How to deal with information/art/life overload?
March 29, 2005 12:38 AM   Subscribe

I often feel that there are tons of books interesting books I want to/need to read, exhibitions to see, websites to visit, movies to watch, news items to research etc. just to keep in touch with the world and not enough time whilst handling everyday life. How do you deal with this feeling or the problem in general without panicking about it?

It may be that I am just using my time unwisely I guess, but I feel that I need to exercise, to talk to all my friends, and I want to concentrate on all the things I mentioned above - and still I am expected to work, shop, commute and sleep? What am I doing wrong if I feel that there are just not enough hours in a week?
posted by keijo to Society & Culture (47 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I have felt this way recently as well. Then I realized that I am on the net lots, and am exposed to so much information, and communicate with people whom seemingly know everything there is to know about anything. Look at the front page on any given day - a wide variety of stuff that you should already know about. I think it is natural to feel overwhelmed and inadequate.

The problem is there isn't enough hours in a week. It isn't possible to know it all. Everyday life is more important. Information and knowledge, though important, should not come first, IMHO.

I say - specialize. Find one thing you are interested in, and focus on that in your free time. Or get a job where you can stay on top of everything, and still be able to have a real life as well.
posted by Quartermass at 1:06 AM on March 29, 2005 [1 favorite]

a lot of the stuff you think you need or want to see/read/visit/watch will probably dissappoint your expectations once you've actually had a look at it.
the key is in making an educated guess about which things won't and only checking those out.
posted by juv3nal at 1:25 AM on March 29, 2005

Response by poster: By the way, it is not just the Mefi meetup in London that made me feel this way so don't get smug you all :), I'm also living with two journalists at the moment so you have a good point about the job, Quartermass. And perhaps it is just my ego. I guess I just have to accept that I cannot know it all *shrugs*. Thanks.
posted by keijo at 1:30 AM on March 29, 2005

I feel this way often and find myself more than a little anxious about it, too. But I've found that I can more or less calm myself by

(a) accepting that it's just impossible to read, hear, watch, experience or engage with all the things out there (all the things in the world! I sometimes regret walking past somebody in the street because if I'd stopped them and we'd talked I might have discovered an inspirational, exciting individual), and

(b) asking myself what I'm "doing with" the things that I have experienced - what contribution I'm making as a result of the films and books and songs (etcetera) that have made it into my world. It doesn't mean I have to go out and learn piano after hearing Beethoven's "Emperor"; but it does mean that I should take all the ideas that piece of music brought to me about beauty and sadness and harmony and loss and use them to make some sort of difference to my life (and maybe to the lives of those around me). What Quartermass said is true: Everyday life is more important. I find that setting myself the task of making my everyday life richer as a result of things like art/information/knowledge gives things a focus and helps calm my nerves.

I'm sorry if this all sounds a bit self-helpy, new-agey bullshit-y, but it's what helps me. And it doesn't mean I don't actively look for new stimuli, just that I try not to "waste" those I've already received.
posted by bunglin jones at 2:04 AM on March 29, 2005

Response by poster: But what if everyday life involves a lot of talking to intelligent people? Well, bunglin jones, I guess your point is that I should approach that differently - not just shoot the breeze but actually do something. Got it.
posted by keijo at 2:22 AM on March 29, 2005

I feel as though I've crapped on a lot above, but in response to your second question: In my experience, once I've got something resembling the sort of "focus" I described before, then I'm not only calmer, but more confident, too. Confident enough to hold a conversation with almost any intelligent person, and almost always confident enough not to be intimidated by the fact that some dude can quote Sappho in Greek or some chick in the corner wrote the definitive French translation of "Ulysses".
I guess the important thing is not to feel overwhelmed by others, but to take what you can from your conversations with them. If you're confident enough - really, really sure of what you think - you'll feel relaxed and on top of things.
I'm not saying any of this is easy for me. (and as an aside, the only time I find it IMPOSSIBLE to feel adequate and confident is when I'm talking about sex or drugs. Depending on who I'm talking to, I always feel as though I've either had too much or too little of those things.)
posted by bunglin jones at 2:35 AM on March 29, 2005

"I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me." - HST

One should take comfort in the fact that they live in an age richer in information availability than anything or ancestors could have imagined. I've often thought about how absolutely hard it is today to become a Renaissance Man, a jack of all trades, simply because of the level of complexity everything has reached. Knowing mostly everything there was to know about astronomy, for instance, would have taken a couple weeks to learn. That's because there wasn't too much to learn from. Other subjects would be much the same way.

That infinite abyss of data should be looked at as potentially the most beautiful thing man has ever created. Learning how to swim in that sea is more important than trying to swallow it in. Mastering Google is more important than memorizing an encyclopedia. Knowing where to find ever-changing answers more important than mindless regurgitation.

