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The myth of "keeping up"

Keepingup

Do you have a stack of books, journals, manuals, articles, API docs, and blog printouts that you think you'll get to? That you think you need to read? Now, based on past experience, what are the odds you'll get to all of it? Half of it? Any of it? (except for maybe the Wired magazine)

So you let the stack of "things to read" pile up, then eventually when the pile gets to high you end up tossing half of it--or worse, moving it to a deeper "stuff to read someday stack. We have selective amnesia about what we'll ever get to, but mainly because most of us keep feeling like we have to keep up! Keep up with what?

You can't keep up. There is no way. And trying to keep up will probably just make you dumber.You can never be current on everything you think you should be. You can't simultaneously be current on:

Technology
Current events
Pop culture
Professional practices
Health/fitness/diet trends
And on and on and on...

Why do we pressure ourselves? Why do we constantly feel like we're struggling to keep up, yet never succeeding? I remember when Java 1.02 came out (the first public release), and it had 200 classes. You could fit the entire class library in the same space as Miss January (magazine centerfold). But then 1.1 came out and the API more than doubled, to 500 classes. It no longer fit on a centerfold, but you could get it on a wall poster. With 200 classes, you really could master the entire API. With 500, it took some effort, but you could at least be familiar with just about everything, given enough time. But then... by Java 1.4, the library had swelled to 2300 classes. And today? It's something like 3500 classes just in the Standard Edition (not including the mobile and enterprise extensions). You could wallpaper an entire room with the class library.

By the year 2000, it had become impossible for even a Sun Java engineer--someone creating the API--to be familiar with everything in the standard library. Yet the rest of us were feeling guilty. Like we were falling behind. Like we weren't hardcore Java programmers.

So... it's time to let that go. You're not keeping up. I'm not keeping up. And neither is anyone else. At least not in everything. Sure, you'll find the guy who is absolutely cutting-edge up to date on some technology, software upgrade, language beta, whatever. But when you start feeling inferior about it, just think to yourself, "Yeah, but I bet he thinks Weezer is still a cool new band..."

Besides letting go, what else can we do to combat Information Anxiety? I have just a few tips, but I'm hoping you'll add more:

Find the best aggregators
Aggregators become increasingly more important. Finding the right person, business, web site, etc. who does the best job of filtering (attenuating) in a specific area adds time to your life.

Get summaries
Publisher Joe Wikert recently blogged quite positively about a service called getAbstract, that offers online book summaries. Initially skeptical, Joe found getAbstract to be a tremendous time saver. (I haven't checked it out, but I tend to trust Joe's advice)

Cut the redundancy!
Do you really need three news magazines? Do you have to subscribe to every technical journal? Get with your friends or colleagues and divide up the main ones. Each person is responsible for subscribing to and keeping up with just one, letting the others know IF there's something in a particular issue worth a read.

Unsubscribe to as many things as possible
Like the previous point, you probably have way too much redunancy in both your printed and online subscriptions. Again, if you're using the right aggregators, they'll tell you when something is worth it. For print, you can save some trees if you give up more of your physical newspapers and magazines.

Recognize that gossip and celebrity entertainment are black holes
It's like watching a car accident despite our best intentions... we just can't help look, so the more you can stay away from the publications that document every personal detail of every music and film star the better. Let that be your guilty pleasure for when you're at the dentist's office...

Pick the categories you want for a balanced perspective, and include some from OUTSIDE your main field of interest
Better to have one design magazine (architecture, product design, graphic design, etc.) (regardless of whether you're a designer or not), one news magazine, one arts magazine (music, photography, etc.), and one technology/lifestyle magazine (Wired, Make, etc.) than to get rid of everything but your three software development journals. Keeping up with a different field is sometimes just as useful (if not more) than keeping up with your current one.

Be a LOT more realistic about what you're likely to get to, and throw the rest out.
Don't file it. Don't store it. What you don't have piling up you can't feel guilty about. Some people put little height limits on their "to read" stack. (OK, when it gets as high as that drawer, I must throw out the oldest 50%...)

In any thing you need to learn, find a person who can tell you what is:
* Need to know
* Should know
* Nice to know
* Edge case, only if it applies to you specifically
* Useless

Too many product manuals, tech docs, books, etc. include everything without necessarily giving you the "weighting" for how imporant each thing is.

Finally, are WE part of the problem? Are we overwhelming our users with documentation? Or are we part of the solution to their info anxiety? We're the ones that should be helping our users really focus on the things they need at any stage. While we all recognize that we are stressed for time and on info overload, we tend to think our users have all the time in the world to figure it all out (RTFM).

