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Conceding Defeat - The Internet is Stronger Than I Am (sebastianmarshall.com)
169 points by lionhearted on Dec 20, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments

I have been reading a decent amount lately. This year I have read 28 books so far (should end up with 30 books) and the last 2 years I have read 50 books in total. http://iampavs.com/books/

I have found that reading books itself is not so difficult, nor is it difficult to find time to read books. The difficult part is to make reading books a _habit_. The same way going to HN and Reddit (or whatever your frequently visited site) is a habit. You unconsciously find yourself refreshing that page even though you very well know nothing new happened within the last 30 seconds.

Everyone needs to start at some place and I think instead of forcing yourself in to the habit of reading books, one should ease themselves slowly in to forming a reading habit. Someone mentioned Pomodoro technique and I would recommend that. But I would suggest against taking a mechanical approach in to reading and instead start with small chunk (15 minutes of reading time a day) and slowly built yourself up for longer reading time.

If you asked me 2 years ago if I can go through 1 hour of uninterrupted reading I would probably laugh at you. But I now find myself reading 2-3 hours of continuous reading a day without much problem (not everyday though). Getting a kindle helped to get some distraction-less reading experience.

Do it. Reading books outside your field is the best thing you can do for yourself.

> If you asked me 2 years ago if I can go through 1 hour of uninterrupted reading I would probably laugh at you.

My goodness. This made me stop in the tracks. I find it hard to believe that the web life style is making so much damage to people. I have always taken for granted that reading for hours is the easiest thing an educated person can do. I don't have the time now, but when I was a teenager I could read for 4, 5 hours non-stop (maybe with a snack or two). A few books grabbed my attention for a whole day. It is sad that people think it is an effort to concentrate on a single book for longer than a few minutes.

I completely agree. When I was a teenager I easily read 3-4 books a week. That pace has slowed since but I would guess I still read well over 50 books a year.

My mom tracked my reading count one summer and I clicked in at 200 books.

I don't know. I have a suspicion books are overvalued due to the cultual weight they've historically carried. Wise people read books. We tend to think of browsing the internet as frivilous when compared to reading classic literature -- but is it really? With books, the individual ideas don't get filtered by up and down votes or what have you. You only get ideas from one person -- you don't get immediate dissenting views. People on the internet know attention is a scarce resource and make an effort to condense their ideas as much as possible. Long form has advantages, certainly; but perhaps a big reason we are so drawn to the internet is that it is actually the better use of time.

With books, the individual ideas get filtered by the process of revision that's necessary to produce a work good enough to get past the slushpile.

It's a very different sort of filtering process. Social news sites distribute the filtering load across many different people, but collapse it in time - any given person spends about 2 seconds deciding whether to up- or down-vote a story. The publishing industry collapses the filtering load across very few people (a handful of editors decide whether a book will be accepted or rejected for publication), but spreads it out over time (your editor will then work with you over a protracted period to make sure the work expresses your views as clearly and as fully as possible).

They seem to result in very different outcomes. Social news tends to promote articles that are just barely at the edge of common practice. They make you think "Oh, that's a good idea", but can't fundamentally challenge the way you think, because you don't have time to absorb a fundamentally challenging idea.

Books, however, can fundamentally change your outlook - if you let them. But the process of letting them is difficult, and you need to find the right book, and it needs to come at the right time in your cognitive development.

I think the Internet has done a great thing for making the masses of people better informed, but it still does not replace books. Partially because, on a competitive level, all of your competitors have read the same blogs as well. You need to distinguish yourself with something difficult, which ideally would come from personal experience, but books are often the next best thing.

Reading books isn't just about consuming a simple, distilled idea in a short time. I'm working my way through a biography on Churchill in WWII, trying to understand the background for the role he plays in the English society into which I've recently relocated, and also because I'm very politically interested, and he's one of the big heroes of the movement I associate with.

This process (and lord knows it's a process, the book has been on my bed stand for months) has given lots of time to reflect on the person and his time, it has prompted inquiries and discussions with people better acquainted with him, the time and Britain. On a recent visit to the Imperial War Museum in London, I was able to draw on my readings, while the experience conversely expanded my horizons and my gains from reading the book.

