Pen{g}sieve Vol 3: Revamp your information diet

In my first newsletter, I gave the formula for personal change:

Mindfulness + Tiny Habits + New Environment + Mindshifts —> Personal Change

Many people think of a new environment as introducing disruptive changes such as moving to a new city or switching jobs. There are, however, much less disruptive changes to our environments that everyone can engineer right now and at a minimal cost. The easiest change to your environment is re-designing your information diet.

What feeds your mind can profoundly impact you. So why don’t people do this? Many people use time as an excuse. Online articles, social media, and the news are faster and easier to consume than books. However, they are much less beneficial to consume. For tips on how to start a reading habit, head over to my post on atomic habits.

But a reading habit is not all there is to nurture one’s mind. Which books you choose to read is an equally important factor. While my journey of personal changes last year can be traced to my starting a reading habit, real changes emerged only after I encountered books such as “Atomic habits” and “Men's search for meaning” (see my post on the power of inquiry).

While it is hard to predict which set of books will trigger personal changes for an individual, building a system that allows one to consume good content sustainably is a definitive way to nurture a better mind. Now that you’ve created a habit of reading, I will guide you on your next step in your development journey and share a few tips on finding and consuming good content.

The mindset of abundance instead of scarcity

Before I start on where to find good content, I want first to address subtle psychology that may discourage us from consuming information the right way.

I learned the lesson the hard way. My previous job has exposed me to much good quality information, such as industry trends, early research, project proposals, and curated publications. It would have been a great environment to grow my technical expertise in depth and breadth. Instead, I was utterly overwhelmed by the amount of information coming my way. I felt exhausted and managed only to consume information on a superficial level. Externally I appeared to be knowledgeable about my trade and familiar with all the buzz words, but deep down, anxiety over losing my technological edge was quietly growing.

What went wrong in my previous experience? Because I did not have the time to consume EVERY piece of good information thoroughly, I consumed ALL of it superficially. Let me ask you something: do fishermen expect to catch all the fish in the ocean? Of course not! The same applies to information consumption.

Today, information is so abundant that we are NOT expected to consume all the good stuff out there in this ocean of information. Instead, the goal is to have a system to “cast a net” in the ocean of information so that we can capture just the right amount to nurture our mind sustainably.

So what does having a mindset of information abundance mean in practice?

  • It means that I will focus on reading something good every day while not ruminating on the other stuff I may have missed.

  • It means that I believe good information would eventually find a way to me, e.g., I will not spend much time reading the news because I will know the significant ones sooner or later.

  • It means that I would be very selective about what I read, e.g., deleting more than half of the content curated on my read-it-later app and relentlessly unsubscribing as soon as an information thread becomes uninteresting to me.

  • It means that if I were to do my previous job again, I would judiciously structure the information into a pyramid and go deep on the tip of the pyramid to nurture my technical depth and be perfectly fine with glimpsing over the rest.

Good content is worth paying

While information is abundant today, our ability (time and attention) to consume them is an increasingly scarce resource. So, where do we find good content that matches our interests? Beyond the usual tips of seeking recommendations from trusted friends or reputable sources, I want to share a new tip: good content is worth paying.

Until recently, I seldom paid for information. For me, it was a psychological barrier: why pay when there is so much free stuff out there?

But now I consider paying for good content as a worthy investment because the content behind the paywall is usually of much better quality. Take online articles as an example. The barrier to publishing online is so low that there is a lot of noise and clickbait. The rule-of-thumb is that the shorter the format, the lower the barrier to producing contents, and the higher the noise-to-signal ratio (that is why I am seldom on Twitter).

Nowadays, I regularly take paid online courses, subscribe to newsletters behind paywalls, and buy services that provide quality products and expert consultations. It has served me well, especially for knowledge domains where I do not know how to start. In fact, some of my most transformative experiences lately were the result of taking online courses (with premium pricing). The life-long benefit of such transformation far exceeds the one-time price tag of the course.

I am not saying that there is no good, free content out there. I still enjoy free content as much as I can. I am saying that do not let the psychology of paying become a barrier to your access to good information because finding a good source of information is a lot more valuable than finding a bargain.

Learn from systems of information

Given the high noise-to-signal ratio in the ocean of information, the key to creating a healthy information diet is to have an efficient mechanism to catch good content for daily consumption.

My rule of thumb is to prioritize information sources that are constructed as an information system over information fragments. For example, a book is a system, a course is a system, and sometimes a learning community or a niche newsletter can be a system instead of a tweet, a random online article, or a piece of investment advice.

A recent example of information systems vs. information fragments is how I build my information source regarding nutrition. After struggling to find good information sources online, I turned to books to create a necessary foundation and vocabulary on nutrition. Then I started to engage with a particular community to learn more practical nutritional tips. For the latter, I attended community seminars, participated in many chat-room discussions, and got to know the people in the community. It provided me with a curated set of practical knowledge on nutrition. More importantly, it allowed me to gauge the quality of the information by assessing the quality of the people in it. Once I trust the community, I can trust the information it shares.