There's an opportunity for all of us to help our users (or start a business around helping people reduce the info overload/pressure-to-keep-up stress most of us feel).

In the meantime, take a deep breath and repeat after me, "I will never keep up. Keeping up is a myth." And if it makes you feel any better, add, "John isn't keeping up either."

Once we let go of trying to be more-current-than-thou, we can spend more time on things that really matter. Like learning to Ollie.
(And thanks to Miles Davies for the spectacular tip from an earlier post: "stop trying to ollie. get zen on its ass...be point b.")

Posted by Kathy on April 29, 2006 | Permalink

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Comments

I was reading about lean manufacturing recently - they care a lot about reducing places where inventory builds up, and they strongly advocate having material delivered just in time, instead of being bought/manufactured in advance and stored until you need it. Applying this to my book-buying habits, my conclusion was that I should stop buying books unless I was sure I was going to read them within the nnext week, and that using something like Amazon Prime to enable this would actually make financial sense for me, let alone psychological sense (as in the good points that you mention).

I'm pretty dubious about the summary idea - I bet there are better ways to get concise information about interesting new ideas. (Reading blogs, for example.) But I haven't tried it, so maybe there's something there...

Posted by: David Carlton | Apr 29, 2006 5:18:27 PM

Great post - thank you!
Blogger doesn't support trackback (grrr) so I've posted my reference here, along with an idea of my own for getting rid of the "to read" pile.
http://liminalworld.blogspot.com/2006/04/keeping-up.html

Posted by: Ingrid | Apr 29, 2006 6:38:16 PM

Great points, Kathy. I can't help but feel you somehow got a look at my nightstand...the one that's piled high with magazines and books! The book summary program you mentioned from my earlier blog post, getAbstract, is going to be a huge time-saver for me going forward. I've already read about 8 or 9 summaries and feel I got the key points from each book. I'd also like to add my two cents in about Google News. I've got about a dozen different phrases I've set up there for searches throughout the day. I also find that I'm adding/deleting those over the course of any given month. It's a great way to let Google automatically do the searching for you across any topic you can think of.

Posted by: Joe Wikert | Apr 29, 2006 7:11:54 PM

Don't worry about having an empty inbox.

So I might have a pile of books and I want to read them, but I don't have any plans to when. That's okay.

Posted by: Jason Yip | Apr 29, 2006 8:04:31 PM

I do have a stack of tech books I need to read, yet if they only had sub sections to each chapter outlining what you should know to continue on (Just in time learning) then when I have time I can come back to the other "In-Depth" section.. Instead I need to go through each page plucking out the important elements.

I now focus on work related material which really narrows it down, yet I do come across people who "think" they are bleeding edge on every subject, then again, I dont consider the glow of my monitor screen to be my only source of "natural" light :) .


Posted by: Simon | Apr 29, 2006 9:03:58 PM

Thank you for a great post, Kathy.

This problem is one that most people face and is made worst in business by free trade publications. Publishers of these "rags" make their money off circulation and advertisment. They then strongly push their magazine or newsletter into as many peoples piles as possible. I get four or five of these each week at work and can't seem to stop delivery. I usually scan the covers and then toss them.

Posted by: Earl Moore | Apr 29, 2006 9:24:40 PM

it took me 6 months to learn how to ollie. after around 4 yrs of skating, on and off, i learned how to kick-flip, fakie kick-flip, shuvit, hardflip, shuv-it body 180, frontside and backside 180 and etc....all of them not too well. If only i concentrated on ollieing well...Being able to execute flawless ollies and doing them real high would have been much better. Trying to keep up is cool but being able to take a basic technique/technology and exploit it is invaluable

Posted by: aaron | Apr 29, 2006 9:41:00 PM

Earl - they make great mess catchers if you have young kids who like to paint, or if you enjoy a good barbecue, scrunch a few up to make kindling. Rolled up, they're pretty useful when a wasp flies into the bathroom while you're sat down. They'd make great ballast if you flew hot air balloons. Many uses! :-)

I tend to have 2 books on the go at any one time - one to take to work and read at lunchtime and in the secure room when I'm waiting for a particularly long grep or sql query to deliver its results, and one at home to leave in the bathroom for when I'm sitting on the throne. Even if they only get read in tiny bite-sized bits, they'll get read eventually. If I can get a book as an audiobook or mp3, even better - that goes on my iPod for my drive to & from work.

Posted by: Matt Moran | Apr 30, 2006 12:52:10 AM

a great way to increase free time is to not read blogs by internet know-it-alls who tell people how to write web applications when they've never debugged a line of code in their lives . or blogs by some unknown person who apparently has discovered the holy grail of programming, and apparently everything you use now sucks.

