Consuming Information ≠ Learning

Someone told my younger self I should learn something new every day. The rest of your time can be filled with monotonous activities, but as long as you learn one little thing, you’re growing. 

Learning one thing a day is a piece of cake now. Considering how easy it is to access to new and interesting information, learning just one thing is a bit of a disappointment.

Now we’re facing the opposite problem. There’s too much information. We’re inundated with it.

To quote Mitch Kapor, “Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.”

We struggle dragging our attention away from all the news, blog posts, podcasts, ebooks, videos, and other media. 

But constantly consuming this stuff isn’t learning.

Consumption is passive. It’s a fine way to acquaint yourself with new information, but it’s no guarantee that you properly understood it, got the complete picture, or that you’ll remember the important details. 

To learn, you need to go beyond consumption. You need tactics other than glueing your eyes and ears to a device. So here are a few:

1. Be a Better Filter

We produce a lot of information, little of which is worth your time. 

You don’t have to see or read everything. You don’t have to be up-to-date on all issues. You don’t have to read every article, book, watch every video or listen to every podcast. 

Most information we encounter is noise. Too much information is worse than too little, it just confuses and overwhelms us. It gets in the way. You’re better focusing on a few important points.

Here are some tips for improving your information filter:

  • Don’t scroll through social media jumping from headline to headline, fact to opinion, conversation to argument. If you’re bored, open a book. 
  • If you open a book you thought would be interesting but turns out to be disappointing, don’t force yourself to finish it. Cut your loses and move on.  
  • Don’t fill your browser with tabs that you might read, and if you do, never jump between them incessantly, this is a poor attempt at multitasking—settle on one and as long as in maintains your interest, finish it. 
  • Don’t read or write while listening to podcasts or having the TV going. Again a poor form of multitasking. Focus on one medium. Even listening to music as you read isn’t advised.
  • When you finish an article or book or podcast, don’t immediately jump into something else. Think about it for a moment or two (more on this shortly).
  • Set a high bar for what you consider worth your attention. Lot’s of things seem interesting, many will add value, so pick the ones that go above and beyond—and stop feeling guilty about not reading the things that don’t quite make it.  

“There are many things of which a wise man might wish to be ignorant”Ralph Waldo Emerson

2. Disconnect

By choosing not to engage with every piece of attention-grabbing information that comes at you, you’ll have more time at your disposal. A good way to use some of that time is to contemplate. 

If all you do is consume the ideas and facts and productions of others, you don’t leave your mind enough time to do its thing—think. You have to form your own opinions, to structure ideas in your own way, to let your imagination get involved.

“Knowledge is not something static that gets transferred from one person to another like pouring water from one glass to another. It is dynamic. Information becomes knowledge when we make our own meaning out of it.” Diane Halpern

It is not advisable to trust your gut in matters of understanding. Just because you finish reading something and don’t immediately find something wrong with it, doesn’t mean you couldn’t find a problem after giving it greater thought.

So stop and think… 

…And then let go. 

We spend up to half our day mind wandering. While it’s most associated with being lazy, that’s doing it a great disservice. Like sleeping, periods of mind wandering are associated with better memory and more creative insights. 

We’re not designed to focus all the time. Periods of rest are just as important as periods of attention. We need to balance them. 

After absorbing something interesting and having a think about it, go for a walk, or sit back and stare at the clouds. Let your mind drift off and do its own thing. 

3. Internalise it

The information you consume starts somewhere else. Your goal is to transfer it to your memory. 

Not your notebook. Not Evernote. Not your bookmarks or a folder on your desktop.

To your brain.

Reading, watching, or listening, do not ensure that the information hangs around. When people get information off the internet, they remember where they found it, not what the information was. That takes something extra. 

There are different ways of helping cement something in memory, but perhaps the best method is to test yourself. 

When you feel like you understand something new, try to recall every detail you can. Try to write down everything you remember.

Do the same thing after some time has passed. Set an alert on your calendar for a week later that asks you a question related to the material. If you can’t answer it, go back to the source and find the answer, then set another alarm. When you get it right, set the same question to pop up in a month, then a few months after that.

The only way you’ll know if you remember something correctly is to recall it. Thinking you know it because you have some vague recollection of having read about it is fooling yourself. Sit down with a blank page and write it down, you’ll see how much you really remember. 

4. Express Yourself

It’s nerve-racking putting your own material into the world. You don’t know how people will respond, you don’t know if you missed something, you don’t know if you could have made it better. 

That makes it a perfect test of your understanding. By using your knowledge to make something others will see, you are more likely to ensure you have your facts in order. Putting some skin in the game will pressure you to get things right. 

“People have two brains, one when there is skin in the game, one when there is none,” writes Nassim Nicholas Taleb. “A confession. When I don’t have skin in the game, I am usually dumb. My knowledge of technical matters, such as risk and probability, did not initially come from books. It did not come from lofty philosophizing and scientific hunger. It did not even come from curiosity. It came from the thrills and hormonal flush one gets while taking risks in the markets.”

If you’re not prepared to open your ideas up to public response, you can’t have much confidence in them. 

Creating something is one way to test your knowledge, and it can be done in many different forms—articles, books, comics, poems, songs, illustrations, infographics. 

And what’s the point of learning something if you’re not going to do something with it? Don’t learn for the sake of learning, learn for the sake of acting. 

You Are Not a Recoding Device

Consuming is only the beginning. 

If it’s all you do, you’ll forget most of it. You’ll be left with the odd idea floating around in the back of your mind, lacking details and unable to be properly communicated or acted upon. 

We’re not recording devices. We are filters. Some parts of our experience stick around, but you want greater control of which parts do. To achieve that you need to do more than ingest information, you need to filter, process, and use it. 

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