Just my humble opinion, anyway.
posted by trinarian at 2:37 AM on March 29, 2005

When dealing with exceptionally intelligent people, I always keep in mind that there's something I am more knowledgeable at than they are. It goes the other way too, when you're talking to someone who you know you're generally smarter than. The trick is to guide conversations such that you bridge specialities and interests as much as possible so you can learn from each other as equally as is possible.
posted by trinarian at 2:46 AM on March 29, 2005 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: You haven't crapped on anything bunglin jones, you made a fair point. As for the confidence thing, I genuinely think it's not about that for me - I can be insecure about many things but intelligent conversations I can handle or bullshit my way through. It's a genuine want of knowing so many things that I mean and that want is created by talking to intelligent people. And perhaps it's true that you cant be a renaissance man these days as trinarian said. And yes, I should be happy about the access to things that we have now truly rather than sad.
posted by keijo at 2:49 AM on March 29, 2005

Oh wo(man), that HST quote is golden. For a long time, I was pretty hard on myself about not knowing more. There were so many things I wanted to know but didn't get around to knowing. It seemed like I was really hurting myself by not finding some way to do more. Recently though, I realized that knowledge isn't just art and information, it's personal experience too. And really, it's that more than anything else.

My roommate is a genius. But everything he knows is rooted in the hypothetical. I am not a genius, but a lot of what I know is rooted in reality. Which one sounds more attractive?

And so to answer your question, it will all flow naturally and there will be no need to fret so long as you prioritize your existence. Living is knowing, so just live.
posted by panoptican at 2:59 AM on March 29, 2005

As a very concrete suggestion, I'd highly recommend counting the hours that you spend on metafilter (and wherever else) for a week. If it's eight hours, go spend eight hours in the best library you can find. Look up a few books you like, but don't get them, necessarily. Browse the shelves around them. It's kinda like link-browsing or Googling, but with much more depth.

It's really a matter of prioritizing things. Try to take unproductive things and use that time for something else- if you can have the discipline, even for a short while, yeah- that feeling will go away.

Lastly, I think other people said this, but if there are smart people in your life making you feel this way, all you really need to do is to try to teach them as much as you can, and ask questions that make them teach you (though it's not always really direct). I have a good friend in andyf
and after a few years of hanging out and talking, we've kinda equaled out. I mean, he's still a brilliant phone-system genius that I will never be, but our love of design and general electronics and computers has more-or-less evened out, so that we share most knowledge on those subjects.
posted by fake at 4:43 AM on March 29, 2005

Response by poster: fake, explain to me what the fundamental difference is between learning stuff on the Internet and in a library? I don't really get it. But I guess because my preferred method of getting information (when I have time) is the Internet - if for nothing else for the ease of getting an answer/confirmation to a random question that comes to mind while "learning". And because I have access to a couple of online libraries for information as well.

And panoptican, a very good point about "living is knowing". I'll truly keep that in mind.
posted by keijo at 5:02 AM on March 29, 2005

I know this is a geek-ass thing to say, but Getting Things Done might help you out. This system allows me to easily mark down whatever items/books/movies are of interest for later investigation. I expect a lot of the anxiety you feel has to do with all these niggling little desires being in short-term memory. GTD is one way to mark down what is bothering you, track the progress and sort it for later reference when "completed" (as if the desire for more knowledge is ever sated).
posted by piskycritter at 5:15 AM on March 29, 2005

do you need to work so much? have you considered working part-time, or even assessed how much work you're doing outside of the hours expected? i got very frustrated with not having enough time and was lucky enough to find a way to negotiate a shift system where i work 8 days then have 6 off. i work the same hours as someone on a normal schedule, but because they're all bunched up there's no option for overtime, or wasting a tired evening in front of the tv. i work, eat, run and sleep for 8 days, then get 6 days where i am relaxed and can do whatever i want. a day or two are spent "recovering", but that's all most people manage in a weekend anyway, so i end up with a net gain of 4 days a fortnight for me.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:27 AM on March 29, 2005

I think all of the suggestions re: budgeting your time more effectively are crucial. I think that there is a meta- decision to be made, and that is to determine what your goal is. If you want to be a pop-culture maven, then internet and TV are crucial. If you want broad acquaintance with a bunch of fields, Google and MeFi might be your friends. If you want real knowledge about a subject or subjects, the internet is probably not going to cut it.

Books are more my thing, though I like movies too. Here's how I prioritize. For books, I almost never read the latest novel. It's just not worth it. The newest novels are frequently not that good, and some time really helps to winnow the field some. (See above about goals, because this means that I can never talk about that newest book at the dinner party I'm going to.) When I do read newer books, I am very ready to put them down if I feel as if they are not meeting my expectations. This is a huge time-saver. For non-fiction, and even for some fiction, I think the ability to skim is crucial. Sometimes a book is too good to skim, but the opposite is usually the case. Ephemeral books get ephemeral treatment from me. There are a million interesting books, but not enough time to read them all, so the reality is you do have to be selective. That book expanded from an Atlantic article about MIT kids card counting at casinos sounds fascinating, but reading it will mean several hours of not reading something that might make more of a difference in my life. I may choose to read it anyway, but I try to make it a conscious choice. Finally, this is all directed by my general set of interests. In other words, I try to be more careful to read books about things I'm really interested in or working on or have been thinking about. You do have to make choices, because we can't all read everything. Which, in a nice way, beings us back to Metafilter.
posted by OmieWise at 7:09 AM on March 29, 2005 [2 favorites]

fake, explain to me what the fundamental difference is between learning stuff on the Internet and in a library?

