How to Sort Through Information

There’s a lot of information available, on pretty much everything, which is a product of our Over-Information Age.

  1. The internet gives thousands of articles on almost any subject.
  2. Most of the “fact-checking” sources are supposed to distill the truth, but they have their own bias and their information may not be accurate in a specific domain.
  3. For the first time in recorded history, our ability to filter out bad information is more important than our ability to gather it.

For a variety of reasons, most information doesn’t have much value:

  • People don’t apply much common sense to the subject matter, or are repeating what everyone else says (which can get much worse when AI assists with the creative process).
  • The creator has intentionally made the information inadequate to provoke people to pay more money to get the complete information.
  • The creator’s bias overshadows the truth.
  • The goal of the content is to influence people by distorting the truth.

Everyone has a limit on how much information they can consume.

Being frequently inundated with information is not healthy for us:

  • We adopt a heavily biased and judgmental culture from many people who have extreme views that either radicalize a more moderate (and balanced) belief we may have or make us attack the opposite view.
  • Perpetually being online can become addicting, and its symptoms demonstrate from few to no other hobbies and adapting meme language for offline use.

Without awareness and making decisions that enforce limits, we tend to perform “crash diets” of information control:

  1. Passively permit too much information to flow in, waiting for meaning to arise from it.
  2. In a reactionary fit of overwhelm, vow to “purge” everything for a while.
  3. Revert back to passively permitting too much information to flow in, with no long-term solution to fix it in the future.

Limiting Streams

We do well enough with any set of information, but the trouble arises from having too much information at once.

  • To be successful and happy, we do need at least some flow of information.
  • We must receive enough information to feel reasonably informed about what may affect our decisions, but never so much that it provokes us to unhealthy thoughts or the urge to step away.

Learn to say “no” to more information.

  • Every new piece of information provides less meaning than the last (i.e., diminishing return).
  • When we start feeling boredom or fatigue, we must stop adding more information to our present pile.

While it’s our impulse to think of each article and subject as one thing, it’s more useful for us to imagine the information flowing through a type of “stream”.

  • Some streams (e.g., latest news headlines) run very rapidly, almost to the point of overwhelm simply by skimming them.
  • Other streams are comparatively slow (e.g., monthly newsletter).

These streams have a natural speed, based on their origin:

  • Emails
  • Physical mail and newsletters
  • Social media and online forums
  • News websites
  • Blogs
  • In-person discussions and events with others
  • Public announcements like advertisements and government alerts

Our intuition is a valuable detection system for risks, so pay close attention to experiences you’re feeling toward each of those domains, then scale back the flows to reflect it:

  • Cut out or limit specific social media or news, especially if it’s because you’re bored.
  • Swap out a particularly addicting social media for a more thought-provoking one.
  • Swap out a news feed for a news aggregation service (e.g., AllSides).
  • Unsubscribe from newsletters and email lists you keep deleting.
  • Avoid subscribing to new things.
  • Spend more time working and less time chatting with others.

Sift Mindfully

We consume because we’re trying to stay informed about a few domains:

  1. Large-scale events (e.g., natural disasters)
  2. The latest trends, especially when they’re connected to our industry.
  3. Specific people we want to follow, such as our friends or celebrities.

These each require a different approach:

  1. For large-scale events, we don’t really need a whole lot of information. The fact that we hear about tons of unimportant news means we’ll know very quickly about wars, earthquakes, droughts, and other large-scale disasters even if we’re not seeking for that information. They’re also relatively impossible to predict, so we’re sacrificing our happiness in the process.
  2. Trends constantly cycle, and the newness of the trend determines how fast they move. We must stay trendy to the degree it’s useful for making educated decisions.
  3. Following people should never be unpleasant unless those people could create risks for us we may have to manage. Therefore, the experience should be a hobby unless those people are simply the conduit for trends.

The constant stream of data is valuable to us because it sometimes yields something we like, which can chain us to a gambling addiction that risks our time and attention instead of money.

  • The media industries advance this stream because they want you to stay casually inattentive to them (more time on their services means they make more money from advertising).
  • Work as hard as you can to attach whatever you’re consuming to something legitimately practical.
  • Most people stop after they’ve burned out, but leave as soon as you see 4-5 consecutive things that weren’t worth your time.

Reading and watching content is much less effective than writing summaries.

  • While you don’t need a rigorous method, it’s important to do something with that information to add any meaning to it.

You must enjoy what you’re consuming to pay attention to it.

  • We tend to consume mindlessly when we’re bored.
  • If we want to remember and use that information, it must be at least somewhat entertaining to us.

