Why I Only Read Half the Things I’d Like To (and Remember Less than Half of Those I Do)

The present information explosion is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, we can find more resources on more topics in less time, with less effort, and at lower costs.  On the other hand, the unending streams of information can be overwhelming. We call this cognitive overload, and its ill-effects may include decision paralysis, continual partial attention, and other task-switching related costs.


Social Media Information Overload by Mark Smiciklas CC By-NC

Knowledge is power, but information is not.
David Lewis, “Dying for Information?” (1986)

I think about this problem especially in context of reading. It’s really no surprise that there appear to be increased cognitive load and associated visual distraction when reading on the web. Even setting the challenges of reading hypertext aside, we’ve known for a while that the act of reading digital is different from reading print, and that reading digital effects our outcomes (e.g. spatial-related understanding, speed, comprehension). This may be especially apt when the goal of reading is learning.

Personally, I want to read everything I can. If I sit next to a discarded newspaper on the train, I read it. If a trusted colleague shares a link on Twitter, I read it. If a blog post hyperlinks to an external site, I read it. If a web search yields five good results, I read each.

Or, at least, I intend to read those things. Often I save the document to “read later”, in some for or another: I can open the web page in a new tab; I can bookmark an article using Diigo; I can store a PDF in my Mendeley watched folder; I can save a web page for later using Pocket; I can star a tweet; I can relegate an RSS feed to Feedly. Etc.

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Unfortunately, too often those articles are abandoned. Too often I quickly skim an article to check it off my list and don’t really comprehend it. Even when I do read an article thoroughly and take notes in a fashion that reinforces my new knowledge, those notes aren’t always readily available, let alone organize, to review at a later point.

The fog of information can drive out knowledge.
Daniel Boorstin, “Helping the Library of Congress Fulfill Its Mission” (1983)

To combat these problems I’m squarely in the camp of Howard Rheingold and others, who seek tools and practices that help us thrive in information-rich environments. To date, I’m still seeking to solve the complicated problems of trans-media reading with different combinations of tools, but I’ve not found the perfect solution yet. In upcoming posts I’ll share some of the more promising pairings that I’ve hit upon.