What do Information and Food have in common?
The short version
Written information is the lifehack that has made civilization possible. But now information overwhelms us at an individual level. The lifehack of lifehacks is to deliberately select the information that you process. You do this be creating filters for information and a process to select it.
Information from others allows you learn as if you lived a million lives. But be careful from whom you learn. You can learn stupidity easier than wisdom.
The in-depth version
We are obsessed with life hacks
Most lifehacks youn find online are garbage. Things like ‘Eat More Vegetables by Mixing Them Into Cream Cheese’ , ’13 Ways to Spring Clean When You’re Lazy’ or ‘How to Find (Good) Sex Advice on TikTok’. If you are curious, the last one boils down to ‘look at content from good sources’.
Most of these lifehacks are either not insightful, or they are useful only in specific situations.
Despite what you find online, lifehacking is not just tips and generic advice. It’s not doing some tiny things a little bit better. Lifehacking is improving at an unnaturally high rate. It’s about making some aspect of your life exponentially better than it could be if you were to follow the conventional approach.
The difference from general advice is important. Every organism on the planet improves. It adapts to its environment as much as it can to maximize its chances to survive and reproduce. This is natural selection.
But only humans create lifehacks. To understand how you can lifehack lifehacking itself, we need to look at how humans became rulers of the planet.
How did our ancestors conquer the Earth?
Homo Sapiens were not an impressive animal. They had no weapons to attack or to defend. They could run for long periods, but slowly compared to predators. A lone human had little chance to survive in the wild.
These fragile weaklings had an ace up their sleeve. Actually they had two aces: cooperation and learning. Working together groups of humans learned to become the apex predator of their environment. Then they spread across the globe.
Humans became so good at natural selection, they wiped out most large animals outside of Africa. The poor sabretooth tigers and mammoths did not have time to learn to fear our ancestors.
How did these two aces: cooperation and learning, transform a weakling mammal into the ruler of the world?
Many aspects made cooperation possible: empathy neuron circuits, large eyes, expressive faces. We can understand each other without speaking better than most animals because of these adaptations. But the ‘hack for cooperation’ was the invention of language. The time of origin for language is under debate, but it appeared either before Homo Sapiens or early in our species history.
Words allowed our ancestors to cooperate at previously impossible levels. The more they used language, the more it evolved, the more useful it was.
Imagine if you had to coordinate with someone without saying or writing anything. The simplest of tasks become impossible.
Language was not just external, it was internalized as well. It gave structure to our thoughts and went hand in hand with the other ace.
Learning is not an exclusive to humans. Many animals learn. Humans are merely the best at it.
What is learning? You act to maximize your chances for survival and reproduction. To do so you have a model of the world which you use to predict the outcomes of events and your own behaviour. The better this model, the better your prediction, the better your success at natural selection.
For all animals, including humans, this model of the world is unconscious. You don’t hold debates in your head before every action. You just act.
All animals learn from the direct feedback of their actions. You touch fire, it hurts, so you adjust your model that fire is harmful.
Humans have the ability to learn from indirect feedback and from implications. We do this by narrating what happens to us. We tell a story of events. This narration is a way to test and adjust your model of the world. When things don’t go as predicted, you try to find a different narration, aka you change your model to adjust. Say you have a story that fire burns anything, but then put in something non-flammable in a fire. You have to change your story because it is not true any more.
It’s more complicated and messy than that. But this continuous adjustment of our inner model based on our story of events is a good way to understand our learning ability.
The First Lifehack
Putting cooperation and learning together was the first (unintentional) lifehack.
The non-lifehack way to learn is to learn from personal experience. Many animals do this. Learning from personal experience is limited. At age 50, personal experience means learning from 50 years of data on a relatively repetitive life.
Oral culture was the first lifehack
Learning from others is exponentially richer. A tribe has the information from all of its members’ personal experiences. This is much greater than one man’s life.
Through language, the human tribe also has oral history. This encompasses learning from generations of tribe members. This is culture. The culture of one tribe equaled thousands of years of personal experience.
It is a hack of learning because it provides exponentially more (and better) information than personal experience.
