Many years ago, the college version of myself had a vague sense of 'being overwhelmed' he couldn’t pin down to anything specific.
His workload hadn’t increased: he was just attending summer courses to clear requirements so there was less to do than a normal dual-major semester.
With less work why did it feel like there was more to do and why did it take him longer to accomplish less?
In the year prior, he decided to be a good little college student / member of society, and started following world events, reading a newspaper during most breakfasts and lunches.
Arguments about the quality of news aside, he came to realize the 'overwhelmed' problem wasn't about the number of things to do, but was about the number of things he let into his brain. The news is a rather effective vehicle for delivering a large number of small things: each story a single guest arriving to a party.
Individually the guests don’t make a lot of noise, but adding one by one makes the collective volume creep up in a way unnoticeable until you take a break from the conversation and realize that it’s way too loud in here.
The solution was to kick most of the guests out and be more careful at the door: college-me stopped reading the news and cut back on TV. The number of non-actionable things on the mind decreased, and with that did the amount of ‘overwhelm’.
Fast forward a decade and a half
Since this past summer my overwhelmidness meter has ticked up slowly in the background of my life without me noticing. But last week I was rushing to get a few projects out for the end of the month when life intervened and forced me to push them off indefinitely.
With the deadlines gone, the easing of work left me feeling like that summer long ago:
"I have less to do. Why do I still feel overwhelmed? Why is it taking me longer to get less done?"
I paused and listened and found another kind of background noise in my brain that had been increasing, ever so slowly, since I became self-employed a few years ago.
For lack of a better term, I’ll call it 'The Internet' but it's a broader than that: it’s the rise of all the digital vectors of information delivery pointed at me.
First there are the usual suspects: so many articles to read, so many comment threads to jump in, so many podcasts to listen to, so many videos to watch.
Of course, this isn’t new. Since the printing press there have been more books to read than hours to read them — but there is something different about short-form information delivery. ‘Addictive’ might be too strong a word and ‘habit-forming’ might be too weak, but it's somewhere in the middle.
I’ve found myself increasingly jumping from small thing to small thing — spreading my mind thinner and thinner over more and more. This consumption pattern spread into my production habits, moving from project to project and back again, working on each in small chunks, slowing me down.
Secondly, there are the problems particular to a successful career in the public eye. I am good at saying ‘no’ to requests and ignoring the external demands of others. But even still, as a rather self-secluded and introverted person I’ve found myself working with lots of different people in different areas.
My devices now contain many applications through which various people request my time and attention. None individually is a problem, but together there’s always someone somewhere in some app that needs my input or approval or assistance with something.
Between these two vector categories, I find my mind fragmented.
My ‘active video scripts’ folder currently has twenty plus items in it, meaning each progresses at a snail’s pace as I jump back and forth. How did I not notice this number creeping up?. Because the number of guests in my brain was large enough that each additional guest seemed hardly an increase at all.
What Happens Now?
I’m taking this month to dial the volume down. But the problem is more difficult than it used to be.
Past-me could ditch the newspaper and narrow focus back to the self-contained world of school, but current-me makes his living on The Internet and from working with others and the community.
Paying the rent depends on figuring out what people are interested in, being aware of what’s going on in some corners of the world, and developing a feedback loop with those I am lucky enough to count in my audience.
So how to dial down that which is intimately connected to the way I make a living?
My work doesn’t allow me to simply shut off the Internet. I know that currently I let too much in, but I don’t know where the happy median is and I may only be able to find it by letting in too little for a while.
To that end, here is my tentative plan for the month:
1) No Podcast Subscriptions
I’m deleting my (many dozen) podcast subscriptions and taking my podcast app off my phone.
This I suspect will be the most difficult. I listen to a lot of hours of audio and always have. But podcasts have taken too much ground in my mind: any moment of idleness can be instantly filled with the thoughts of others.
I firmly believe that boredom is good for brain health, and I’m banishing podcasts for the month from my phone to bring boredom back into my life.
As for audiobooks, I’m not sure where they fit into this. For the moment I’m putting them on a two-week ban on my phone.
2) Fewer Articles
I’ve found over the past few months that reading small articles leaves me exhausted rather than enlightened.
Currently I use IFTTT to automatically feed about twenty blogs into Instapaper. Though most of the writers I follow are low volume, the sum is more than I can read and I've let too many low-density, low-value blogs into that stream.
I’m deleting everything in my Instapaper queue and shutting down the IFTTT system.
3) Stop Tracking YouTube
I’m unsubscribing from everything in YouTube. In no small part because in the past few years there has been quite a boom in the ‘video explainers’ genre. I’ve never watched much YouTube, but I’ve always wanted to be aware of what everyone is releasing. But I’ve been too aware, resulting in me feeling like there are topics I can’t do because other people have done them. (Even if, yes, nobody owns the facts)
Ignorance of the work of others might be bliss, or maybe future-me will be embarrassed when he releases an unintentionally similar video to someone else in the same week.
4) The Holy Trinity
Ditching Hacker News for the month is the easiest one — I can block it without consequence.
But Reddit and Twitter are where things get complicated. Reddit is the prime engine of the feedback loop between creator and audience. Blocking it outright isn’t an option.
Twitter also helps turn the feedback loop, and it’s how I stay connected personally and professionally with many people. (The same can be said about the several slack teams I now find myself on)
Outright banishing these for the month isn’t possible, but I do need to dial them down.
I will use Buffer to post new videos, podcasts, etc on Twitter, and I will use some of Twitter’s email notification features, but I won’t visit the site directly.
Reddit is the most difficult. The plan is to give myself a short amount of time immediately after posting anything to /r/CGPGrey, and then a small amount of time to check-in the following day. Discussions on my subreddit are the most enjoyable part of the creation process (it's done!) and, in a way, the most important. Reddit is neither desirable nor practical to give up entirely.
One thing I've learned is not to trust myself to 'try harder'. Trying harder is for suckers and the self-deluded. I trust the system and this article is part of the system. By letting you, dear reader, know I’ll only post my own creations on Twitter and Reddit means that I’ll suffer the sting of public failure if I don’t.
And as for the rest, I have some ideas about how to better manage the requests from people in my life and restrict access to the above. There will be ‘online’ and ‘offline’ modes, passwords held by third parties, etc that I might write or talk more about in the future.
But for now, I’m not setting in stone rules for the rest of my life or even the rest of this month because I don’t know what the good rules are. This is an experiment in reduction, and my public commitment to it.