I have a confession to make.
I’m an information junkie. All my life I’ve been a voracious consumer of books, magazines and newspapers.
From burying my nose in novels as a child, through reading 3-4 books a week when commuting as a lawyer, to teaching myself to speed-read early in my legal career to keep on top of fast moving professional development, books have never been far away.
Indeed I wrote about how reading more widely can help a lawyer become more rounded and get a wider perspective that can enhance their thinking and advice (and I stand by that idea!).
So what’s the problem?
Well, the quantity, quality and ease of access to information is so high these days, that reading can take up a disproportionate amount of time.
It’s possible to spend so much time reading, that experiencing life and reflecting on it can take a back seat.
I took some time to reflect on this challenge on a recent holiday, and realised that I was bombarding myself with information pretty much from the moment I open my eyes. Does some or any of this sound familiar…
- Wake up. Check smartphone for urgent emails
- Waiting for train – check news and sport headlines on smartphone, check twitter and facebook feeds
- On train – read newspaper on Kindle, when done move onto ebook (usually business or personal development)
- Work – check Google reader feeds, work reading, twitter while waiting for meetings, walking to get lunch etc
- Train home – read ebook (business or personal development)
- Before bed – read ebook or physical book (could be work or fiction)
Aside from the enjoyment I got from reading (an important factor not to gloss over in this discussion), it was apparent that my mind was whirring constantly from the moment the alarm went at 5am. My sense was that while this definitely had benefits in terms of the sheer amount of knowledge I was accumulating (much of which has been very useful), it was also draining a lot of mental energy and limiting the headspace I had for thinking and reflecting, and on balance the negatives were beginning to outweigh the positives.
As the Tao Te Ching says (verse 48) “learning is daily accumulating, the Way is daily diminishing” (and yes I realise that’s a quote from a book!).
Sometimes less is more.
So I decided to do an experiment – I’d go on an information diet.
The first thing I did was cut out reading a daily newspaper. I’ve read a newspaper pretty much every day for the last twenty years. Give or take a few minutes, it takes me about 30 minutes to read the whole thing in my very methodical way. News headlines, sport, UK news, overseas news, business news, features and culture. Bish bash bosh.
Now giving this up might seem a small step, but psychologically I wondered what the effect would be – would it hamper my ability to hold conversations in the office? What about at social events? Would I go to meetings and find I didn’t know what people were talking about? Would this damage my personal competitive advantage? Would I become (perish the thought) less interesting?
The reality – important news found me. I didn’t have a complete news black out – quick checks on the BBC mobile news, trends from Twitter, and of course conversations have so far (four months and counting) brought me all the news I seem to need.
What I didn’t anticipate is that where I have needed to find out about something (and this has been very rare), simply asking the person who’s raised the issue to tell me what’s happened had led to some rich conversations and elicited opinions I might not have got if I’d already known the detail.
The other thing I noticed, is that when I pick up a newspaper, I now see how much news there is that really has no impact on my life (in any capacity), which is generally depressing, but which I would have consumed anyway in my pre-information diet days.
On a similar note, a former journalist I met with last week mentioned that he was continually frustrated by his inability to block out which contestants are currently appearing on Celebrity Big Brother because despite his total lack of interest in the subject, it seeps into his consciousness through the media.
So far so good. I’d reclaimed three and a half hours of time per week (182 hours a year sounds more impressive!). Assuming I used that time wisely, that was a real productivity boost.
The next step was to stop reading other books.
So for the last three and a half months, the only book I’ve looked at (which I mentioned in my post The Tao of Law Firm Strategy) has been the Tao Te Ching – the classic Chinese text which is best described as a cross between philosophy and poetry. Read for five minutes, ponder for an hour.
So for all intents and purposes, my reading has gone from say 3 hours a day, to zero. That’s over 1,000 hours a year. Or one and a half months.
Pretty drastic? Maybe.
Permanent? Don’t know.
One of the important points (in my eyes anyway) is that not only have I reduced the information I take in, but I’ve chosen not to replace that activity with another. It’s just white space and I definitely appreciate the extra time I now have to think things through (work and personal) and also just be.
There are times when less is definitely more.
It’s also made me much more conscious of where I choose to focus – Davenport wrote a great book called The Attention Economy about the value of attention (related article at Brainpickings if you’re interested), and having some extra time and space to allow you to step back and re-prioritise is surely a good thing.
So what’s the reading end-game for me?
Well, I think I will welcome books back into my life at some point, although I feel no rush to do it right now. When I do I think I’ll be more selective about what I read – to offer me greater benefit that the space I’ve freed up, it’s going to have to be quite a book!
So for busy lawyers, while I can’t free you from the tyranny of the timesheets (the market will do that in time…), by limiting the amount of information you take in outside the office, you might find yourself more productive.
Just don’t spend the time you’re freed up watching television. Please!
- Too Much Information (urbanavalon.wordpress.com)
Nice article Mark, I think you sum up the modern paradigm of information overload. It brings to mind that old Cold War saying “The Russians keep their people in the dark by telling them nothing. We do the same by telling them everything.”
On another note my office is on two floors, hardly a sprawling corporate colossus but it never ceases to surprise how many people email me instead of walking over to say ‘Hi’.
Mark, I’ve been reading your posts for some time and find them fantastically valuable as someone who’s had a fascination with the law from the age of 12. Now, I’m an (adult) law student and closer to fulfilling that life dream.
I’m curious how you came to learn to speed read. (Likely from a book, no doubt!) I’m curious if that’s a skill I should (or shouldn’t employ) in my studies as I earn my Juris Doctorate.
Hi, I’d definitely take the time to learn. I did learn from books initially, although after I’d been practising for a few months I also took up the opportunity to attend a course. The best books I found were one by Tony Buzan (creator of mind mapping) and another by Donald Kump. The course was by Illumine Training.
Once you learn, you will be able to vary your speed according to the material you are reading. If it’s a weighty statute or judgment, you’ll probably go at your “regular” speed, albeit that this will have likely increased slightly, but key thing is comprehension will not be reduced. If there is something less complex, or less important, you can really ramp the speed up. Comprehension and retention levels will drop as a result, but of course you can always slow down if you find very useful passages.
I took the view when in practice that it was better to speed read all the journals that would pile up and retain 30%, than to read one and retain 50% (or not to read them at all).
Hope that helps and good luck with your study.
A very well considered post. We are all facing information overload and it’s only increasing. Switching off the bombardment creates a peculiar sense of void. How much faster can it all get and what are the effects on the human pysche ? So much change and increase in pace may be great for “progress” but are we humans able to adapt fast enough ?
After having a very real realization regarding my personal information overload just yesterday – it was great to stumble upon this lovely entry. This line ” I definitely appreciate the extra time I now have to think things through (work and personal) and also just be.” is perfect. And your idea of reading the Tao Te Ching for five minutes then taking an hour to ponder is precisely what I’ve been working on with a book I’m currently reading. Through doing so (and I hope you’ll agree) I’ve found that I value the content I take in much much more than previously – and it allows me to truly focus my attentions on those things.
Thanks Alisha – glad you enjoyed. Interested to know if the book you’re reading is one you’d recommend.
Another way to accomplish the same goal — have a child or two. All of those hours spent reading (or almost any other high-quality quiet leisure activity) vanish in an instant.
Lol. I’ve checked that box – all the more reason to find those extra hours!