Had this been a ten paragraph blog post, I would have gotten a re-iteration of the view that he's a hero, a central figure in post-war Britain, and particular in post-war conservatism. A comment on that blog post would probably point out the usual criticism, that the bombing of Dresden was an atrocity, that he was an unrelenting imperialist and that WWII was won by the Sovjets and the west just swooped in at the last minute to collect the prizes.

Well, I knew that. I just didn't understand it and it's implications. I still don't (and still have a few hundred pages to go), but I have a much better framework for exploring the issue.

One thing that good books can do, that I've never seen even the best blogposts do in a lasting way: they get under your skin and stay there. I read Microserfs several times in my mid- to late teens, and I'm certain the "Yes! This!" experience I got from this book forever shaped me towards entrepreneurship. I haven't read it for a decade, but the picture of sitting in someones garage passionately working on your own product is still my ideal of life.

A good handful of books have gotten under my skin in various ways, in ways that reading stuff online never did. There are many, many forgettable books, but the prize of that under-the-skin experience is enough that I keep trying. Even lacking that, getting sucked into an alternative reality is excellent entertainment.

Finally, I simply enjoy reading a book (or on my Kindle). I enjoy not having the distractions of a computer nearby.

If you read outside your own area you are in fact doing something different. You are combining knowledge from other fields and tie them into your own. This can never be a bad thing no matter how different the field might be.

There's reading, and then there's remembering and using most of it a couple of months later and years later. Otherwise it just becomes another form of newspaper/HN reading and just mostly gives a vague reference memory in the back of your head.

Unless you are savant you are not going to remember most of what you have read couple of months or years later however you are likely to have a vague recollection of the general gist o the book.

You are also not going to use most of the things you have read/learned in the book in real life. Unless you are only reading self-help type of books.

This is not normal. If you give a damn, you will retain good books; it's not magic. Think carefully about the ideas you read, write notes (if you like), and fit them into your mind.

You may remember good books vividly but there are a ton of mediocre books and bad books that are about as useless as any web page and as easily forgotten. I feel like sometimes people romanticize books far too much. I recently finished Eaarth by Bill McKibben and I felt like the whole book could have been nicely covered in a 10 paragraph blog post. It wasn't a bad book, not even very long, but I couldn't tell you much of anything about it other than "climate change is bad." I guess my point is you have to be pretty selective about the quality of books you read just as you need to be selective about the quality of web content you read. The plus side of the web is brevity makes the bad choices more tolerable. You don't spend days reading a bad web article hoping it might get better. (It got good reviews. It must be good. Just a few more pages...)

There was an interesting discussion on this very subject 6 months ago:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/19/books/review/Collins-t.htm... http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1743513

Sure. If you read 2-5 books a year, its possible.

Everyone reads and learns at different speeds, but for me, M carefully considered books per year is better than N mostly forgotten ones, for all positive M and N.

You are eventually going to forget most of what you read few years later. So to me, the extra effort in trying to "remember" a book seems pointless.

To me relational connection is more important that "remembering" a book. For instance if you can point out "x event" in a book I have read (if it is a particularly interesting part of the book), I can give you a gist of what that x event in the book was talking about and things related to that event. I can also recall similar events in other books I have read. However if you ask me to remember a "hard number" or "hard fact" I will most likely not recall it.

"Remembering" a book seems like ridiculously thing to do unless its a programming book or you are preparing for an exam in school or work related.

You tries to remember books in casual reading?

Crescat scientia, vita excolatur.

This is an issue that I myself am grappling with. I read a lot in 2010. I probably read about 50 books. Some of them, I actively read: I kept my pen handy, underlined where appropriate and then wrote questions in the margins. If I made notes on a page, I would circle the page number; once I finished, I would flip through all of the pages with circled page numbers, and then dump all my notes into a plain text document. I would then try to assert some sort of cohesive logical structure on my dump, INTP-style, and then post it to ZacharyBurt.com.

I hate the feeling I feel when someone mentions an idea from a book I have read, me appraising it as so (fresh and different), and then me feeling that if I had to invoke that idea as part of a creative solution to a problem, it probably wouldn't have come to the forefront of my consciousness.