Posted by: bleargh | Apr 30, 2006 1:26:01 AM

Hi,

in your article you talk about:

Things you Need to know, Should know, Nice to know,
Edge case, only if it applies to you specifically
Useless.

What would you consider to be important in each category? I mean not only in your professional career, but in life itself?

Posted by: polarfox | Apr 30, 2006 3:04:38 AM

Great post Kathy. You have put words to my thoughts. Actually, I've been reading magazines that were piling up at home since 2005 :)

This is an issue that has been bugging me for some time now. I've always been the kind of person who likes being informed about many different issues: technology, politics, music, entertainment, sport, games... you name it. When I was younger and had no access to a lot of that information (I live in a small city outside of the US) I felt left out, and had hopes for a time when access to that information would be easy. Well, that time has arrived, and now I have access to more information than I ever wished I had. And it's overwhelming! I just can't keep up. It's very frustrating, especially when you see that many people seem to be able to handle the great deal of information we're exposed to these days. When I read bloggers that work in many different projects, master dozens of programming languages, actually have time to blog and have a life... Of course, I now they're smarter and better organized than I am, but still...

I mean, sometimes I spend a couple of hours every evening just reading blog posts, news and articles. And it's not like I spend a great deal of time reading every one of them. And besides, appart from trying to keep up, I'd like to add that one still wants to have a life, go to the movies, see live bands, do sports, enjoy some time with friends and family...

As Kathy says, I guess the only answer is admitting there is no way to keep up. But it's a hard thing to do, I'm afraid. I genuinely want to do all those things!

Posted by: Aitor Imaz | Apr 30, 2006 3:37:42 AM

That's me! That's me!!

Posted by: kevin rutherford | Apr 30, 2006 3:41:22 AM

I'll just quote a relevant part of an article I wrote (click on my name for the full version):

"There is so much we can learn that becomes useless in the mid- to long-term. It's often surprising how important things soon become dated. Generally yesterday's news doesn't matter today.

"By realising this and purposely staying a step behind with most things, we can often find ourselves several steps ahead on the important things."

Posted by: Alan Pritt | Apr 30, 2006 6:13:44 AM

I am constantly bombarding my partner with interesting emails and conversational tidbits. Every few weeks he says, "Really... I CAN'T read them all. I can't even THINK about them all. Do you have any idea how many tech manuals I have to read...?"

We now have a workaround: I send him interesting emails with a 1-paragraph (at most) synopsis, maybe some quotes, and a link. If he's interested (or has time), he's click the link. Unfortunately, my interest level is FAR more widespread than his: he rarely clicks the link.

Someone once asked him, "What RSS feeds do you read?" To which he answered, "My girlfriend is my RSS feed. I don't need others anymore".

Posted by: Lauren Muney | Apr 30, 2006 8:39:29 AM

Who says I'm not keeping up?

Posted by: john | Apr 30, 2006 9:41:06 AM

Hmm...that stack on the left at the top of the article certainly looks like my nightstand. My book pile is at 18, but I will get through all of them just because I have been a lifelong book junkie.
I don't worry about keeping up. I read for pleasure and technical knowledge. I have to admit that RSS feeds and blogs are certainly a time sink, but then again they have a certain entertainment value as well.

Posted by: Mike Drips | Apr 30, 2006 9:56:48 AM

The funniest thing is, I've kept this post open in a tab in Firefox for three days now, saying to myself "I must get round to reading that...". Glad I did though!

Posted by: Steph Gray | Apr 30, 2006 10:19:34 AM

Nice work Kathy. This is a real issue for a lot of people. Their productivity suffers because "keeping up" robs them of their focus on the important priorities. Oh, did I say "a lot of people". I meant me. ; )

Here's a couple things I've done to break the habit. And the habit is easy to feed these days with so much media available over the wire. So, primarily these tips apply to the digital space:

I use a digital timer on my desktop to limit my morning email and reading/bookmarking of RSS feeds and News to 30 minutes. When that timer ticks off zero, I'm done. Many software timers are available as freeware/shareware. I use XNote Stopwatch.

When I tag (Del.icio.us) an article that looks worth my time I use "toread" and a priority tag. For example "priority1", "priority2", etc... Then in my Del.icio.us inbox I create subscriptions with the tags "toread+priority1", etc... After a few months of tagging this way, I discovered what I really wanted to read and what I didn't. I stopped tagging those topics that sat in box inbox collecting virtual lint.

This last one helps keep the pile pruned and again provides insight into what reading/viewing/listening I think is important when I discover it and what I actually do with it after it finds a home on my hard drive. Saved searched is the key.

