To-do-again lists

Many people have to-read lists: lists of books and/or articles they wish to read at some future point. Reading new material is good: you expose your mind to new ideas and that way, you grow. But, as I found out when I set myself a goal to read one book every (two) day(s), the challenge is not so much to read and understand the books – speed reading takes care of that – but to actually implement the things you read. It’s relatively easy to read a book a day, if you set the time for it and if you are dedicated, but it is not neessarily a good idea: implementation of information takes more time than acquisition of information. And when I say implementation of information, I simply mean this: to put in practice what you know in theory; to actually do the things that you think about.

Some books will have quite concrete implementation advice, like books on nutrition and exercise: stop eating sugary foods; don’t do weight training more than 3 times a week; fast for 16 hours, then refeed. This is all very practical and concrete advice, but if you only read the book and only know that it’s good advice, but don’t follow it, you’re sort of wasting your time. This information has not become a significant part of your life – it is just trivia, something you know about but haven’t experienced, haven’t actually worked with it, tested it, saw how it felt, interacted with it. It’s like paying to get a new smartphone and just never using it for anything – while you could use it to phone your friend, write a blog post, tweet an idea, snap a photo of your dog, listen to a podcast, play an interesting game etc. Ideally, all knowledge that you receive is actionable, and you do not receive unactionable knowledge.

To give an example: currently, I read a lot about physics. Unactionable knowledge would be a bunch of physics trivia that I cannot possibly at this point tie with what I already know – like, for example, giving me an advanced equation that I am many inferential steps behind. Actionable knowledge would be something that I can work with: an elementary grasp of mechanics, for example. At some point, your super advanced equation will become actionable, but at this point, it is just clutter and simply knowing about it does not mean knowing it.

Other books, like many books of fiction, do not necessarily offer concrete advice, but interact with your mind in a different way – they “infect” your mind with recurring ideas and themes: you start thinking about what someone said or did while you do the dishes; your mind wanders and plays out scenes from the book while you cook; while out in a pub with your friends, you maybe act more like a character you particularly like, simulating their way of speaking or general behavior. Despite no concrete advice, these books are really very actionable.

But we have limited attention spans and our fallible human minds struggle with keeping valuable ideas in mind. I’ll give a personal example: I know the value of 80/20 and how doing just one big thing first thing in the morning, distraction-free, is like a first-class ticket to Productivityland. However, I sometimes – not always – struggle to keep up with this rule. Same with the slow carb diet – it just kind of gets ignored sometimes. Why does this happen? Nominally, I still subscribe to these ideas. I still think they are valuable. I invested serious time in them, they are not just trivia, I actually worked with them for a significant period of time. So why don’t they just stick effortlessly?

Well, there are a couple of views on this situation. First, a habit has not been formed. A habit is something you don’t struggle with: it is just automatic behavior, necessisitating no decision, no willpower. I should work more on consistency – simply insisting that I make the right choices every day, all the time, making my behavior automatic. The other view is that it is simply a normal course of things: it is behavioral entropy, the ever-present tendency for humans to revert to old patterns. In other words, certain things are simply never efortless to maintain: they can become easier, but it never becomes literally 100% effortless to maintain a certain habit. A third view on this situation is exposing your mind to triggers that produced the original change in behavior. So, if you originally read a book that made you stick to a new nutritional plan for weeks and now you feel yourself giving in, slowly losing the strength of your habit, it might be a good idea simply to reread the book! Because, during these last couple of weeks, you have been exposed to other kinds of information and other ideas, and now, your “viral infection” has ended – it has become repressed by other information.

A good idea is to build not only to-read lists and bucket lists but to-reread lists, to-do-again lists: lists of books, articles, shows, movies, people, whatever – things that at some point made you change your behavior, and expose yourself to these things again, periodically, maybe setting an alarm 3 times a year for a certain book, or once every month for a specific article that influenced you, or setting time once a week to talk with a specific person that makes you think about the world in different/better terms.

Take your calendar, think about the most influential things you consumed in the past, and set some alarms for the following year. Redo the good stuff.

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