And of course, could I tell you the precise contents of many of those books? No. In fairness, Leonardo himself observed that genius requires spaced repetition. To that end, while reading, I have tried to build the habit of skimming ultimately irrelevant, unless needed for later reference, details. I still read them to evaluate whether they deserve a more in-depth look. But I am concerned here that my process is not ideal.

Has the reading bolstered my creativity and pattern matching ability? Probably. Has it improved my analytic capacity? Probably, especially noticeable during the time period after I finish reading a book.

Do I remember the core lessons from each book? No.

And that's a big problem. Usually with a book I try to figure out a few different take-aways and then implement them into my life. But unless I implement them immediately and convert them into habits, I will probably lose the lessons. A challenge I face as a reader, and perhaps why I have accumulated a small following as a writer, is figuring out how to convert ideas from a book into actionable habits.

So what major life habit changes have I made in 2010?

I became vegan. That's it.

But I also made some changes to my business strategy, putting lots of money in my pocket. And I became better at competitive sports. I felt happy for greater intervals of time. And my mental map of how my brain works has become more clear. And hopefully, the books I choose to read next year will be ultimately more relevant useful and practical.

I have been planting seeds (for creative sprouting, which has paid some initial dividends). I have been also grasping for intellectual edification, trying to answer big questions that have been lurking in my head. Hopefully I will also start asking better questions instead of wasting time on the wrong questions.

Practically, I think that I could reduce each book I read into a few solid actionable ideas/suggestions. I may actually go through each of my blog's entries. If I eliminate rationale, I will be left with only results.. and people pay for results. Want to get the personal improvement of reading 50 books without having to compensate my ego by listening through my insufferable nerdy analysis? Get the PDF for $X.

I also have to figure out how I want to shift my reading strategy for 2011. Thoughts welcome.

It is true that everyone has their unique way of doing things, so I don't think there is a single "right" way of reading a book but a way that works for you.

But I want talk a little about the motivation behind reading books. I don't read books to be a genius or trying to solve a world problem or for the next big idea. I read purely out of intellectual curiosity and the pleasure of the reading experience. I also read mostly non-fiction books which I think requires a bit more mental involvement and slow reading than fictional books. I also don't speed read or skip parts.

>Do I remember the core lessons from each book? No.

>And that's a big problem. Usually with a book I try to figure out a few different take-aways and then implement them into my life. But unless I implement them immediately and convert them into habits, I will probably lose the lessons. A challenge I face as a reader, and perhaps why I have accumulated a small following as a writer, is figuring out how to convert ideas from a book into actionable habits.

I don't think there are enough original ideas out their that you will find in every single book you read that _you can apply in your life_. Specially in self-help books. If you have read 5-6 decent self-help (on time management, productivity) books chances are you have covered 95% of the important stuff out there. So instead of reading more self-help books to find something new or original (there are none, trust me) you are probably better off concentrating on the core lessons. Any more self-help books you will read will only reinforce the core ideas you already know about. You can also read them to get a different perspective of the known ideas too. I used to subscribe to every single popular self-help blog and have read most popular self-help books (before and after 2009). I also used to make rigorous notes. Over time I have fine tuned my notes and they have all comes down to three points.

Step 0: Say Calm.

Step 1: Decide what you want to do.

Step 2: Do it.

Of course this won't help everyone. But I know that those three point _really_ means. What it means to stay calm or why I should do it. What it means to emphasis on the _decision_ of what I want to do. And what it means to do something "I have decided" I will do. I don't have to remember the core messages of those books to apply the lessons I have learned.

But this is just one example on one type of books. I could use the same example to my other favorite topics "Theoretical Physics" and Neuropsychology". After reading a decent amount of theoretical physics books on cosmology even the latest book by Stephen Hawking felt like "meh". When you read 10th book on cosmology that tells you the same thing by 10 different authors in 10 different ways, at that point you are not reading to "learn something new", you are looking for a different perspective on the same thing you already know. You might not consciously "remember" all the 10 different ways to explain the same thing, but subconsciously you have 10 different ways of thinking about the same problem.

I think going out of your way to actively 'remember' what you read and trying to learn something from each book you read and apply them to your life is a wasted energy and effort (IMHO). Chances are most of them are not applicable to your life.