there's very few distractions, popup ads, flame wars, and the "articles" are generally several hundred pages long.

trust me, I felt exactly the same as you- and stayed out of libraries for years. now, going to libraries is a whole different experience... no dancing bananas, no frustrating dimwits, no hours of reading boingboing or what-have-you. it's definitely more focused, more relaxing, and more conducive to you absorbing the information- rather than the information absorbing you.

just try it- i'd bet you'll at least find the difference refreshing for a few times, and that might be all you need to get going.
posted by fake at 7:10 AM on March 29, 2005 [1 favorite]

Wow. This thread is making me even more anxious. You mean that I not only have to learn, know, do and see it all, but that I've also got to budget my time efficiently and manage a million to-do lists? I'm suspicious of GTD and lifehacks because while individually all the tips and systems seem like good sense, as a whole the approach is based on/plays into the assumption that one's life should be as productive and efficient as you can possibly stand. Put another way, a kid I know is fond of asking people the question, "are you on adderrall yet?"

Different approach: get away from the internet. The whole thing is way overwhelming and can cause you to lose perspective. Find a quiet, isolated place and take stock of what's really important to you - what topics you Really care about and what you really want to do. I find that camping for a week changes my whole perspective and makes me feel calmer, more focused, and more like all that wild swirl of information out there is just so ephemeral. If I spend all my time trying to get a hold on it, I may be knowledgeable but I won't be smart. It's important to me to think a bit more deeply, and for me this requires quiet time, relaxed time. I don't worry about being on top of the info superhighway, reading absolutely every book, seeing every movie, because I have other goals.

Maybe this doesn't answer your question very well. If all else fails, make a list of all the booksmovieswebsitesetc that you want to know about and then just prioritize the list and don't worry about what you don't get to, remember that time is finite so you'll never see it all.

And fake's suggestion is important. Libraries are great places for being more thoughtful.
posted by mai at 8:06 AM on March 29, 2005 [1 favorite]

I can sympathize as I know I suffer from some of these information anxieties and a will to conquer them by trying to learn about everything. However, I keep the following in mind and it ties in a bit to trinarian's point and maybe mai's as well: it has been said that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was the last person in the western tradition to have mastered the all the available disciplines of his time. He died in 1832. Seek what you enjoy and know it well. But knowing that you're just not going to know it all helps, humbles, and relaxes. I still dabble in all kinds of disciplines and take comfort and a certain amount of pride in merely being a dilettante in them, but I also have a core set of concerns that matter to me that I seek to know as extensively as possible. On some level, I don't know how you can manage it any other way.
posted by safetyfork at 9:09 AM on March 29, 2005

too much too learn, too little time, and all in the middle of an information paradigm shift... pancake people is what we're all becoming according to Richard Foreman
posted by io at 9:12 AM on March 29, 2005

I think this is one of the reasons people switch mid-career and go to library school. We think that if keeping up with interesting information becomes our actual job instead of something we do in the off-job hours, we'll have more information-filled hours in the day. Unfortunately that's not the way it worked out for me, but library school is still cool.
posted by matildaben at 9:56 AM on March 29, 2005

Armando Iannucci wrote a fun article on this topic. I've found it influential on the way I spend my time.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:08 AM on March 29, 2005

I support the quality over quantity views expressed here. My quality of life was MUCH higher before I moved to NYC where I am constantly bombarded with shop here, eat here, drink here, play here, culture there. For every one of me in NYC there are 100 other people who make the same choices, I hardly feel like an individual. I much preferred a lifestyle of appreciating what I have in my home, in the outdoors, in my friends, than a city driven almost completely by consumption. Most stuff that is out there, if you try and keep track of it, if you dip into it a bit, is not as fulfilling as it sounds.

One problem I do have is with books or with academia, since I've been out of school. With novels I really want to read a good one, but don't really know how to judge if I will like it if it is not in the context of a class, where I will get the most out of it as possible.

And on the making lists of things to be looked at later, sounds like a recipe for disaster to me. I have a queue of articles I never got to read that is hundreds of files long. Making those sorts of lists will drive you even more crazy by showing you exactly how much you are missing, which is always a lot.

You should really trust what is coming to you through real experience, your own instincts in the moment, develop what you need in that moment, in the time you have. That may connect you to another thing that you'll make time for, connected through something tangible, not the manic need to know everything. There is a process to your own life, what things are shown to you, what you actually need instead of want; it is more important to develop yourself than to be a black hole for the mass hunches of society.
posted by scazza at 10:44 AM on March 29, 2005 [1 favorite]

Richard Saul Wurman has written a bit about this in his book Information Anxiety.

