Do you read books, magazines, newspapers, and articles (in electronic form or otherwise)? Do you watch TV shows, documentaries, movies, and videos on Youtube? Do you listen to music, radio, audiobooks, and podcasts? Some or all of these things?
I’m talking about media, and how you consume media. Chances are, you spend a lot of time each day consuming media. It’s many people’s biggest pastime.
Have you given much thought to how you consume media? Do you consume it the same way you always have? Or has your consumption changed over time as your needs have changed and as your options for consuming media have become broader?
How mindful are you of how you source the media you consume? How and when do you consume it? And, to the extent you want and need to, how do you remember and apply what you learn?
There is more media out there than even the most diligent and motivated person can consume. In my view, if we want to make the most of our time consuming media, it’s important to be mindful about what media we consume.
The media landscape has also changed dramatically in recent years. So have the ways in which we can consume it. If you are consuming it in the same way as you were 10 years ago, it’s likely you can improve the way you do it.
Below are some of my personal thoughts on the matter.
Some key tenets informing my personal media strategy:
- Ideally, the material you consume will be useful, and interesting/fun. That’s not always the case, but it’s worth aiming towards.
- Life is short. There’s a huge amount of material out there that you could enjoy and/or will be useful to you. You don’t have to watch TV shows about home renovation or Keeping Up with the Kardashians unless that really floats your boat.
- With modern technology, you can time shift almost any content. There are very few exceptions. Time shifting helps you to be more mindful about consuming content, and match your consumption to your mood and energy levels.
- There’s a big distinction between sourcing media content and consuming it. True, there may be times when you stumble upon an article or TV show and read it or watch it then and there. But generally speaking, if you find an article, TV show, movie, album, or similar that you want to read/watch/listen to, it doesn’t mean you need to do it right away. I’d personally rather consume something on my own terms. You need to develop a system for keeping track of all of the things you come across that you’d like to consume in the future.
- This might be a little controversial, but very little “news” that is consumed in the traditional sense (newspapers, evening TV news) has any practical use. My view is that it’s about entertainment and having things to discuss with other people. If you were to zoom forward a week or month or year and rewatch the 6 o’clock news from the week/month/year before, you will very rarely identify anything that spurred you to action or had any relevance to your day to day life. (And with respect to being an informed voter? It’s not hard or particularly time consuming to do some research in the days leading up to an election to identify the party that most aligns with your values, beliefs, and interests.)
- Getting information via TV is, informationally speaking, low-bandwidth. You can usually absorb a lot more content in the same period of time by reading.
- Chase your reading (and any other content you want). There’s some value in letting information passively come to you. But many people overlook the value of asking: what would I like to know? And actively looking for resources that might answer your questions. More commonly, people find content coming to them rather than the other way around.
Sourcing your media
Be like a magpie. Source your media from a lot of different sources. Be as promiscuous as possible, so you aren’t limited by the biases of just a few media sources.
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Question whether media sources that people often use are especially useful. I’m looking at newspapers and evening news shows. Realistically, if something’s important enough I’ll be told about it. It will appear in various formats – I won’t be able to miss it. If the information is important to me, I find that the coverage in newspapers and evening news shows is superficial and lacks important nuances. I can usually get a much better view of things by doing personal research, consulting resources such as Wikipedia, or looking for comprehensive articles that really cover the issue in the depth it deserves.
A practical way of getting information from a number of news sources is to subscribe to RSS feeds using a service like Feedly. If you’re interested in certain topics, set up a Google alert so you’re emailed whenever something comes up on the web that relates to that topic (hint: if you have a unique name, your name should be one of the first things you create an alert for. If you work for a smaller organisation, the name of your business is also a good alert to have). Joining Reddit subgroups relating to your interests can also be useful.
Chase your content! Spend less time letting media come to you, and spend more time asking questions that are relevant to you and looking for the answers to these questions.
Develop a system for keeping a track of these things. For example:
- Articles – most articles, even if you find them in print, can be found online now. Use an application like Pocket or Instapaper to mark it to read for later. If you can only find it in hard copy, take a photo of the article so you can read at a later date. If it’s in PDF format, save the PDF to a Dropbox file and use an app such as Goodreader on your device that syncs between your device and Dropbox and allows you to read them at your own pace. If you can’t do any of these things, take a photo of the article with your phone.
- Books – create a wishlist in Amazon, and if you ever stumble upon a book that you’re interested in reading, save to your wishlist.
- Movies, TV shows, and documentaries – create a profile on IMDB and add the shows to your watchlist.
- Youtube clips – sign in with your Google profile, and save clips you want to watch later to your “Watch Later” playlist.
- Music – save albums or songs to Spotify playlists.
- Reddit, etc, blogs, aggregators like long reads
Also have a “spillover” system, for things that you can’t keep. I use Workflowy, where I note identifying information about the media, including a link if possible.