Just enjoy reading a book.

What good is knowing the best way to do something if you don't actively apply the knowledge? You essentially do not have the knowledge since knowledge includes physical knowledge of being able to act on it in the moment.

Get knowledge -> immediately apply habit in most effective pattern -> Get more knowledge -> immediately apply habit in most effective pattern -> Harder Better Faster Stronger

I too only read non-fiction. I would read a work of literature for pleasure. I do not want to know everything about everything but I want to know a little about everything to ensure that I know what I don't know.

I want to avoid negative Black Swans and capture positive Black Swans.

> Harder Better Faster Stronger

I really don't want to sound dismissive or pretentious; but thats the kind of thinking I used to have when I was a teenager. When you reach a certain age (or perhaps also gather a good amount of life experience) you soon realize what a naive way of thinking it is.

Of course everyone has their own philosophy in life. As an Active Nihilist, being "Harder Better Faster Stronger" is not important to me. Having the knowledge and knowing that "if I wanted to I could" is good enough for me.

>What good is knowing the best way to do something if you don't actively apply the knowledge?

There is no inherent "meaning", "point" or "good" in anything you do. You give your actions and choices a meaning. You chose to be "Harder Better Faster Stronger" because for some reason you find meaning in that. To me thats meaningless endeavor.

To me there is no "meaning" in reading books and gaining knowledge. I do it for the pleasure of it.

You're right, that was very dismissive.

Can you really be sure that you can do something until you have demonstrated that you can?

I agree that there need not be a reason to read, but some people need there to be...

A lot of people who achieve a minor level of success adopt this sort of "if I wanted to I could" attitude, and it's usually rooted in self-delusion rather than tested empirical knowledge.

It's not an either-or. You can read N books and remember M of them, along with having a vague recollection of the other N-M.

For example, here's the list of books I read in 2005:


I remember maybe a little more than half of them, and perhaps 1/6 of them fundamentally changed my thinking enough that I'd be able to remember in detail (you can quiz me on them if you want an accurate sample). However, 1/6 of 150 books is still 25 books. There seem to be a bunch of people on this thread who would love to read 25 books/year, let alone remember them in detail.

If you read business books for example, you don't have to memorize everything you read in them. If you retain the main idea of the book and perhaps a few examples where that idea has been applied, it's good enough.

But even that is not necessary with all the books you read, as long as the ideas in those books remain somewhere in your unconscious mind. Later, when you'll be faced with a business decision, you'll just "know" what the right decision is, without having to pinpoint where you've heard that before. If you can get at least that from the books, it should be good enough and valuable for you in the long term.

I find the Pomodoro technique to be great for combating internet procrastination. All you do is take a forced break after some fixed time of working. I do 45 minutes of work followed by 20 minutes of break. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique

Since you know you're going to take a break soon, you can't justify slacking off during work time. It's a mental hack that's simple and effective.

Posts about the technique pop up on Hacker News from time to time.

Seconded. I wrote a little python script [1] that I use for this that additionally disables my network adapters during work time.

This is going to sound incredibly lazy, but I've found that a good way to keep myself off the internet during break periods (which often leads to extended breaks) is to play a game of Civilization. One turn per break and you'll be so absorbed you won't even think about HN or Reddit.

[1] http://sha.ddih.org/2010/09/04/pomodoro-py/ (it's rough but it works for me)

Yeah. I'm going to call bullshit here. Nobody has ever played ONE turn of civilization.

I've done it. I save the game right before I'm about to uncover a barbarian hut, then move onto it. If I don't like what the random number generator gives me, I load the saved game and do it again. Over and over again.

See? I've played ONE turn of Civilization, just repeated about 50 times.

I see. So what's worse than not being to play only one turn of Civilization is being able to play only one turn of Civilization.

Early game, no. Late game, it can take 5 or 10 minutes per turn and you may be capturing more than one city per turn during an invasion, I can see it working.

Although I struggle with focus myself, I can't help but feel jaded about things like this. To paraphrase some stuff Merlin Mann said, the real issue is seeking out things that you care enough about that you don't need to trick yourself in to staying on track.

