How to read without slipping into “check the box” mode

When I come across interesting-sounding long-form articles, blog posts etc., I save them to read later. When I am ready to read, I usually just pick the one that looks the most interesting from the lot and start reading it.

But I have noticed that this often puts me in a frame of mind where I find myself reading impatiently. I want to get to the end of the article fast so that I can “check it off” as done and move to the next one.

This is not only unpleasant but it also defeats the whole point of reading the article. I want to savor it and extract from it things that are useful or insightful or whatever.

Why does this happen?

My theory is that when I see the long list of unread articles, my brain gets very uncomfortable and shifts into “let’s crush that list” mode. It forces me to read faster. It tries to maximize articles read rather than insights gained.

If this theory is true, how to solve this problem?

This is my current solution: I select the next article to read without looking at the list. I literally randomly click on an article link without looking at the screen*.

I am happy to report that this “one weird trick” 🙂 works. It has been quite effective in keeping my brain in the right mode.

It is a bit strange that it even helps since I obviously know that there are lots of unread articles in my stack. But, somehow, not seeing the long list of unreads when picking the next thing seems to make a difference.

Perhaps it reminds my brain that there are an effectively infinite number of articles out there and trying to read everything is futile anyway? Who knows.

All this said, my brain isn’t 100% happy with this approach. It keeps reminding me that a randomly chosen article is very unlikely to be the best one in the pile so I am not maximizing value gained per unit of reading time.

Fair enough, but if I am reading the best article badly, am I really maximizing value? Also, I can’t easily** pick the best article without looking at the list which will put me back into “check the box” mode.

Anyway, it has only been a few weeks and who knows if this will continue to work. Still, I am happy with the results so far. Fingers crossed.

Do you have the same problem? How have you tried to solve it? Please share in the comments.

*The Reading List 2 chrome extension has a convenient ‘pick a random item’ feature but I wish the native Chrome Reading List side-tab – which I use heavily across all my devices – had it.

**a personalized next-best-article recommendation feature in the Chrome Reading List side-tab would be nice.


A Peek into the Incomparable Mind of Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov is one of my favorite writers. I recently finished reading It’s Been a Good Life, a compendium of excerpts from his letters, speeches and unpublished writing, curated by his wife Janet Jeppson Asimov.

The book is worth reading in its entirety — it is full of insights, candid self-reflections, pithy statements of his life philosophy, and accounts of pivotal life events. I picked a few below that particularly resonated with me and if they click with you as well, please do read the book.

Read the rest of the post on Medium …

What an Educated Person Should Know – Steven Pinker

[Via Farnam Street, one of  my favorite blogs]

Steven Pinker of Harvard University writes:

It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

I believe (and believe I can persuade you) that the more deeply a society cultivates this knowledge and mindset, the more it will flourish.

Pretty much sums it up. If every person was educated this way, I have no doubt that the world will be an immeasurably better place.

Imagine if politicians around the world just did these two things!

They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom.

… they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

When I grade my own education against Pinker’s list, I can see some big holes, particularly in areas like history, culture, law and the arts. Definitely need to fix them. And it has never been easier, thanks to MOOCs.


The Taste Of This Meal Is Affected By The Room We Sit In

From The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda.

I once met a designer friend in a quiet Paris flat with white walls, white surfaces, and white furniture. A lunch of aesthetically prepared sushi was served. Red tuna, pink salmon, white squid, silvery mackerel, and a sliver of green leaf boldly engaged my visual senses as I took the entire scene into my mind. I reached to my chopsticks to begin, when my friend said, “The taste of this meal is affected by the room we sit in.”

True. With everything around me in pure white including the plate upon which the sushi was served, the thin slabs of raw fish atop the fist-sized mass of white rice appeared to float in space. I could imagine the taste to be very different in an environment that was appointed with different dishes, table, overall decorum and even different people.

The quality of our interaction with what’s in the foreground may be heavily affected by what’s in the background.

I can relate to this and can think of many examples from my daily life. When I am eating, if the tablecloth under my plate is wrinkled, it does tend to irritate me, in an under-the-radar, nagging sort of way. When I am working with my laptop, if there’s clutter around it on my desk, same thing. I also think that if my work isn’t going well, the frustration from that combines with the “background irritation” to make it feel worse.

Apart from being aware that this happens, what else can we do?

If given an empty space or an empty room, technologists would invent something to fill the expanse; similarly, businesspeople would not want to pass up a potential lost opportunity.

On the other hand, a designer would choose to do their best to preserve the emptiness because of their perspective that nothing is an important something. The opportunity lost by increasing the amount of blank space is gained back with enhanced attention to what remains.

… When there is less, we appreciate everything much more.

Maeda asks us to surround something with nothing. Make the background (whatever it is) clean, simple, uncluttered, with plenty of “white space” so that there’s nothing to distract us and the contrast between it and the object of our attention is high.

Interesting advice. I will give it a try.