really is about discipline. The web has an infinite number of paths and things to distract me, and I often find myself going off in directions I didn’t mean to go off in when I sat down at the computer. Narrowing my focus would certainly help, but I’m not sure I have the will to do it!

    Alex, yes yes yes, it’s definitely about the output pressure as well. I was outrageously tired last night, and as I was reading in bed, something was nagging me that I hadn’t written a blog post yesterday. I actually picked up my BlackBerry and started to create a new blog post on my phone! But then I realized I had nothing interesting to say and my time would be better spent sleeping, so I put the phone down. I’m making progress!

    Yes, I *only* read 42 feeds. I had about 100 until a month ago when I switched to Google Reader and realized that I can’t possibly keep up with them all, and more importantly, they weren’t actually interesting to me. I decided that if I wasn’t moved by at least 1 in 10 posts, I didn’t need to be reading the blog. So I pared down. Additionally, there is definitely some content on the web that I just prefer to read at its site of origin — like the New York Times for instance. RSS is great for quick scans, but separating the content from the style doesn’t always work for me.

    You can see a list of the UX/Design blogs I read in the sidebar here, under “People I Really Like.” I also have a few others I don’t publish here because they aren’t related, like Curbed and Gothamist. I’ve been reading Gizmodo for years, but I think I’m going to stop. They generate too much content! It would be great to be able to subscribe to a specific tag or category though.

    Where is your list of 210 feeds?

  5. Grace says

    the sad thing is that we don´t get smarter with the rush… I trully understand you, but it seems as if there is no choice, after all, who wants to go back?

  6. says

    Hey there,

    I like your 1 in 10 rule – I may give it a shot. I also often get torn between subscribing to an aggregator like Techmeme or going more a la carte – ahh, the malaise of the information addict…

    To your other point, if only Google Reader provided an easy way to share ones entire reading list (grumble).



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