In the last year I’ve thought a lot about how people in our society take in information.
We get most of our information from reading. The problem is that we retain almost none of that information due to how shallowly we read, not to mention that there’s a collective lack of follow-up and repetition.
- Reading a ton of tabs + shallow skimming of text + no repetition or follow-up = unproductive online reading habits.
In 1958 a guy named George Millner wrote a paper called The Magic Number Seven – Plus or Minus 2. You can read the paper here. The name of the paper refers to how much (little) information our short-term memory can store: only 5-9 bits of data per second.
This means that we can’t keep more than 5-9 things in our heads in the short-term (ca 30 seconds). You can test this yourself here.
What are the Implications?
Since most of us take in a ton of information from many different sources every day, this means that we are wasting time reading online. We think we’re being productive, but we’re really not.
It doesn’t matter if you consume a ton of great information if you can’t remember it and use it to your advantage when you need to.
But fear not friends, all hope is not lost.
Reading online isn’t an inherently useless or inefficient activity, it’s just that the way most of us do it must change.
My Generation has been Ruined by the Internet
I go to university.
I see many people in my generation ignoring the professor during class to scroll for notifications on Facebook, check forums, or skim useless news sites.
They’re disrespecting themselves by not valuing their time.
What’s the point of going to class if you’re not going to pay attention?
It’s a waste of time. And it’s a weak and haphazard way of conducting your life.
You either go to class and take the responsibility of becoming fully engaged, or you spend your time doing something else. Don’t be haphazard about it. Don’t go to class from a sense of moral obligation.
Go there because you’re going to learn, and use that time to the best of your abilities. Ask all the question’s you’d like to. Squeeze as much information as possible out of that class.
But, most people my age don’t understand this, and they’ve got another even bigger problem. They simply cannot handle using the Internet responsibly.
In group work they routinely interrupt their workflow to check social media or watch YouTube videos, completely oblivious to what it does to their concentration.
They’re mindlessly searching for useless information and entertainment, and their cravings never stop.
Their cravings only get worse.
Many of them would be better off smoking crack than having an Internet connection.
So, this is obviously an example of what you don’t want to do.
But what is the right way to go about reading online?
How do successful people read online?
What do they do differently from the masses?
How Do Successful People Read Online?
For starters, they are very selective in what they will and won’t read. There are three things in particular that successful people do:
- 1. Successful people are very selective in their online reading. Successful people have trained themselves to filter out useless information to a higher extent than ordinary people. They avoid forums where the signal to noise ratio is high and trustworthy information is tough to find.
- 2. Successful people preemptively set deadlines for how long they will read online to avoid Parkinson’s Law. They know how easy it is to get swept away and drown in fascinating information if they don’t have a time limit for how long they allow themselves to sit by the computer.
- 3. Successful people read with the end goal in mind. This stands in opposition to the norm of casually reading or browsing for stimulating news stories. Successful people read to solve problems or fulfill goals. They direct their reading at a purpose. They don’t read for entertainment’s sake or to kill time. They don’t fall for the temptation of reading a compelling headline if it doesn’t seem related to what they’re specifically trying to accomplish.
Everyone knows about number 1.
Some people make use of number 2.
But how many people actually abide by number 3?
What Do Successful People Do Differently from the Masses?
What is it that differs between ordinary and successful people when it comes to reading online?
If we are to believe Nick Carr, author of The Shallows, we easily get distracted by hyperlinks whilst reading online.
Successful people understand and respect this phenomenon. They have strict principles that they abide by when it comes to reading online.
Successful people keep their impulses to click on irrelevant hyperlinks in check by finishing what they started before reading something new.
They do this because they know that if they begin the process it can be very hard to stop – taking them further and further away from the initial problem they set out to solve.
I call this entering hoarding mode.
Successful people avoid entering hoarding mode at all costs.
The Online Behavior of Successful People
You could sum up the online behavior by successful people in one word – responsible.
In addition to having a responsible Internet behavior, successful people consistently do three things to get the most out of what they read:
- 1. They leave comments to connect with similar-minded people. Successful people know that there is little to lose, but much to gain by commenting on good posts.
You never know what sparking up an initial interaction may lead to. Successful people understand this and don’t fear being the first to comment on interesting posts. Ordinary people are afraid to go first, they need someone to follow.
- 2. They write down key points and summaries. Successful people know about the weakness of their short-term memory and therefore don’t trust their brains to store all the useful information that they take in. As a result they have formed the habit of jotting down the key takeaways. Perhaps in their commonplace book.
- 3. They implement and practice the key points. Successful people know that despite having already written down the key points, they might still not remember it. So they seek to put the information to practice as soon as possible and measure its efficiency. This is a really fundamental difference between successful people and ordinary people because it prevents the former group from reaching a state of information overload and experiencing decision anxiety.
These three things have one thing in common:
They raise the degree of mental investment put into learning the new information.
This has the effect of making the information more memorable, and it also gets perceived as more important.
It’s simple really, the more time, effort, and emotion we invest in something the more important it will be perceived to be by the brain.
This is why depth is the way to go about online reading. Not breadth.
Stop consuming unnecessary information.
What isn’t put to practice is waste.
Drop your online hoarding habits
Develop a responsible Internet behavior by not keeping too many tabs up at once and avoiding the temptation of clicking all the compelling hyperlinks.
Don’t read more than you can use, or you will start suffering from information overload.
Begin with the end in mind and conduct your online reading to solve a problem or fulfill a goal. Don’t aimlessly browse social networks or blogs to kill time, because it quickly becomes a negative habit.
Don’t trust your short-term memory. Write down the key takeaways and implement it in your life as soon as you can. invest in a whiteboard and write down the key takeaways so that you’re reminded to act on it ASAP.
Over to you
I leave you with the wisdom of Uncle Ben from Spiderman:
With great power comes great responsibility.
The question is whether people can act responsibly or not…
What are your online reading habits like?