Doing is faster than reading, and reading is faster than seeing.

Separating Bias

Learn how to detect language that demonstrates the types of bias people often maintain.

  • Since we all have a bias, expect a pre-existing value system that misses at least some of the details.
  • Typically, people share most information because they perceive specific facts they want others to know.
  • Most of the time, if the tone is depicted as unbiased, it probably has more bias than one where they fully own their slanted perspective.

The true information tends to accumulate bias as stories are retold and distilled.

  1. The raw scientific study or story is usually the most reliable.
    • e.g., “eating a pound of sugar a week is bad for your health”
  2. The press release is usually more vague.
    • e.g., “sugar is bad for your health”
  3. The social media posts about the press release are typically sensational.
    • e.g., “we need to disavow sugar use forever”
  4. Hearing about the social media posts from others (e.g., a news article) quickly becomes complete misinformation.
    • e.g., “new anti-sugar cult has taken social media by storm”

If the perspective implies “unbiased facts”, sharpen your instincts:

  • Trust the information if it’s common-sense.
  • Don’t trust the information if it’s hard to verify or confusing, and slow down to learn more about it if it’s relevant at all to you.
  • Learn to identify specific demands for more rigor without an equal amount of demand to the contrary.
    • e.g., demanding scientific proof of God without making equally scientific proof of God’s absence

The language’s tone can indicate many aspects of bias:

  • The article must adequately question its values and others, then point out potential flaws and complications with that particular view.
  • A content creator is typically paid to advance a particular point of view, so find out who pays them.
  • If you can, look at their past beliefs and projections, and whether they withstood the fashions of that time (use an internet archive such as the Wayback Machine if you can).
  • Examine why they’re focusing heavily on one aspect or neglecting another aspect.

Watch for misused language:

  • Adapting nouns to evoke a stronger feeling (“carnivorous mammal” instead of “cat”).
  • Adding adverbs and adjectives to make the story more sensational (“brutally slaughtered” instead of “killed”).
  • Beginning the story or paragraph with emotionally-charged words (“Tragedy strikes at the…”, “It is a terrible day in history when…”).

Large media organizations frequently use an abundance of information to overwhelm.

  • Their reasoning is that if you’re overwhelmed, you’ll trust them because they clearly have much to say on the subject.
  • The most profound version of this comes from an abundance of poorly gathered data.
  • AI-assisted media makes this tactic even more powerful.

There are many, many ways to distort image, and technology constantly opens more possibilities.

  • To discover the truth, take time methodically sifting through the information they’re present.
  • If you can understand the ideas behind what you’re consuming, everything that repeats the same idea will be easier to process.

Typically, finding truth becomes increasingly hard when at least one side of a viewpoint is controversial.

  • Usually, if there’s “consensus” without much explanation, any contrasting views will be hard to find.
  • To save energy, carefully consider if even knowing a competing viewpoint has any use to you.
  • If you’re willing to wait 6 months not learning anything new about a topic, the trends will typically have shifted and the truth will slowly unveil itself.

If you may need to know the opposing views, consider both of them.

  • You’ll understand more about a topic by reading 2 articles each from a conservative and liberal publication than about 15 of them from only one side.
  • The more harsh the divide, the larger the middle ground between them, and the more likely there’s a wide variety of perspectives buried by attention toward the extreme views.

Researching/Hoarding

Maintaining information requires sacrificing your attention.

  • Your information-gathering should advance a particular purpose or it’s simply a computer-based version of hoarding.
  • Consistently ask whether that article or set of articles is still useful.
  • If it’s hard-to-find information, ask why it’s hard to find, and if there are better alternatives instead of holding onto it.
  • If you need to, distill it into your own personally curated library or useful web tools.

Very frequently, it’s much easier to save the information than actually do something with it.

  • We can often find a greater sense of meaning by immersing ourselves in many domains of quasi-understanding across many domains.
  • If you can’t cross the threshold to make more from that information, it’s not important enough to save.
  • We often maintain non-practical things because we still find them beautiful, which is fine if we know why we’re keeping it and don’t expect anything more from it.

If the information may cause an adverse situation (e.g., intellectual property or illegal content) ask if it’s worth the risk to store yourself.

  • Certain nations have laws other nations don’t honor, and some nations have various conditions on how you can own or distribute content.
  • Frequently, only part of the content is illegal, and the rest may be perfectly fine.

Multitasking

Pair up mindless tasks whenever you can (e.g., listen through music or a lightweight podcast while doing something relatively repetitive like household chores).

However, do not pair thought-heavy tasks with anything else.

