🐆 5 min, 🐌 11 min

Consumption mentality of our society is simply bad for good knowledge work.

At every level.

Social Media, Netflix, e-mails, super-market discounts, self-help books, bureaucrats sending another form to be filled out, millions of research articles published every year, ...

Study all of that, do a workout, read, sleep, socialise, do that, and do that. It never ends.

Sure. So to do everything thrown at us, we want to know:

How to "hack" our brain so it can consume more?

It's a valid question. But is the right one?

Do you really want to work deliberately against the nature of your body? Change the way your body works to be a better consumer? Maybe you do. I know I don't.

Now flip the question, because with "How to hack my life to consume more?" you're basically asking:

How can I re-design my life to be a better consumer and allow the consumer economy to thrive even more?

If people don't consume more, don't do more, then the consumer economy can't grow. Simple as that. The growth of the "world" needs people to consume more and more. Without consumers, we can't have more thriving companies, luxury homes, and independent creators.

If you don't contain bureaucrats, you eventually have exponential growth in the amount of paperwork that needs to be filled. Explained by the Parkinson's law . The same thing is happening with content creation: more creators create more content, is making more creators. We're in exponential growth when it comes to research, content, and who knows what else.

Our current solution for tackling the exponential growth of options, things we can consume is not via filtering and doing less, but by figuring out how to consume more and faster.

In some sense, by trying to cope with the exponential growth of knowledge, we encourage the further exponential growth of existing knowledge.

But even if we try to consume an infinite amount of things, our brains can't stomach that. There's a natural limit to what we can digest. A limitation to what can be "jammed" into our brain.

OK, sure, nowadays humans can consume more information. Remember more than our ancestors did because brains apparently evolved, but there's still a limit. You might not hit it every day, but if you push your body over the limit for too long, you'll eventually damage the body.

Doing more is, 99% of the time, useless.

Consumption is useless unless it's systematic and based around a specific goal.

OK, my bad, all consumption is valuable, just not for you, but for everyone else who's making a dime from you consuming more. So if you like consuming to allow others to live better lives, go ahead; everyone has their own priorities.

I would argue that because of the bulk consumption across the whole board, we're experiencing another problem:

Abundance of content/options is paralysing people.

People like you and I are not progressing on our personal goals because the entire system is designed to keep us in check and benefit from our participation.

The effect of the abundance is, in my opinion, most problematic in knowledge work. Read that, take that course, learn that skill, instead of thinking and producing something.

Knowledge Management's Return On Investment

Instead of figuring out how to move further on a project, we are trying to figure out how to get a better grip of all the knowledge inflow:

  • How to structure what we consume?
  • How to remember everything we consume?

Use Notion, Roam, Obsidian, Zettelkasten, ... who knows what else.

But unless you're working on sth. as complex as rockets, accelerators, the moon landing or oil tanker design, you probably don't need a complex, complicated note-taking, Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) system.

You need to figure out how to do less. Go from FOMO to JOMO . Deliberately missing out on things.

My take is that in the 21st century, you don't need a good note-taking system that can handle everything you consume and are exposed to. You need a strict filter to decide what you consume and store (silo).

Yes, take systematic notes. But not for everything you work on. Take notes for a few things, a few projects close to your heart or a personal priority.

Yes, not logging everything means that you will not remember it all. Yes, you will have to miss out on a few things.

Now I know that your inner voice is probably going:

But what if that x thing becomes vital in two years, and then I have to go back and re-learn it.

Good, then you will go back and learn it. And probably at a way lower cost than if you tried to silo everything.

Let's say that to silo it all, you need approximately 2h a day. OK.

So over a year, that's 30 days or approximately 720 hours.

If you use 1% of that knowledge, you have a Return On Investment (ROI) of about 7.2h.

You get 7.2 h of benefit for spending 720h on PKM curation.

Am. That sounds like a bad deal to me. Or let's say you use 10% of everything you hoarded, probably not the case, but stick with me for the sake of argument:

72h or 3 days of benefit for 720 h or 30 days of PKM work.