Einstein once said, "Never memorize anything you can look up."

We live in an era where there is so much information being churned out every nanosecond that we've fooled ourselves into thinking it is necessary to digest it all. Somehow people lived for hundreds of years and got stuff done without the perpetual information stimulus.

My advice: unplug yourself for at least one week. No tv, internet or newspapers. Then start over by selecting the info streams that are most important and efficient to you. If the information isn't energizing you then simply discard it from your diet.
posted by quadog at 10:53 AM on March 29, 2005

fake, explain to me what the fundamental difference is between learning stuff on the Internet and in a library? I don't really get it.

One difference is that there's vast amounts of information that has not been digitized (and may not be any time soon). I imagine any attempt to specialize in some topic will soon (where soon may be several years) hit the limits of information on the web (unless the topic is, say, the practical applications of computer programming).

Also, if one is attempting to trace the intellectual history of an idea (which many people would say is an important part of learning stuff) you will soon go past the steps in the history that are in digital format. Very few ideas are new (though they always differ in detail from prior versions), and many go back a long, long way.
posted by advil at 10:53 AM on March 29, 2005

First of all, ask why you want to know so much. Is it just to keep up with the intellectual Joneses? Many "smart" people that I know just skim the surface of subjects enough that they can sound smart and drop alot of names and ideas into conversation. It's a sort of game. If you try to get into a really deep conversation with them -- if you ask too many questions. They get defensive.

If you want to learn so that you'll really be a smarter, more well-rounded person, then you first have to cast off some baggage. You need to trash most of the academic mindset (if your experience in school was anything like mine). School trains us to think of learning as a chore. We learn and study because it is "good for us." Scholarship becomes like eating fiber. Ugh!

The only reason to learn (assuming you're not doing it to impress or to get a job) is because you enjoy it. You won't enjoy it until you stop thinking of it as a chore.

Yes, the HUGE amount of material out there can be a problem. But it ceases to be a problem if you make learning playful. Act like you would at a buffet with too many dishes to eat. Just dip in and grab a snack at random -- one that catches your eye or delights your nose.

There is no difference between highbrow and lowbrow except for snobbery. (A cheese sandwich can be just as tasty as caviar!) So read a comic book, then read King Lear, then watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, then listen Beethoven's 9th Symphony, then read a history of ancient Rome, then listen to The Beach Boys....

When you meet people who know more than you, ask questions. Get over your fear of looking studid. Ask questions about the simplest things. What does that word you just said mean? Was that before or after WWII? Was that king kind of like Michael Jackson?

As for cramming as much into your head as possible (assuming you're doing it because you enjoy it), there are some shortcuts. There are many times I want to read when I can't (i.e. crushed and standing on a crowded subway). So I keep my iPod loaded with recorded books from (I generally listen to a classic, then a mystery novel, then some philosophy, then a sci-fi...). When I finally get a seat, I turn off the iPod and crack open a real-life book, instead.

There are some great resources, like (in the US) The Discovery Channel, The History Channel, etc. One amazing resource is "In Our Time," a BBC radio show which you can download or listen to on the web. Each week they discuss a new topic from history or the world of ideas.

Again: my biggest piece of advice is that learning should be about intellectual PLAY. If it's not playful, you won't enjoy it. If you don't enjoy it, why do it? Have fun!
posted by grumblebee at 11:01 AM on March 29, 2005

My roommate is a genius. But everything he knows is rooted in the hypothetical. I am not a genius, but a lot of what I know is rooted in reality. Which one sounds more attractive?

Your roommate.

Ideally, I'd like to learn a lot of hypothetical and practical stuff. But given the option to only choose one, I would go for abstract ideas, fiction, etc. But that's just me.
posted by grumblebee at 11:03 AM on March 29, 2005

Learn to tease the universal from the particular. It seems like there is no end to information, but knowledge is an entirely different thing, and the glut of information is merely a panoply of essays at knowledge.

Let yourself be a dilettante until something grabs you, and then ride that out for what it's worth. Habituate yourself to putting down books you don't like, leaving exhibitions that are so-so, and walking out of films that bore you. Be a participant, not a consumer, and trust your own judgements on that front.*

Scazza's take on New York & novels in this regard is interesting. He writes,

My quality of life was MUCH higher before I moved to NYC where I am constantly bombarded with shop here, eat here, drink here, play here, culture there. and calls New York a city driven almost completely by consumption.

Then, With novels I really want to read a good one, but don't really know how to judge if I will like it if it is not in the context of a class, where I will get the most out of it as possible.

For me, New York is about being discriminating and trusting your own interpretations of the "it" thing, even knowing that there are 8000 "it" things for 8 million people, and that they are useless crap to people for whom that approach to knowledge is not suited. If you are used to having other people help you know what to enjoy (like in a class), you will be overwhelmed by this. Discrimination is the only thing that will save you.