  • To study or understand information, do nothing else at the same time.
  • If the information gets somewhat boring but you still must work with it, feel free to doodle or something else mindless, but only to focus more easily on the boring information.

Specific Media

Generally, all the rules of optimizing a routine apply, but each type of media has very specific methods for cutting out useless information.

Text

Avoid low-information content:

  • Doesn’t summarize its information within the first 1-2 paragraphs.
  • Language emphasizes the impact of emotionally intense experiences (e.g., deaths, hospitalizations, bankruptcies, unemployment).
  • Heavy on extreme words (e.g., catapulted, killed, transformed, radical, destroyed, utterly)
  • Hedging words (e.g., seems to be, experts have stated, [noun] is known to be)
  • Many prepositions (e.g., in light of that, on behalf of our organization, in spite of this)

Develop a habit of skimming text without inserting your own judgments before reading it thoroughly.

  • For books, read the table of contents and focus on the chapters that centralize the concept of the book.
  • Read the first and last sentences of the paragraph.
  • Read the first and last paragraphs of the work.
  • Look for key words and clarifying concepts, such as proper nouns.
  • Once you have the gist of an article, move on to something else unless you’re interested in the writer’s opinion.

If you find big words, research what that word was, since it’s likely the most important.

  • If the book has a lot of big words, it’s possible the writer doesn’t know how to simplify their content and you might want to read a different book.

Video

Freely jump ahead in the video.

  • You don’t have to watch the intro, promotional content, or 5 examples of something you already understand.

Always turn on subtitles to easily catch something you missed.

Unless it’s a visual step-by-step procedure, treat it as audio with an occasional visual.

  • If you can, get a transcript instead.

Stop and rewind parts of the video if you suspect you missed something important.

If possible, run a cable to your TV or invest in a 2nd computer screen.

  • Task-switching doesn’t take much time, but adds up when you do it 50 times a day.

Avoid automatic playlists.

  • If the video cycles to a related video on an automatic feed, you’ll be stuck with lots of information in your mind with nothing to do about it.

Short videos tend to be more packed with information than long videos.

  • Long videos often have long gaps of time between new information and tend to pace it out with many examples and discussions.
  • Short videos (especially when they’re designed with a 3-5 minute goal) often contain lots of information that require more focus.

Before watching a movie or TV show, grab the Wikipedia summary to see what it’s about.

  • Don’t worry about spoilers, since scientific studies have shown we like stories better when we know the ending.
  • Critics often cover themes and sensations, but the lack of spoilers often draw out the entire experience more than it should be.

Audio

It’s harder to jump around with audio than with video, but you can still do it if you know the creator’s general production format.

If you’re listening to an album, the first 2-4 tracks are often the best.

  • If you’re curious about the rest, they can often be more interesting or unique than the first few tracks, but the memorable music is at the front.

Only consume at a speed you can comprehend.

  • If you listen at 2x speed or more, be very careful to not ignore the information.
  • A little bit of understanding will go 100x farther than barely comprehending something at 3x.
  • If you only prefer consuming the content at faster than recording speed, the communicator isn’t very good and you should find a better one.

Podcasts are generally a waste of time unless your personality prefers a social experience about a typically non-social topic.

Photos

Look for themes and patterns that can exclude information.

Charts and infographics take much more work because they’re also text, so sift through them last unless you’re looking for specific information.

Forums/Comments

Only consume comments out of curiosity or to answer a specific question.

Only comment if you thoroughly understand the content or you’re adding to the useless pile of information.

Chatrooms

There’s usually tons of back-and-forth, so read about 2-3 lines of text for every 50 lines of dialogue to get a gist of the content, then read the last ~10 most recent lines.

Specific Content

Websearch & Lots of Data

Curate the information into classifications to process it more quickly.

  • Consuming the same content of one subject will more quickly educate from the patterns you’ll detect across the articles.
  • If you have more than 100 media items and more than 2 broad categories as you observe it, taking the time to organize the information will save you time in the long-term.
  • If you need, sub-categorize as needed.

Don’t read things that bore you, since there’s likely someone else who made a more interesting version of the same information.

  • If you must read it, skim the headings to understand the main ideas.

Practice speed-reading.

  • Speed-reading is easily trainable with practice, and absolutely critical in an academic environment:
    • The average university student will read 6,000,000 words in 4 years, which at 250 words/min becomes 400 hours.
    • At merely 300 words/min, that reading time drops to 333.33 hours.
  • Stop mentally reading each word out loud as if you were saying it.
  • Pace yourself to read quickly for relatively familiar content and slow down for things you want to more intently want to focus on.
  • Avoid jumping around or getting distracting by scanning your finger along the text you’re looking at.
  • Learn to group larger chunks of frequently use words together (e.g., “there will be a” instead of “there will” and “be a”)
  • For non-fiction, skip over tons of details by only reading the first and last sentences of each paragraph.
  • However, don’t speed-read so much you don’t understand the information, because that’s a complete waste of time.

