How to avoid novelty-bias and information overload
Apr 08, 2019 | Posted by Cristina in Newsletters
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As humans, we need both structure and variety in our lives.
Think of it as two complementary forces that need to balance themselves: we have the certainty of waking up at the same hour, in the same bed, commuting in the same way, interacting with the same people at work, and so on. It’s a routine that makes us feel comfortable, but we also need to balance it with new things. Too much routine won’t lead to anything good, too much variety and uncertainty in our lives won’t help either.
Most of us try to break out of everyday routine (and boredom) – every time we escape, every weekend or holiday, we’ll seek to fill our time with new things. We tend to favor what’s new just for the sake of novelty, even if we’re content with the old choices. We’re looking for new books to read, new articles, new places to go, no matter if it’s a coffee shop, new restaurant, or traveling to new countries.
We were built to become obsessed with novelty. When we do or consume something new, our brain releases dopamine, an addictive pleasure hormone that’s part of our reward system and gives us a feeling of satisfaction.
Scrolling through social media feeds, news websites, checking our email or instant messaging apps are among the easiest ways to feed this need of variety. It works similar to slot machines: we’re hitting the refresh button, looking for updates that get us intermittent variable rewards. Sometimes we’re rewarded, we discover an interesting thing, we learn something from an article, we get a new email, and sometimes we don’t.
It’s way more addictive than if we “won” every time we did this, so we keep on refreshing, eager to consume more and more information. We become digitally obese, just as sugar consumption makes us crave for more sugar and makes it harder to exit the endless consumption.
Three rules I follow to avoid novelty-bias and information overload:
1. Avoid new, media-hyped books.
I avoid buying any new, media-hyped books and, instead, I let them “age”.
I’ll add them to a list and wait at least one year after they were released, before I decide whether to purchase them or not. In time, it becomes more clear if I truly want to read that book or it’s just the fear of missing out what everyone else is talking about (I’m writing this with Michelle Obama’s new book on my mind – I resisted buying Becoming, though many of my girl friends have recommended it to me).
When a book is worthy of my time, I’m sure it won’t fall off my radar and I’ll keep bumping into it, one way or another, months and years after its release. But, most of the times, once the initial popularity wave fades away, I never hear again about those books.
Books written by my favorite authors are exceptions to this rule. In this case, I’ll pre-order them as soon as I learn about the upcoming releases, as I’m already familiar with their work and trust it will be quality read. However, I can probably count those authors on my hands.
This aging filter is somehow related to what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls the Lindy law:
“If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years. This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not “aging” like persons, but “aging” in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy. This is an indicator of some robustness. The robustness of an item is proportional to its life.”
2. Read a book just in time, never just in case.
There were years when I fed my brain information I didn’t need, stockpiling on ideas and memories that were slowly decaying. Sure, I’ll buy all those books that might interest me, but I won’t read them right away. I’d rather read a book right when I need to focus on that information and I can put it to use right away.
It’s the same with articles. I separated discovery from consumption and I almost never read an article right at that moment when it’s sent to me by friends, shows up in my feed reader app, or the newsletters I’m subscribed to. Instead, I’ll add those articles to a read-it-later app and decide afterwards if it’s worthy of my attention and time.
I’m relying on Pocket for this – it’s an app I’ve been using for over six years, where I saved thousands of articles. It allows me to read those articles without any distractions such as ads, comments or social share plug-ins. It also allows me to add those articles to separate categories or highlight certain ideas – this makes it a great research tool. It’s a reminder of all the things that I don’t know. The app is free to use, but I still pay for it – just to support it, since it’s been a life-saver (I don’t think I even used the extra features provided by the paid plan).
3. Re-reading is ok.
I’m looking at all those of you who are always keeping track of your book count on GoodReads. Why are you reading all those books? Are you reading because you truly want to improve yourself? Or are you reading just to boost your ego and let others know how many new books you completed this year?
I know I already talked a lot about this in the article about how to create a lifetime reading habit, but here it is again: what we read is much more important than how much or how quickly we read.
It’s ok to read slowly, in order to truly internalize the information. It’s ok to re-read those books that we found valuable. It’s ok to read multiple books in parallel (breaking a topic we want to learn with other topics is beneficial, otherwise it becomes overwhelming just focusing on one, or the first topic starts to fade). And it’s perfectly fine to drop those books that aren’t right for us (or for that particular moment of our lives), or they feel repetitive after the first chapters.