This isn't to pick on Scazza; everyone has to negotiate it some way and preferring to limit your options in order to avoid overload is a totally reasonable response. If you would rather not, then you have to jack up your standards and stick by them.

* This doesn't mean to totally discount others' opinions, but to avoid assuming they magically know better than you when you do disagree.
posted by dame at 11:22 AM on March 29, 2005

We think that if keeping up with interesting information becomes our actual job instead of something we do in the off-job hours, we'll have more information-filled hours in the day.

And were we right? Speaking as your library school colleague, I was not right. I leave my job at the public library to go home and learn things, lately. Not always but often.

My feeling about the intellectual Joneses is that, in many social groups, there are sort of stock canons and the people who have mastered them have an advantage over people who are still learning them. It doesn't matter if your canon is automobile repair or Foucault, there's a learning curve.

That said, I had this problem until I learned that the people in my particular peer group were all just listening to the same shows on NPR and reading the New York Times and [at the time] watching Seinfeld, and chatting frequently about a short list of topics that I didn't know fuckall about. And I felt dumb, and a little behind, because I couldn't match references.

Then I went to library school and met a lot of incredibly bright people who didn't have tight social cliques in the same way -- they were often more introverted, quieter -- and so you really had to work to figure out what they knew, and what was interesting about it, and it was so worth it to learn what they knew, and I got the feeling that they liked knowing what I knew [trivia, rural New England lore, new wave music, welding] because I was passionate about it and wasn't reciting sound bytes I'd heard from someplace else.

So I decided that my job was to learn things from people who didn't tell their own stories all the time, and pass those on and make them part of the vast information-universe instead of just getting in to the minutae of current events or the back-and-forth of hot controversial topics. This can get precious and twee sometimes [you've all heard the politicians waxing poetic and shmaltzy over some forgotten American and their tale of woe/overcoming adversity] but I think that if you approach it sincerely, it not only gives you something to do that can feel more genuine, it also gives you a unique perspective on ideas and events that can make you a source of information, not just a repository for it, if that makes any sense.

Know that you can't do everything, and make choices about what is important to you and pursue those things. Having free time is a choice, so is having a full schedule. Panic takes up its own share of time, so remember that time spent relaxing may turn in to more actual time for doing the things you like.
posted by jessamyn at 11:35 AM on March 29, 2005 [3 favorites]

With novels I really want to read a good one, but don't really know how to judge if I will like it if it is not in the context of a class, where I will get the most out of it as possible.

To me, this is really really really really sad. You DO know how to judge whether a novel is good or bad. It's good if it gives you pleasure (or pain or some other interesting sensation). Perhaps you've just been brainwashed into believing one must get some sort of deel (social/political?) meaning from a book in order for it to be good. Why should that be?

There is NO difference between Shakespeare and a cheap western, except possibly the writer's skill at putting words together in a way that evokes images & sensations. Judge "great books" by the same standards that you judge genre works. Did you HAVE to turn the page to see what happened next? Did Cordelia remind you of your sister? If so, it was a good book.

I'm not saying King Lear is on par with The Brady Bunch. The Brady Bunch is bad because it's poorly written (cliches, lack of imagination, etc.) If it was well-written, it would be good. (Check out great genre TV, like HBO's "Deadwood" to see how it can be every bit as good as highbrow stuff.)
posted by grumblebee at 11:41 AM on March 29, 2005

Jessamyn alluded to something that I was a bit uncomfortable saying: I'm convinced that keeping up with current events kills too much time. It's great for keeping up with the Joneses, though. So-called "smart" people nowadays seem to spend 90% of their time being "smart" about politics (and belittling people who aren't), and maybe 10% of their time researching other areas of art, history, science, etc.

Try giving up (or cutting down) on GWB, The Middle East, etc. Try picking up a Chekhov play or a book on knitting or a Beatles CD or an Agatha Christy novel...
posted by grumblebee at 11:46 AM on March 29, 2005 [1 favorite]

To disagree slightly with grumblebee, I find that keeping an ear on current events is an important part of being a citizen, but that doesn't mean learning every tiny point. I listen to the BBC as I fall asleep, read the Times on Sundays, and talk to people who are really into current events because they love them; together that keeps me up on the general currents.

If you combine this with some understanding of history (say of a particular region or time period), you are in a good position. It's funny that grumblebee opposes "politics" and "other areas," because done well, each should illuminate the other.
posted by dame at 11:57 AM on March 29, 2005

How to keep track of it all? Aggregators & anticipatory media.

Example: movies. I love movies and look forward to the many films that are coming out. When the full-on summer rush comes, I don't feel overwhelmed because I've read up on them beforehand and already have in mind what I want to see and what can probably be avoided. Same thing at Oscar time. How?

2 things: Entertainment Weekly magazine, and Upcoming Movie Releases. I spend maybe a couple of hours per week reading up on movies because it's all in one place, and I can read between the lines of the reviews.