You can do this with Windows Search, Copernic 2 Beta, Google Desktop, etc. I created a saved search for the following:

1. All Media (mpg, avi, wmv, mp3, mp4, mov, jpg) Last 7 Days
2. All Proposed Reading (pdf, doc, txt, html) Last 7 Days
3. All Files, for example downloaded programs. (zip, exe, etc) Last 7 Days

Then every 7 days, I review what each search turns up and decide what's worth keeping that I haven't gotten to yet. Sure, with today's huge hard drives I could keep everything. But this is about the psychological factors you write about, not gigabytes. Works for me.

Cheers.


Posted by: Randy | Apr 30, 2006 11:01:51 AM

My personal filters for technology publications are:

1. Is this (magazine|article|book) likely to be useful to me in the next 60 days? If not, then I ask:

2. Is it likely to be useful to my company in the next six months? If so, I bookmark it in delicious and/or put it in my someday/maybe list e.g.:

todo.someday: implement wicked cool Ajaxy foo widget on the bar subsystem; learn how at [url or info where I can find it]

I still have to many back issues of the New Yorker on my nightstand, but at least I don't have tech anxiety. :)

Also, I just remembered that I set a goal this week to not comment on any blog posts (another time sink), so I swear this is the last one, dammit! :)

Posted by: Derek Scruggs | Apr 30, 2006 11:30:22 AM

Thanks a lot for this article. So often I go to sleep with a very big anxiety that Im not learning enough, fast enough or broad enough.

I sometimes try to realisticaly rationalize to myself that it isn't possible, but on the web it looks as though everyone knows everything there is to know about Ajax, CSS, Design, Business, Ruby, Women, etc.

It's great to hear I'm not the only one and really appreciate this post.

Cheers

Posted by: Danny Halarewich | Apr 30, 2006 11:58:40 AM

you were pointing to an increasing problem of our time.
and the more we go, the more the facilites are allowing us to consume, or, at least think we are consuming more data, more experience with out needing to leave our desk...the anxiety leads to more consumption?
and isn't blog -this extraordinary phenomena demonstrate it the most?
i was reading your tips, for I'm totally addicted while the pile of texts, book, copies of articles, keeps on getting higher and messier a i speak...
an intelligent system will have to be created (using algorithmic intelligent as well as human aid such as Aggregators for helping us cope with this over flow -for i don't see us human -curious creatures as we are, getting off this addiction)
but thanks for the interesting practical insights :)

Posted by: moon | Apr 30, 2006 12:21:10 PM

Given that the world of work is moving towards ad-hoc teams getting together for a project and trying to be more than the sum of their parts, "do I know enough?" could be the wrong thing to be worried about.

The questions to ask might be more like: Am I able to contribute what I do know to a team? Am I able to synthesise someone else's point of view with my own? Do I have the social skills to bring my knowledge to bear or do I just withdraw and try to do my own thing? If I'm in a team that ends up being less than the sum of its parts, how much of that is my fault and what can I do about it?

Posted by: in a blur | Apr 30, 2006 12:31:49 PM

Just thinking it is helpful for some of us... I'm using a great blog aggregator called blogbridge.

Posted by: David Castañeda | Apr 30, 2006 2:14:40 PM

I read in another blog post once how many of the greatest works of literature were created before the internet was even envisioned. I think that's important to remember in our day and age, in which we are experiencing a virtual deluge of information which overwhelms any capacity we have to assimilate so much. I can do better myself at remembering to be more patient and realistic, and I will. Still, articles like this one are necessary reminders.

One other thing I try to remember is something that I learned from D&D and which I believe applies to real-life. I think that everyone has the same number of character creation points as everyone else. Maybe it's 100 points--which can be divied up between all of our various qualities, talents, etc. Thus, someone who is extraordinarily good looking will almost certainly lack in other areas. In my experience it is impossible to have someone who is EVERYTHING all at once: beautiful/handsome, brilliant, kind, loyal, hardworking...etc. It doesn't happen. That concept can be extended to include the illusion of know-it-alls. The reality is that if someone seems to know everything about all the bleeding-edge stuff we'd all like to know, then they must've had to give up other things for that knowledge--if not from a function of mortality and finiteness, then certainly from an inherent limitation imposed on us by time.

Thanks for the outstanding article!

p.s. The above comments were also excellent so I'm grateful for them as well.

Posted by: Abe Burnett | Apr 30, 2006 2:50:24 PM

Kathy, I have just gone to my "Newsletter" folder in Outlook and unsubscribed from more than 50% of them. You are right on the money and as a marketer it brings home to me how overloaded with information many of us already are.
Even with "permission" marketing it is going to be a challenge to get through to many information workers.

Posted by: David Koopmans | Apr 30, 2006 4:07:35 PM

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