The Pareto principle (or the 80/20 law) states that there’s an imbalance between inputs and outputs. A small minority of causes has a major dominant impact. 80% of the value of a book can be found in 20% of its pages (the 80 and 20 numbers are only a benchmark – it can be any other set of numbers).
Instead of obsessing over reading new books, I’d rather re-read a handful of books that were valuable to me. Reading the right book might be life-changing, but reading 100 books per year doesn’t guarantee anything.
Sometimes just re-reading a book over and over again, to internalize the great information I found in it or to discover different angles, might be more helpful than reading 100 new books.
Or, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb was saying:
“A good book gets better on the second reading. A great book on the third. Any book not worth rereading isn’t worth reading.“
WEEKLY BRAIN TOOLS:
1. Books recommended by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
I know I keep mentioning Nassim Nicholas Taleb in my newsletters – that’s because he’s one of my favorite authors, among those I can count on one hand and I’ll pre-order their books 🙂
He’s a Lebanese-American author who spent more than two decades as a risk trader, before becoming a researcher in philosophical, mathematical and (mostly) practical problems concerning probability and tail risk mitigation.
Since 2010, Taleb released Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, The Bed of Procrustes, Antifragile and Skin in the Game – five amazing books that are part of INCERTO series, where he covers the broad faces of uncertainty, from randomness to luck, human error, risk and decision-making (“incerto” comes from the latin “incertus” – “uncertain”).
Taleb refuses all honors and anything that “turns knowledge into a spectator sport”, and his motto is: “If you see fraud and don’t shout fraud, you are a fraud”.
We compiled a list of books he read and recommends, you can check it here. And, of course, if you haven’t read him yet, I highly recommend that you start with his own books. They will completely change your life perspective, but will also make you feel extremely dumb – and perhaps experience hopelessness.
2. How to Overcome Fear and Embrace Creativity
As a highly introverted individual, I’ve always felt like a misfit and been struggling all my life with the need to publicly express myself and learn how to promote my work.
I’m fine expressing myself in writing, or having deep one-on-one conversations, but my brain freezes when it comes to doing small talk (I’m the weirdo who’s been through uncomfortable long moments of silence just to avoid superficial conversations with people I’m not interested in interacting with or I’m just too tired), I don’t feel comfortable in groups larger than six, I’d hide under a rock and do anything to avoid networking and, when I do attend events (aka almost never), I’ll place myself in a corner or next to the wall and observe everyone else.
You can imagine this doesn’t fit well with a career as a marketer and entrepreneur who’s always invited to speak in public or attend events.
This is a podcast episode between two successful and popular introverts who struggle with the same fears: Tim Ferriss and Susan Cain, author of Quiet, a great book about the power of introverts.
I’ve listened to their conversation in January, when it was released, and I’ve been recommending it constantly to all my friends, since it’s filled with practical advice about how introverts can gain confidence in themselves, learn how to survive public speaking and successfully express themselves.
3. China vs. The West: Whose Future Will Win Out?
If you’re a founder and you’re also based in Bucharest, Romania, you might be interested in this event (it will be held Wednesday evening, at TechHub Bucharest). I don’t attend many events, as I was saying above, but when I do, I sign up six months in advance. 😛
This one’s organized by The Family, an European investment firm that empowers early-stage entrepreneurs and it’s been on a networking tour throughout the continent. I discovered their work last year, thanks to Dan Colceriu, one of our Patreons (Dan, can’t thank you enough 🙂 ).
And since I talked about reading books “just in time”, I’m currently going through “Hedge: A Greater Safety Net for the Entrepreneurial Age“, a great book written by French author Nicolas Colin. Colin is the Director and co-founder of The Family, renowned for his work on finance, policy and strategy in the entrepreneurial age.
In Hedge, he talks about building a new safety net for the new age of entrepreneurship, while taking us through a history of social and economic institutions, how they’re interlinked with politics, corporate world, entrepreneurship, science, and how the paradigm has shifted. If you’re not sure if this book is right for you, you should start with this article or just browse The Family website – it’s filled with tons of free content that might help you decide how deep you want to dig into the subject.
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The text above was first sent to our newsletter subscribers. If you enjoyed it and want more, subscribe here.