So, identify what it is you want to track. Find some media that tracks it for you in one handy place, be it online or print or TV, etc. They usually always have a "Coming soon" or "preview" section and knowing about things before they are released can make you feel good.
posted by zenorbital at 12:12 PM on March 29, 2005

Along the same lines... I spend a lot of time online but I try to balance time I spend creating with time I spend consuming. This works offline as well. I read books, but I also try to make postcards and write letters. I'll eat out, but I'll also try to make soup. I feel that some part of existential angst is that it's so easy in the US to consume without creating; we benefit on a personal level not just from others' creativity but also from our own acts of creating. It's too easy to just intake without output. I know this doesn't address the hours in a day issue but by setting time aside to allow your own ideas and urges to coalesce into activity and action, you may feel more grounded when faced with the intellectual overwhelmingness of the world of ideas.
posted by jessamyn at 12:13 PM on March 29, 2005 [3 favorites]

To follow on with what others have already said... if you wish to follow the pulse of current life, some choice selections of media will surely help you out.

The key is to find what grabs you. For me, I highly identify with most of the articles I find month after month in Wired magazine. I get it in print. It is 1 of only 2 magazines that I read (the other is Entertainment Weekly -I'm a movie fiend). Forget the rest.

For news:, and/or google news. I try not to get too sucked in on a daily basis, but it's hard sometimes.

other resources: (search for a book you like, see what others have bought when they bought that book, search for recommendations, etc).

Google (of course). Wikipedia (this can suck you in, be careful, you may find that whole hours have disappeared). (natch). (answers any and all questions you have about movies).

Read, read, read. You don't have to read it all. Only the best parts -after a while you may begin to feel your way through to the choice offerings.
posted by zenorbital at 12:23 PM on March 29, 2005

It's funny that grumblebee opposes "politics" and "other areas," because done well, each should illuminate the other.

I don't oppose politics (though admittedly it's not my favorite subject). Information is neutral. Politics is just as good/bad/interesting/boring as art, history, etc. And I agree, everything connects/informs everything else.

As a practical matter, though, I have found that for many people, politics (or current events) becomes so addictive that it drives out everything else. That's fine if you have a singluar passion for politics. Then you're a specialist.

But I know a guy -- a really smart guy -- who moans every time he sees me carrying a book that he wishes he had time to read as much as I do. Both of us work the same number of hours, both of us are in childless marriages, so what's his problem? I talked to him about it once, and he told me he feels like he "has" to read the NY Times cover-to-cover each day. Which takes up all his reading time.

There's also what I (in an unfair way) think of as "old man, newspaper syndrome." Do you know anyone afflicted with it? I'm talking about those guys who say, "I used to read all sorts of things when I was younger, but now I find I don't have the patience for anything except the newspaper." And that's all they read (or, if they are my Dad, you watch CNN Headline News hour-after-hour, waiting for the tiniest change in each story -- or taking comfort in the lack-of-changes. And this is a guy who wrote over 20 books when he was younger.)
posted by grumblebee at 12:30 PM on March 29, 2005

Grumble, I meant "oppose" in the sense that it was politics v. everything else. As for the rest, yeah, you're right, some people go loony in one direction. However, you must admit you go kind of loony in the other.

And I totally second what Jessamyn says about making sure you take time to create something too. That Jessamyn, she knows everything.
posted by dame at 12:48 PM on March 29, 2005

However, you must admit you go kind of loony in the other.

Guilty! Because I see the possibility for "old man, newspaper syndrome in myself." Also because when I went to school there was a sort of political snobbery in which being in the know about politics was shorthand for looking like a smart person. (It reminded me in a sickening way of times past, when the women would leave the table so that the men could have a serious discussion about events of the world. Personally, I would have stayed with the women and discussed art, music and the social scene.)

But by going-to-far in the other direction, I've developed some bad traits. I am selfish about what enters my mind. One DOES need to know something about current events in order to vote intelligently. And I never do know enough.

I also agree with Jessamyn about creating. I find that stimulating material leads to an urge to create (mind-numbing material -- i.e. TV Land -- doesn't). If I watch a really good movie or read a really good book, it makes me want to cook, draw, write... It makes me want to express something.
posted by grumblebee at 1:09 PM on March 29, 2005

Best answer: Einstein once said, "Never memorize anything you can look up."

I'd like to think I am someone who has an educated opinion on a lot of things but I am bad with trivia generally and I am bad with specific things versus the concept of things. Here's the strategy for learning that has worked for me.

1) Avoid the small trends. Understand the larger ones.
I rarely read the newspaper. Sometimes I glance at a headline. Most of the news is fleeting entertainment trying to pass off as knowledge or understanding.
I know about larger political trends but couldnt come up with the actual name of the heads of State of most countries. If needed, I look it up.

2) Pursue things that interest you. Ask yourself questions.
Often, based on something I've seen online or something that someone has posted, it just gets my curiosity going and suddenly I have to know everything there is to know about that topic. Its almost a frantic phase. I'll pull down web sites, go out and get books, read the same thing as written by a few different people until *snap* I get, I really get it.
This type of understanding can last a lifetime and its something I carry forward with me.

