Treat your to-read pile like a river, not a bucket

I'm going to take a wild guess here and say that you, like me, have a large pile (or digital equivalent) of books or articles you've been meaning to get around to reading, plus maybe a long queue of podcast episodes to which you'd love to listen, if only you had the time. It's the archetypal "first-world problem", I know. But one worth reflecting on – because it's a microcosm of a broader mistake that makes it more stressful than in needs to be to build a fulfilling and productive life: the problem of Too Many Needles.


It's amusing to reflect that at an earlier stage in the history of the web, information overload was widely held to be a temporary issue. Yes, true, for the time being we were getting deluged by a zillion irrelevant blog posts, emails and news updates. But that wouldn't last, because soon we'd have better technology for finding what we wanted, while disregarding the rest. The real trouble, according to the leading techno-optimist Clay Shirky, wasn't information overload, but "filter failure". We needed – and we'd eventually get – more sophisticated ways to filter the wheat from the online chaff. And then we'd no longer feel overwhelmed. 


Yeah… no. I assume you'd agree that the problem of your to-read pile is very much not one of filter failure. It's not that you're deluged with things you don't care about, and need help figuring out what's truly of interest. It's that you're overwhelmed by things you do want to read. All the books on your bedside table, all those bookmarks in your browser, or articles saved to Instapaper – all of them seem like they might be right up your street, or crucial to your professional success, or might contain some nugget of wisdom you'd benefit from absorbing. The problem, as the critic Nicholas Carr explained, isn't filter failure. It's filter success. In a world of effectively infinite information, the better you get at sifting the wheat from the chaff, the more you end up crushed beneath a never-ending avalanche of wheat.


And so, for example, the reading recommendations I encounter via Twitter are much more tailored to my concerns than those I might encounter via a newspaper, because I choose who I follow on Twitter; it's like having a thousand assistants scouring the infoverse for whatever might pique my interest. My challenge, information-wise, isn't about finding a needle in a haystack. It's that I'm confronted on a daily basis, in Carr's words, by "haystack-sized piles of needles." 


The wider point here is that lots of the other ways in which we feel overwhelmed are problems of "too many needles" as well. They involve the attempt to divide our finite time and attention among too many things that all have a legitimate claim on them. Some of these are "good problems to have": for example, if you're blessed with work you love, or a creative passion you're good at, you may often feel torn between multiple projects you're excited to launch. Others are the familiar problems of Life Under Late Capitalism™, like the feeling that there's simply not enough time in the day to be a good parent while staying afloat financially. What they all have in common is that the things you're choosing between all genuinely matter, and would benefit from more time than you can give them.


Too many rocks

Unfortunately, most advice on productivity and time management takes the needle-in-a-haystack approach instead. It's about becoming more efficient and organised, or better at prioritising, with the implied promise that you might thereby eliminate or disregard enough of life's unimportant nonsense to make time for the meaningful stuff. To stretch a metaphor: it's about reducing the size of the haystack, to make it easier to focus on the needle.


There's definitely a role for such techniques; but in the end, the only way to deal with a too-many-needles problem is to confront the fact that it's insoluble – that you definitely won't be fitting everything in. (Of course some such problems, where just scraping a living feels impossible, demand political solutions too – a topic for another time.) It's not a question of rearranging your to-do list so as to make space for all your "big rocks", but of accepting that there are simply too many rocks to fit in the jar. You have to take a stab at deciding what matters most, among your various creative passions/life goals/responsibilities – and then do that, while acknowledging that you'll inevitably be neglecting many other things that matter too.


To return to information overload: this means treating your "to read" pile like a river (a stream that flows past you, and from which you pluck a few choice items, here and there) instead of a bucket (which demands that you empty it). After all, you presumably don't feel overwhelmed by all the unread books in the British Library – and not because there aren't an overwhelming number of them, but because it never occurred to you that it might be your job to get through them all.


Coming at life this way definitely entails tough choices. But it's liberating, too, as you slowly begin to grasp that you never had any other option. There's no point beating yourself up for failing to clear a backlog (of unread books, undone tasks, unrealized dreams) that it was always inherently unfeasible to clear in the first place. I like to think of it as the productivity technique to beat all productivity techniques: finally internalizing the implications of the fact that what's genuinely impossible – the clue is in the name! – cannot actually be done.

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