The Conscious Information Diet

To eat a healthy diet, I strive to consume an assortment of colorful produce and foods from each of the major groups. Depending on which camp you’re in, that statement may have triggered some form of disagreement or perhaps utter disgust. The degree to which our identities are intertwined with our diets has reached religious proportions. But what is arguably more important, is the conversation we’re not having: what is the impact of our information diet on our mental and cognitive health?

In my information diet, reflecting empirically, I tend to consume content from a range of sources and across a number of fields and industries. But despite the outsized importance intellectual pursuits have to my life, ego, and sense of wellbeing, I have spent very little time reflecting on my learnings nor on my learning strategy. This article begins a series of monthly reflections where I’ll put my content consumption under the microscope.

The proliferation of content nowadays means that finding good content is no longer a problem. The problem now is increasingly one of filtering: how do we identify the signal from the noise? Through this exercise, I aim to better focus my learning strategy towards my long term goals. If I were to summarize my current learning philosophy, empirically and perhaps ideally, it is this:

Cast a wide intellectual net; expose yourself to a wide range of people and ideas; pursue what interests you with intensity, but don’t be afraid to discard progress to begin anew. Be conscious of status quo bias, but beware of the sunk cost fallacy.

Over the years, what I read and listen to has trended towards more curation. Personal newsletters, Twitter lists, and niche blogs have largely replaced general news outlets and Facebook. This is one easy way to improve the signal to noise ratio of your information diet — by outsourcing the top level filtering to people and publications you respect. The problem with these secondary information sources, however, is that they're often just loose collections of articles the curator compiled. What I care about is not what the people I respect are reading, but the perspectives and unique color they can add to the subject (this is also why Twitter is such an immensely powerful tool). To that end, this is my attempt to share what I've been pondering, with a personal twist.

March 2019

On the importance of curating your information wells

Michael Nielsen, Research Fellow at Y Combinator Research observes:

As with all variables that obey the power law, there is disproportionate value to be found in the "fat tails." This is the statistical property behind the Pareto distribution (the 80—20 rule), fractals, wealth distribution in a market economy, and even dating. Publishing is no exception, where the top 10% of titles represent 85% of sales; In podcasts and the blogosphere, I suspect the power law also holds true.

This realization transformed the way I learn and where I allocate my time. Rather than attempt to drink from the information firehose, I've found a handful of trusted information wells where I can revisit time and time again, at my own leisurely pace. To determine what is an information well, I use a simple heuristic:

In practice, this means I read and revisit more books and essays from a select few. I'm also more conscious of my decisions to pick up something new, but carefree when discarding material.

Status: in progress

On the importance of writing to thinking

A number of threads prompted me to commit to a regular writing habit. These are primarily framed in terms of "company building," but many of the lessons applies equally in personal domains.

Steven Sinofsky, investor at A16Z, makes the argument that more startups should emphasize writing in their internal culture:

Anecdotally, it's an uncommon practice among Silicon Valley startups, but the ones that do, have the most exalted internal cultures.

At Stripe:

And at Amazon:

Status: in progress

On checklists

Patrick Collison, CEO of Stripe, shares practical tips on how he uses and reviews checklists weekly to track towards his long term goals:

The weekly review and priming habit is key. Some of the goals you set are important in the long run, but if not reviewed on a regular basis, can easily be overridden by the more urgent and often unimportant tasks.

In addition to checklists and a regular review schedule, I am also in an experiment called the Elephants, which embeds this personal goal setting and review system into a social accountability group.