3) Dont worry about lists others have made.
Stuff like the list of Great Books you should read should be taken with the same amount of skepticism as any popular list. These things are there because they have a broad appeal but that doesnt mean you'll get anything out of them. Think of these lists as "things you might want to check out" and do so. Read reviews, read the first couple pages and feel free to toss it out the window if it doesnt do anything for you. There are more valuable things to do with your time than to learn things you "should" learn.

4) Someone compared all of this to the anxiety of what to do in New York City. You open up any set of listings and find that there are tons of plays and concerts and events and restaurants and other things going on that you want to see or know more about - and thats just *that* night!!
The thing is life is too much for any single one of us to grasp with any breadth and depth. Getting anxious about it is like getting anxious while at a small party with a few friends and suddenly thinking
"Wait! There are lots of private parties going on right now in the City. And I could be at one of those, perhaps having a bit more fun, with a different set of friends even!"
We all carve out a slice of life and call it our own. This is all any one person has ever been able to do. It may help to know that that siren call of other places, other books, other events, other lives has always been there and none of us has ever been able to follow it.
In fact the people who know and are passionate about one topic have, arguably, had a greater effect on the world than those who know a little about everything, those who only dabble.
posted by vacapinta at 1:10 PM on March 29, 2005 [7 favorites]

Write down how much time you spend doing each thing in your life, including your commute, cooking, shopping, sleeping, browsing the Web. Find some areas where you can trim some time off (cooking, shopping?).

Make a list of everything you want to read, see, learn about. You'll find you automatically prioritize and do the things that are most interesting to you. Don't worry about the rest.

Stop doing so much. Say no sometimes. If you would rather sit at home at watch TV with your SO, decline a dinner invite. Easy to say, hard to do. But you CAN do it.
posted by suchatreat at 1:24 PM on March 29, 2005 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks all of you! I think I really like the suggestion of having a camping trip to get away from it all to stop being anxious (hence, going hiking sounds like a great idea), or really the quality over quantity views. I'm stressing over nothing, but still over everything. You're great guys as always.
posted by keijo at 4:16 PM on March 29, 2005

My advice is to spend time thinking. I love to read, really like delving into various things for a while, but, like Jessamyn said above, consuming isn't enough.

I find myself much more satisfied and less overloaded when I take breaks away from all the input (even music and the like) and just spend time figuring out what I think of things, what I'd like to see in the world, pondering the universe. It sounds sort of silly, but if you don't take time to digest all the stuff you're taking in, and actually fitting it into your mental framework, it doesn't really have that much impact.

There is a whole lot out there you can skim, too much to ever scrape the top of it, but if you take some of it in an then think it over, it can be more satisfying than just skimming a larger area.
posted by lorimt at 5:02 PM on March 29, 2005

Best answer: I'm a grad student in literature, so for me 'reading it all' is not just a personal goal, but a professional one too. From a more concrete perspective, here are the actual particular strategies I have employed over the last couple of years to get rid of this anxiety and get a lot of reading done.

1. As others have said, get thee to a library--or, if not to a library, to a quiet place where you can listen to music, read books, watch movies, or whatever. For all you know, this quiet place could be home--or it could be a coffee shop. But it helps a lot to have peace and quiet.

2. It also helps to have no internet. The reason the internet is bad is because most of it is meta-information, though obviously there are exceptions. One of my professors in graduate school told me once that the only way to learn anything was by "sustained attention to primary sources." This is an academic way of saying that, instead of spending thirty minutes reading all of the movie reviews on Metacritic, it's better to go see the movie. In my current job I have a book bias--but it's just true, from my perspective, that the Great Books will always beat out the Mediocre Blogs.

Case in point: today I have to do some writing, and have brought my laptop with me to work. The result: I'm writing in a thread on AskMe about how to read more, instead of reading the amazing book I've been enjoying about Modernist music. Go figure!

3. I have a huge list that I keep on my computer: this is my Master List of Things to Know and Do. My list has sections for literature, the visual arts, music, history, philosophy, science, travel, and so on, and whenever I think of something that I want to read/do/see/hear, I add it to the list--I don't just go out and order it from Amazon and digest it immediately. Filing things away for a rainy day makes it a lot easier to concentrate on what's at hand--what I'm already looking at, reading, etc. I write things down as they occur to me and process them in a GTD-esque way. And looking over this list every once in a while is a good exercise; it serves as a place to discriminate between things, to remember, before you start reading some article about project management, that you meant to start reading Proust.

4. The advice to 'unplug' is good--and this often means putting a 'freeze' on the ever-changing media universe for a while. So, for example, I used to go to the book store every week and check out the new releases. The result was that over the course of a year, I built up a huge library of unread new books. Now I add these books to my list, think about them at the end of the year or when I go on vacation, and read them later. I've replaced the internet or Amazon's recommendations with friends whose taste I trust or enjoy, and that works quite well.

