Consuming Content and Managing the Flood
Dam & flood by Richard Weil is licensed under CC BY-ND
For almost a decade, I’ve been immersed in the software development world. One single truth that has held on since the beginning is that there are always things to keep up with. You know what I mean – it seems like every day there are new frameworks, languages, techniques, and learnings to consume. I have always referred to this constant onslaught of information as the Feed. This term comes from my original method of corralling the information – via RSS feeds.
Early in my journey, I was looking to get up to date on anything and everything. I was grasping for information to consume. As I found sources, I simply latched on to the pipe and drank it all. In most cases this was unsustainable. The classic and best example of this is HackerNews, which presents a barrage of items every day.
I want to talk about the techniques I’ve adopted to better keep up to date in my field. The following are techniques I’ve found and solutions that work for me, but no guarantee they will work for you to the same capacity.
Just don’t. It’s impossible to do so, you’ll only end up wasting your time and putting more pressure on yourself. I’ve been guilty of trying to stay on top of HackerNews and just drowned in it. It is a struggle if you try to consume everything. Even if you aren’t reading every article, you still have to spend the time and effort to determine if this is something you want to read.
So you don’t want to read everything… how do you determine what to read? I ask the following two questions when I see a headline:
These rules have some flexibility built-in and will vary by person and by time. If you do adhere to them, hopefully, you find a way to pass over media that you’ll get little benefit from. We want to maximize the return on investment when consuming information, everything takes time and effort.
Going back to HackerNews, there are tens if not hundreds of links posted a day. Subreddits are another case where there is a large amount of content present daily. Unfortunately, not everything you see will be high-caliber.
If we think of getting the best return on our investment, we’d naturally want to only consume the finest information. To me, this is stuff that other people have found useful, and therefore has been vetted by the community. It is also worth considering content that is gated by some criteria as this enforces a minimum bar of quality.
I subscribe to several weekly newsletters from various sources – they are curated and present the highlights for that week. The following is a subset of newsletters that I consume weekly.
Recalling our earlier focus on Don’t Consume Everything, we need to be selective even on the curated selections. Newsletters can be a slippery slope as well, as it still depends on how you handle them. In addition, we don’t want to subscribe to everything. Be focused on the relevant and the unchanging. For example, don’t subscribe to Mobile Dev newsletters if you aren’t actively working in that area – with any luck, different topics will converge in other areas you are focused on.
Ultimately, a good chunk of content is sourced from the blogs of individuals. In the past, I have subscribed to receive updates from individuals (i.e., via RSS or their own newsletters), although I have started to slowly move away from this approach. It’s not uncommon to frequently see articles from an individual appearing in curated newsletters. In rare situations does an individual produce consistent high-quality material that is on-point and unchanging in value.
Conference talks are also a great medium to consider as they carry with them a certain level of quality. The same rules as before apply with the selection process. I skim over the titles of a conference talk when it appears on their preferred video hosting platform (i.e., YouTube, or Confreaks). I also want to bring up that TED Talks are also a fantastic source of knowledge.
A tried and tested approach to knowledge transfer is books. Writing a book is a significant undertaking requiring plenty of research and editing, and are also difficult to update after they are published. Given the constraints of books, we are hopeful that they are written to stand the test of time (i.e., the content is unchanging). One other valuable aspect is that book authors often have a unique viewpoint, which led them to write a book. Overall, I think books are a great medium of high-quality content, and there are many great books out there that are recommended.
The podcasts I listen to traditionally follow the format of a host interviewing a person of interest within the topic’s community of the podcast. Podcasts are interesting as their content can vary episode to episode, and can be heavily dependent on the people present. Sometimes there are musings on recent news, sometimes it is dissecting the success of an individual or project. I follow podcasts that are specific to my professional focus, although I’ll admit even those offer highly entertaining facets due to the light-hearted nature of interviewing styles.
I’ve always found Twitter to be hit-or-miss with respect to content. It’s a lot more raw in nature, and if you’re following the right people you do get a glimmer of insight closer to their thought processes. In my opinion, keep Twitter for entertainment, and as a means for social connections. Also from my experience, if a nugget of information is linked to on Twitter, it normally ends up in another medium.
To summarize the above, focus on the high-quality content that is deeply relevant and/or unchanging over time. This brings up an interesting conundrum – how do we expand our knowledge to new areas? As previously mentioned, different topics and trends will bleed into each other if they are tangentially related. We can rest assured that we won’t be blindsided from an emerging trend.
I personally like to keep a pulse on emerging trends and technologies. I subscribe to the Technology Radar by ThoughtWorks, an infrequent but detailed report with insights into the technology and trends shaping the future. To some degree, the trends mentioned in the report help shape new areas that I want to focus on in the near future.
To tie everything together, I’m going to use the metaphor of a dam.
The selection process we’ve talked about is our dam – it helps reduce the flow and keeps high-quality content in our reservoir. The flow is composed of content mostly arriving in my email’s inbox (via newsletters, and RSS-to-Email). My reservoir is a combination of tools and services: Instapaper for individual articles, Kobo for books, Pocket Casts for podcasts, and a list in Notion [Referral] for video talks.
One aspect to be aware of is when the reservoir overflows. It is possible that there is just too much material to cover. There are two ways to correct this:
I plan to post more detailed information regarding my dam, how I manage it, and reasonings for certain decisions. Our information flow/consumption should be as sustainable as a real dam.