This is true. I spent the last week almost completely absorbed in an interesting UI design/implementatiom problem, keeping me online but crazy productive for the time. That, combined with a scuba diving course meant I was practically out of blogs and microblogs the whole week.

But of course sometimes you also have to do the boring stuff, and then tricks like this can help.

When I'm hanging out on the web I keep a wire book rack with an open book on it right beside my computer. It acts like a third monitor and I find myself reading it as much as I do the other screens.

It's a tough one, if you did keep to this scheme I think you would miss a lot of stuff that helps you with the productive goals you are trying to achieve. It's not really something you can plan out either, a lot of the really valuable stuff and new ideas that help me both with the programming and business side of my startup I just stumble upon.

Limiting yourself would get more work done but there is always the danger on putting your head down and plowing on in one direction only later to realize much better ideas or methods that you didn't know about in a more closed loop.

Of course there is a load of middle ground and I guess that's what most of us here try and work towards.

How much stronger you'll find in a few days or weeks when you break even this scheme.

Reminds me of the final frames of this: http://i.imgur.com/6VBhD.jpg

We won't be ruined by what we hate, but what we love. Or even worse and not even with passion - we will be ruined/placated by things just mundane and addictive enough to keep us transfixed to screens.

That reminds me, I've gotta finish reading Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Let me know how it's going in 3 months.

I find I get excited about new organizational / management techniques, but very few survive the 3 month (never mind 3 week) mark.

Exactly. Its way too premature to be taken as advice.

I've been limiting and attempting to limit my internet time for years with various techniques, tools and even building several myself. Its still an annoying struggle.

The internet has put a giant entertainment box inside every cubicle in the world and people make a lot of money to keep you distracted and entertained :).

I've been forced into a similar situation for a week now. I moved to a new city for a new job and have no internet connection at home yet (and no TV or radio either).

It was painful for the first few days but now I am so much more relaxed and well-rested I am giving serious consideration to continuing this way for a bit. I also seem to be able to concentrate a great deal better than before: tested on a new (to me) Coetzee novel and a math textbook.

Update after a week: so that didn't last very long.

I've done this in the past and it definitely works....in the beginning. If you want to KEEP your reclaimed time, be very wary of other time sinks. Don't just replace the internet with TV or some other similarly unproductive, brain numbing activity.

You gotta love the irony of a guy who laments spending so much time on the internet -- by spending time on the internet blogging about it.

(And I'm allowed to pick at lion, because I do the same thing)

Blah. This type of zinger (usually directed at 'complaining about complaining about') never works because the target is always clearly framed as a 'meta' point.

"the target is always clearly framed as a 'meta' point."

Can you unpack this statement? What's a 'meta' point? And why is it not an effective zinger?

How do you know he spent anytime on the internet while writing this article?

If you're doing something that's only purpose is to be posted on the internet, it's the same as being on the internet. Even if the cable is unplugged, you're still doing internet things.

That's a lot of the problem here. He's trying to stop something too broad. Instead, he should be picking the things he DOES on the internet that are stealing his time. Reading Digg/Reddit/StumbleUpon/Facebook for instance. Limit or quit those things. The internet isn't the problem any more than 'being outside' is the problem for laying on the beach too much.

I've tried to limit my internet use and I end up wasting it on something even far worst. Television.

I really dont go out much, because of location, there is not much to do. So me limiting my internet use amounts to working out and waching TV.......which kinda sounds like prison lol

I kinda justify things lately by learning online. For example I take classes online for various things like learning a foreign language, or playing the piano, or learning new technology etc

one of my pet projects is a chrome extension that tracks where I spend time in the browser. I was always worried that I may be spending too much time on HN, reddit etc.

Now I have hard data, it's bad (about 10% on this news sites, still not tracking dependent time on linked sites) but not as bad as I thought :)

Is the extension available to the public? I'd love to be able to see my own stats.

There is this https://chrome.google.com/extensions/detail/mokmnbikneoaenmc...

But it isn't exactly elegant.

mine looks slightly better, but I wanted to add a couple more features (ignore url, delete item from history)before releasing. As soon as I have a bit of time to do it and release it I'll ping whoever wants to know it.

Yes I too am interested about that extension.

I will let you know as soon as I have something decent :)

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