5. For me, I've had the most success by approaching time differently than I used to. The internet, TV, and modern life in general train us, I think, to pay attention to things for 20 or 30 minute chunks, and to pay attention to them immediately or not at all. This is incredibly unsatsifying. Looking back on my own life, the best cultural experiences I've had are about "sustained attention to primary sources": sitting down for hours with a book, or sitting in my chair at home and listening to a record all by myself. In fact, I think, a lot of the reason to spend time contemplating cultural things or knowledge of various kinds is because it offers you the experience of concentration and silent contemplation.

So, given that contrast, I've improved my own experience the most by deferring things--just slowing down and accepting that it takes a long time to read, listen, see, or learn. My big list, which helps me defer in an organized way, and 'unplugging' help a lot. Both are ways of concentrating on the present and on whatever you do happen to be reading or learning at that moment.

At my university the English department, where I work, has its own miniature library, called Child Library, on the third floor of the big main university library. This library has only literature books, is completely silent, and is sunny and empty of computers--a great place to work. Child is a pretty good metaphor for me when I think about how to approach media. My goal by the time I finish my degree is to read most of the library, which is daunting, but, on the other hand, it'll wait for me. Keeping a list of things I want to learn or experience is my way of organizing everything into a little library of my own..

One last graduate school story: on the day I started, there was a reception for all of the new grad students in the department, and one of the younger professors was there, a veyr charismatic, outgoing guy. We were all talking about this problem, and he said that when he was in his twenties, it really crushed him, thinking about how he would never know it all. One day, though, he had an epiphany while he was sitting in the bath: the fact that its inexhausible is a huge blessing, because if it were possible to know it all, learning itself would be no fun. It's like religion, he said, since you contemplate God because God is infinite, but you can only contemplate a chair for a few minutes before you've exhausted it and moved on. This was pretty right on to me; think about how awesome it is that, no matter how old you get and how much you learn, there will always be more to edify, educate, and amaze you.
posted by josh at 11:27 AM on April 7, 2005 [10 favorites]

P.S.--the other nice thing about the Big List is that you can see what you've already read--kind of like Freindster, which keeps you from forgetting about friends you haven't seen for a long time.
posted by josh at 11:32 AM on April 7, 2005

Accept that most of what is out there is white noise and babble. Ignore trends. Think back to what delighted you when you were young, or something that delights you now - branch out from there - I love the linking books in the library idea. Kill your television. Go for a long walk - and leave your iPod at home. Most importantly, remember this: no one is keeping score. Good luck.
posted by theinsectsarewaiting at 12:58 PM on April 13, 2005

It helps to be picky. I am an information junkie but what and how much I take in is very personal - otherwise, of what use is it? Unless something is personally interesting or personally meaningful to you, don't pay it any mind. Seek out knowledge on a per-need (or per-obsession!) basis. Latch on only to those which touch you or move you. Don't be greedy. Filter your intake of information and media. You decide what's signal and what's noise in your life. Sometimes you just happen to pick up what's there, what happens to be around, and that's fine. Just don't expect to be expected to "keep up" unless you plan on being a pretentious quasi-intellectual hipster; no one's going to take it against you if you don't know it all. Anything you don't know, you can learn, and if it is of any worth then an invigorating discussion can come out of it, even if it's just mainly you asking and them answering. The best conversations I recall having have been fueled by interest rather than knowledge, and more about the concepts behind the art/science/technology than the piece itself. Also, truly knowledgable people are usually eager to share what they know, so you can't really lose here.

That said, absorbing and digesting so much is best balanced with time alone and shutting out the rest of the world once in a while, if only to process the importance and meaning of these things to you, if only to recharge before taking in more.

(Einstein once said, "Never memorize anything you can look up." I never knew Einstein said that, or that there was even such a quote, but this has been a philosophy of mine since I was very young! It bears repeating. Save the brainpower that would have been expended in rote memorization to logic and analysis instead. Accept that you can't know everything about everything, and have a little faith in documentation.)
posted by Lush at 12:37 AM on April 14, 2005

This is one of the most helpful threads out there.
posted by ruelle at 3:22 AM on April 18, 2005

Lush - Einstein's quote is great, but it's balanced by Pasteur's "Chance favors the prepared". If you're not primed to recognize that something is unusual or different from the way you learned it, you may miss an important connection. That said, I got a PDA for the sole reason of doing exactly what you suggest.

IMO, the most important thing said so far in this thread is that "the internet consists of mostly metainformation". Obvious, but I hadn't thought of it before. Why is it mostly metainformation? Because that's exactly the strategy most people use to deal with too much information!

Primary sources are important, but which ones? You need a two step approach. The meta-information is useful as a first-pass, especially when you're new to a field. Then you select the best(by whatever criteria) primary sources from the meta-analysis and pay attention to those primary sources.

This sounds complicated, but if you use Audioscrobbler, you're doing exactly that.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 1:48 PM on April 20, 2005

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