Michael He

January 22, 2022

Don't Read Everything, Don't Do Everything

I was browsing Pocket's top 2021 articles. Then a thought occurred for the fifth year in a row.

Man, there is so much I have to read...

Wait for a second! Do I have to read? No. I don't have to read anything if I don't want to. In fact, many people don't read. Then why do I think I have to read? My habit is certainly a cause. There is inertia when it comes to reading. The hidden motive is the desire to learn and improve. There is alignment between my conscious behavior and subconscious desire.
I want to read a lot mostly because I find many things interesting. Why is that? The basic answer is I find more things interesting over time. The macro answer is there are more interesting things available to read today than ever. Then there is the interaction between the micro and macro. Digitization brings me information I can never find on my own before the Internet. It also means I can get good recommendations from people I follow and algorithms. A growing base times better matching quality equals more interesting things to read.

In fact, a few blogs generate many links to click. For example, I check out at least three links from Marginal Revolution every day and that leads to more links. As a result, my browser always has dozens of tabs open. No wonder I feel overwhelmed sometimes and then feel compelled to clean up my reading list and browser tabs in a Marie Kondo fashion! Sometimes I even delete all saved links on accident (though it may be unconsciously intentional). Such draconian measure, however, is only temporary. My book collection goes through the same process, albeit slower. Books cost money and URLs do not. There exists more than enough stuff for me to read in a lifetime. 

So how should I tackle this issue of having too much to read? I’ve been thinking about it for years. Now I have an answer.
Stop feeling like I must read everything.
This sounds like admitting defeat. That’s exactly the point. I am acknowledging the conflict between reality and my intention to read everything I find interesting. No matter how much time I have, there will be too much to read. I can only focus for four hours every day. I must be selective with how I spend my time and what I choose to read.
It's better to treat reading as something circular rather than something linear. The former allows things to pile up within a reasonable limit like a library collection. The latter does not, because what goes in must come out like a factory production line. 
Read things at my pace without feeling forced (except work related materials). Be okay with a reading pile becoming bigger and bigger, no matter how much I try to organize everything.

This works. I have changed my premise. I recognize how impossible it is to read everything.  In addition, many things I want to read turn out to be not worth the time. The caveat is this realization usually happens afterwards, sometimes months or years later. The good news is this long feedback loop still helps me with figuring out what stands the test of time. Finding something from years ago that I still want to read feels great, but that is mostly random. One cannot expect to receive serendipity on demand.
There is also a misconception about reading interesting things. Interesting does not equal useful, but using interestingness as a proxy somehow confounds reading for entertainment as reading for learning. There is nothing wrong with that, but not realizing the implications can exert unnecessary pressure. If my definition of interesting narrows slowly to equate useful, then I will be less motivated to read.
Fortunately, this problem is avoidable. I just need to be patient with myself. A love for learning is good. Wanting to learn is good. But I have to be careful to not let that eagerness ruin my long-term progress. In the end, the key is to build momentum over the long run, not going from zero to one hundred miles per hour in three seconds.

Trimming (as a part of editing) is necessary every once in a while, but it is more important to  stay interested in something and let progress build up. I want to keep finding interesting things, read them as much as I can sustain, and let the rest pile up.

So read for fun. Read for learning. Read for whatever the goal may be. Just be aware of the implicit assumptions and how they may influence one’s thoughts and actions. Then act accordingly. Don't read everything and don’t think one has to read everything.

I want to extend the logic a little more. This is also how I approach writing. As I wrote before, "But I no longer let [not being able to write everything I want] bother me. It is similar to reading. I have more books than I can ever finish. The counterintuitive thing is more is better. It means there is always a book I want to read at any point. The probability is much higher than sticking to a strict list. I would rather have something interesting to write at any point than better-sounding topics. If I stick with writing long enough, I will write enough interesting essays. I choose routine over goals. My opinion may change in the future, but I am sticking with quantity and some quality over only quality." 

I also apply this logic to life in general. People feel like they must do everything today. It used to only be ambitious people who burn out. Today it’s pretty much everyone.
Don't do everything. Don't be in a hurry because hurrying will erase the little magical moments you have. In Greek it is σπεῦδε βραδέως (speude bradeoos) and in Latin it is Festina lente. Both means “make haste slowly”.

My thanks to Oliver Burkeman for his enlightening essay on how to treat your to-read pile and Nick Melazzo for our conversation on this topic. 

About Michael He

Trying to get better every single day.