Some general philosophies:
- You don’t need to finish everything you start. And you don’t need to give everything the same level of attention. As Francis Bacon wrote, “Some books are meant to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; That is, some books are to be read only in parts; Others to be read, but not curiously; And some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” It’s applicable in relation to all forms of media.
- Pick the right material for your mood. Different material is suitable depending on whether you’re in “go mode” (really technical, dryer stuff, or reviewing material), “slow mode”, or “no mode” (wanting to chill out).
- Let the medium match what you’re doing. If you’re driving, doing chores, or running, then audio is great. Watching something on a big screen is great if you’re wanting to relax and lends itself more to spending time with other people.
- Use the right tool for the job. A computer isn’t great for reading long-form content. Reading something on Pocket on a tablet (or at a stretch) a phone is much better. It might be attractive to use Facebook or Feedly on a mobile device but it’s actually really inefficient – you’re not getting the most out of your time, compared to hopping onto your laptop or desktop.
Remembering what you’ve consumed
One of the things I’ve wrestled with over the years is remembering what I’ve consumed! Especially with books and articles. Several years can pass and I can struggle to remember the name and author of a book, let alone the majority of its contents. I’ve come to accept that this isn’t a limitation that’s personal to me, but a limitation that I suffer because I’m human.
When I come across something I want to remember, I now try to be systematic in terms of being able to access that information again in the future.
There are a couple of aspects to this. Part of it is ensuring that the information is available to you again, if you ever need to find it. Some of the things I do to ensure this include:
- Tweeting links to articles that I might want to refer to again. I have multiple Twitter accounts and tweet links that are relevant to the theme of that account. There have been many times where I’ve wanted to remember something about an article, and I’ve had to go back to my Twitter feed to find the article in question. (As an added benefit, I also have friends who occasionally go through my feeds to find interesting articles as well.)
- Keeping a copy of the article in PDF format in Goodreader. (If the article isn’t already in PDF format, you can usually “print” something to PDF using software such as PrimoPDF.)
- When I read books in my Kindle, I highlight passages that I like. I use Clippings.io to periodically export these notes to Evernote.
- When I’m reading things I want to remember on my phone, I take screenshots, and review these screenshots periodically.
- I make notes on my phone of things I want to remember. For example, in the course of conversation with someone, something might come up. Or I might like a quote in a movie that I want to remember.
The other part of being able to access all of the content you consume is being able to access it in the here and now. That is, making sure you remember it!
The reality is, that unless you’re using information on a daily basis, either in your personal or professional life, chances are that you’ll forget it. I know this because you’re human.
Some of the strategies I use to remember things are:
- Using ANKI. Self-testing and spaced repetition are really valuable for reinforcing knowledge (a good resource for formulating knowledge in learning is here). For a lot of things I want to remember over the long-run, I create ANKI flash cards and test myself regularly so that I can recall these things. There’s really no limit to what I include with these cards. Basic stats, great words and phrases, arguments for/against certain propositions, faces and names of people, jokes.
- Blogging about it. Ultimately, the key audience for this blog is myself. It’s not uncommon for me to forget what I’ve written (let alone what I’ve read, watched, or listened to!). But when I come back to an article, it comes to life for me in a way that reading another person’s article wouldn’t. It also gives me an opportunity to consider things in more detail and consider different perspectives and nuances that I wouldn’t otherwise take into account.
- Bringing interesting information into conversations with other people – or at least, asking myself, how would this information come up in a conversation with another person. Once you get something into a conversation or conversations it becomes much more likely that you’ll remember it. (That’s a legitimate reason for reading/learning things – conversational gambits. More on that another time.)
Some final comments
If you’ve got to this point in the article and you’re feeling overwhelmed, I empathise with you. This seems like a lot of work. I’m not prescribing my way of doing things to you.
The key insight I want to stress is that if you’re like most people, you can be more mindful about how you consume media.
You might want to keep some of my strategies in mind and over time build your own system for sourcing and consuming media, and remembering the things that you read/listen to/watch.
To be candid, there are times when I feel overwhelmed by the number of sources I have, and the backlog I’ve accumulated over time. Sometimes, this prompts me to “spring clean”. For example, I’ll cull the number of RSS feeds I’m subscribed to in Feedly, remove articles I’m less interested in reading in Pocket, and cut items from my IMDB and Amazon wishlists. But ultimately, I’ve learned to accept that my inbox will never be empty. And no matter how busy you are, there will probably be times in your life where you’ll find you can get through a lot of the backlog in one go. You’ll always have something to occupy yourself with.
Another thing that writing this article has revealed to me is that I spend a lot of my time consuming media. When I realise that something takes up a significant part of my life, I tend to ask myself – am I doing this at the expense of other important things? Like, solitude and taking time to think my own thoughts. Or spending more time with the people that are important in my life. The balance is unique and personal to everyone. But my hope personally and for most other people, is that you find the right balance where your media consumption complements and adds to your mental and emotional life, as well as your interactions with other people.