Avoid commentaries on the subject you’re reading.

  • Use advanced search operators to clarify exactly what you want, then work outward to broader topic if you can’t find it (e.g., img html, pdf, “solved”, “best recipe”).
  • Book summaries often fail to capture the spirit of what the book’s author was trying to present, so generally avoid them unless it’s for textbooks.
  • For an image, add as specific a description as possible.

Typically, reading through all the results is a waste of time.

  • For a broader understanding, grab snippets of a variety of results.
  • You don’t need to finish the book to understand it, especially if it’s a self-help book.

When sifting through numerical data, learn to “feel” the numbers.

  1. Pay close attention to unusual numbers and ranges of numbers that draw attention.
  2. You’re catching the oddly high or low numbers, so reverse your perspective to see the most frequently used numbers.
  3. If the unusual numbers are less than 5% of the entire set, they are statistically irrelevant.
  4. If you must verify, filter out the unusual ones and count what’s left.

Get rid of or consolidate duplicate information.

  • Use the source that’s the most convenient or direct and delete the rest.
  • If you have several systems that manage the same kind of information, try merging them together into one system.

News

Most news is useless hearsay.

  • If you read the news headlines about 1 month from when they break, about 85% of them were already disproven.

Most news headlines tend to give the actual events at about the 2nd or 3rd paragraph, so skip ahead to it.

Avoid news video whenever possible unless they’re curated for time.

  • Most news coverage time involves drawing connections to other things, which should be your job as the consumer.

For more accurate news, find a good journalism website.

  1. Save several of the most interesting articles for each journalist you want to follow.
  2. Wait about two weeks.
  3. Compare what they’re saying with the news updates about the matter since then.

News organizations are typically funded by governments and corporations to spread propaganda.

  • This never really stops, so no news outlet is “safe” from bias.
  • The only way to fully understand is to consume both sides of the story (where the hero politician is the villain, and vice versa).

Generally, smaller news organizations have different reasons than larger ones to distort the truth.

  • Independent journalists tend to be more sincere because their credibility can’t take the blows a reputable outlet can.
  • However, they also can have sincerely extreme opinions a popular media organization wouldn’t be able to maintain.

News outlets work very hard to trigger emotions.

  • People are more inclined to continuously read stories of injustice and catastrophe than updates on what’s actually happening.
  • Continuous consumption is in the news outlet’s best interests, so they prioritize sensationalism over journalism.
  • Feeling concern over things may makes us feel connected, but it’s a poor alternative to legitimate friendships and meaningful activities.

Social Media

A social media website is simply every user submitting information into a database for everyone else’s consumption.

The quality of a social media site comes from what people create on it, so avoid wherever most of the users are petty, toxic, or generally unsuccessful.

Most people addicted to social media are more drawn to the chance at social interaction without the risks of in-person engagement.

  • Look for more interactive social experiences that involve getting out of your home and going somewhere.
  • Generally, one-on-one interactions over the internet create much more meaning than large groups.

Heavy Content

Most people can’t reliably penetrate heavily-made content because their thoughts are too busy arguing with the author to purely understand what that person has tried to say.

  • Every writer, no matter who and no matter how smart, has a distinct and specific problem they’re trying to solve, which is critical to understand to see the scope of why they spent their time on discussing it.
  • Often, the cultures of the past can make ideas very impractical, though also often very educational about human nature.

A specialized author is generally writing for their own field.

  • To read a reliable philosophy or history text (as well as spinoff domains like economics), it usually helps to understand the culture of that specific time, as well as their perspective of history when they looked back.
  • To read math and trade-related information (such as science), it requires clearly and simply understanding the basics of the discipline.

When consuming something particularly dense with information, you must try to think like the author.

  • The medium of text is limited, so a writer often has to use many words to describe a view that would be straightforward in a more visual or practical example.
  • Before making a judgment on the content (and adding new information from your views) skim through all the creator’s works that could associate or contrast the idea you’re consuming.

Don’t Overdo It

Most information is a waste of time, but don’t sift out valuable information:

  • Specific, timeless, career-relevant information
  • Important information about friends and family
  • In-person, talking with actual people

The entire end of this, after all, is to add meaning to life:

Sometimes, it simply makes sense to release all of it and have fun doing something else or take a vacation.