Changing Content Consumption Habits

Our lives right now are built around consumption.

A Learning a Day – February 12, 2018

Read it again. Slowly. Let it sink in.

I’m a big fan of Rohan’s Learning A Day blog. He does a great job synthesizing complex topics into powerful statements. In this case, his point is that “media companies have somehow convinced us that there are few things that matter more than staying up to date.” We are bombarded by content from emails, news articles, blogs, podcasts, social media, and television. There is so much coming at us that it’s impossible to stay up to date. As he would say, it’s a “fool’s errand.”

Believe me, there was a point in time where I bought into what the media companies were selling. I tried to stay up to date, and I failed. And out of the failure came a valuable lesson. Life is not about the amount of content you consume, it’s about the quality.

Fifteen years ago, I was introduced to Google Reader. It was like I discovered fire or the invention of the wheel. Google Reader was so much better than slice bread. Instead of having to go and check my favorite media sources on a regular basis, I could have their content pushed to me. What a fabulous concept!

It started harmless enough. I signed up for the sources that I went to the most – Techcrunch, Gizmodo, Engadget, GigaOm, Mashable. Now, instead of hunting for content I hadn’t read, I was seeing everything. Every. last. article.

It didn’t stop there. They would link out to other blogs which were producing interesting content. Before I knew it, I was following over 200 different sources. At least 20 or more were publishing multiple times a day, others publishing daily, and the majority at least once a week.

The result? It was not surprising to have over 300 articles pushed to me daily. During the meat of a work day, I could check my feed every 15 minutes and get rewarded with at least 10 or more new articles. Instead of working and creating value, content consumption was my full-time job.

The worst part was that the content wasn’t filling. It was like snacking on junk food all day long. It sure tastes good, but it’s all empty calories that leads to all sorts of health problems. Likewise, consuming all those words wasn’t filling with me knowledge, it was a distraction. It was over stimulating my mind. Looking back, it’s obvious how it affected my ability to get work done.

On top of that, I was filling the time away from the screen with television news sources and entertainment, primarily in the way of sports. It almost got to the point that unless I was sleeping, I was consuming content. It wasn’t a good place to be.

And then it happened. Google announced they were discontinuing Reader in March, 2013. At first panic set in. How was I going to stay up to date? Surely the world was coming to an end.

That’s when I realized I had a problem. It’s like the revelation you have when you hop onto a scale for the first time in years and wonder, “when did I put on all THAT weight?!?!?!?”

It was time to make a change. I had to make a change.

Over the next few months I cut the list of sources I followed to less than 25. Of those, only a select few published daily, and they only published once a day. The remainder published sporadically, and in a long form manner where content was deeper and more well thought out. I turned off the morning television news and decided to start my day by reading at least 10-15 pages of a book on a topic of interest – business, marketing, personal development. I dialed back on my sports obsession.

The result, my life became less chaotic. My mind because calmer. I found I had time to focus on work. There was more creative space in my mind. I decided I would start my own blog, which I launched in November, 2013. If you’re reading this, you can see it’s still going 8 years later. I discovered that it isn’t about about the amount of content you consume. It’s about the quality.

I’ve taken Rohan’s suggestions to heart. Instead of going a mile wide and inch deep in my reading, instead of pushing myself to consume more and more content, most of it of dubious quality, I’ve chosen to focus on fewer sources of quality content. I look for the long form sources of content – books, long-form journalism, quality blog content. Believe it or not, when you look for the quality sources, there are many available, examples being The Guardian, ProPublica, The Economist, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker to name a few.

It allows me to read deeper, to study, to synthesize, and to reflect. When I find an article or particular topic that inspires me, I will journal or blog about. Writing forces me to explore the topic in greater depth, to organize my thoughts, and to create coherent, meaningful content that I can reflect on later and share with others.

To put a bow on it, I’ve found that just like healthy eating habits result in better physical health, healthy content consumption habits result in better mental health. I cannot think of a better way to wrap up this article than how Rohan ends his:

And, if it is all too hard to resist the temptation of clicking on the next article or video, shut off the internet and get hold of a book on a topic you like. Then, repeat the above process.

We don’t learn effectively when we consume. We learn when we synthesize and reflect.

In the age of consumption, it is worth reminding ourselves that more is not better. Better is better.

Once again, well put. Thanks for the inspiration Rohan.