Sure, in finance, 10% ROI yearly is brilliant. It would make you a millionaire in no time. But 10% ROI in knowledge hoarding, I don't know to me it doesn't sound as useful. And keep in mind that I'm doing physics research for a living.

Why is 10% ROI in knowledge work unimpressive?

Because our brains forget 99%.

And that's not a bug; it's a feature of our brain.

If I use the analogy to finance again. Our brain's forgetting is like forgetting which stock we invest our money into. We made some money, but we forgot where we placed it. So if we forget where we invested 99% of our money, then even if ROI on all the invested capital was 10%, our actual ROI was 0.1 %, not 10%.

So yes, by making too many notes trying to remember too much, we decrease the ROI of time spent trying to remember things in the first place.

Forgetting makes space for new thoughts, new inputs. If I tried to remember everything that they thought us in the physics undergrad, my brain would explode by now. Or be a size of an elephant (if only the skull wasn't limiting my brain). But the reality is that I have a skull, and my brain isn't a size of an elephant.

Consume as much as you want and can, but make sure to ask yourself:

Am I consuming for its own sake, or am I doing sth. with what I consume?

By handling your consumption and not taking too many detailed notes, you are finding the time you can spend actually doing the work.

The exact balance between curation and creation is for you to find.

Stored knowledge is only helpful if we ever use it.

Remember Niklas Luhmann, author of Zettlekasten, didn't just build a glorified pile of notes. He also published 400 scientific articles and 70 books. For comparison, Albert Einstein published 300 papers (around 10 out of which are highly influential), and another physicist Richard Feynman published 37 articles (yes, 37, I know the number is low).

Both Feynman and Einstein are pretty much household names. They will go down in history as some of the most influential physicists of their time. But they didn't leave us with an abundance. They left us with a few very powerful ideas.

Volume does not equal quality. It never did, never will. And humanity isn't evolving due to a large volume of thoughts but a few high-quality ideas.

As a knowledge worker, you have two options:

  • 1.) Go for high volume. Some of your work might be good.
  • 2.) Go for less. Take time. Some of your work might be good.

No matter which path you choose. Don't think and write in a vacuum. Even if you go for less, you can enormously benefit from having conversations with others, bouncing ideas around, etc. But no matter which approach you take:

Try to find another perspective.

That's what knowledge work is all about.

This very essay, for example, is a result of months, maybe years of reading, conversations and thinking about this topic. It's far from perfect, but if I dare to claim anything, it's not shallow. And at least for me, that's the whole point of taking the time to think things through.

So what to do instead of doing more, more, more?

All you can really do is make sure to upgrade your thinking daily.

Try to go to bed smarter than you were when you woke up.

Nothing more.

If you are in a complex field, make a simple table of content for knowledge most closely related to your work: What can be found where? Nothing fancy. A simple excel table will do, or a physical binder.

Besides an excel table with literature relevant to my work, I have a small binder that contains math derivation tricks and a folder that contains simple code snippets I regularly use. That's all the knowledge management that I need.

So what about notes? Capture (write down) as many of your thoughts as you can.

But don't spend too much time curating them.

Occasionally, go and read the past journals and have a conversation with an older version of yourself. The point of note-taking isn't to remember it all, but to capture what you did, so you can surface some parts of your past thinking. There's too much of your past thinking anyway to remember it all forever.

I write around 50 A4 pages per two weeks. Reading them relatively fast takes me about two hours. Acting on all of those notes would take me, well, too long. Probably more than it took me to write them.

System is rigged

So next time you are watching a commercial where a celebrity is telling you how this mobile phone plan will give you more of x, y, z, remember. Your consumption is enabling our economy to spin.

It's literally the job of every marketer out there to make you buy a few more things, to read a few more things, to consume more.

The system is rigged, and only you can make sure not to fall for it every damn time.

It's sort of ironic that you made it to the end. I made you consume. Now, if you have already internalised the lesson of this article:

Do less.

You'll never come back to this blog. If you didn't make peace with doing less yet, you might come back 🙂

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