The Second Lifehack
Appeared after the Agricultural Revolution. Human societies were becoming too big for oral culture. Too many people, too many goods, too many events. Our ancestors invented writing to keep track of everything. Evidence suggests writing first appeared as a form of accountancy, for the king to keep track of all the State’s possessions. Then it evolved into a permanent form of communication.
Written stories are the second lifehack.
If the oral history of one tribe equals thousands of years of personal experience, then the sum of written knowledge today is billions of trillions of personal experience.
The increase in knowledge is greater from oral history to written records than from individual personal experience to oral history.
It is not only much greater in volume of information, but also in the quality of information. Oral histories are limited by human memory. You cannot pass on everything that each generation learns.
Books bypass this problem. Written records can have as much detail as desired.
Writing created exponentially greater information than oral history which was exponentially greater than personal experience. It is a hack of a hack. It is also the foundation of civilization.
What does this mean for you?
Now you might be disappointed thinking this is just a long interesting way to say you should read more. It is. But it is more than that.
Reading more is not enough. The very attribute that makes writing extraordinary has become a problem at an individual level.
Our ancestors had too little information. Any scrap that they could pass down was valuable.
We have too much information.
A report estimates more than 2700 books were published every day in 2020. Add to that all the articles, social media posts and video published online. It’s an incomprehensible amount of new information.
On any topic, no matter how obscure and specialized, you can find more information than you could ever process.
We are all drowning in a deluge of information. The lifehack is about making a dam instead of lifeboats.
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Information and food present the same problem
The problem is the same problem we have for food. Throughout all of history, humans’ main problem was insufficient food. Our ancestors’ lives were spent in the search for food. Now we have the opposite problem. We have too much food. But much of it is harmful and low quality.
Our ancestors were healthy if they found enough to eat.
You are healthy if you make strict deliberate choices about what you eat. In essence you are healthy if you are good at rejecting harmful foods.
Information is the same. Our ancestors had very little. Any extra bit improved survival chances. This is why now we unconsciously crave information.
We feel good when we get a new piece of information. Novelty is a persuasive trait for virtually anything. I used to waste so much time and effort ‘foraging’ for new information. I still do. It’s too primal to just stop. But I make deliberate efforts to seek this information only for topics I care about and sources I trust. This is the lifehack of lifehacking.
The lifehack of lifehacking is deliberate information filtering
Information has a cost and a risk.
The cost is in terms of time, cognitive power, emotional effort. You have limited time and effort. Every bit of information you take in prevents you from finding out other information or doing something else.
Think of it like a big bowl. Every bit of information is a drop of water. When the bowl fills, you are done for the day. You can take in no more information. And you can also do little cognitively or emotionally demanding tasks as well.
You can fill the bowl with Instagram posts that you scroll through and shopping promotions. Or you can fill it with knowledge to gain a new skill you want or tackle a problem that you have.
The risk comes from the variable truthfulness of information. If you take in erroneous information, it harms you instead of helping you. Any bit of data that you judge to be true and incorporate in your model of the world becomes very hard to dislodge.
It’s like sports. If you learn to do a movement wrong, it becomes much harder to unlearn than it would have been to learn the correct movement from the beginning.
When I did Crossfit, I started out in a box with bad teaching. I learned the Olympic weightlifting movements: snatch and clean very badly. Then I struggled for a long time to unlearn the bad movements. I saw beginners come in and learn the correct movement while I was still struggling. I knew what I should do, but the body was not cooperating. My unconscious had learned the wrong movement and did not want to let it go.
It’s the same with any information that becomes part of your unconscious model. It is even worse than with sports movements because such erroneous or self-harmful beliefs lie deep down and are not apparent. People argue over superficial matters because they have differences in their deep models of the world. But this unconscious model is hard to examine. You don’t see it directly, but rather you act according to it without realizing.
Information is costly and dangerous.
The information diet lifehack of lifehacking
It addresses the two problems of information: cost and risk.
1. Make information gathering active not passive
Information bombards us from every direction: work, smartphone notifications, email, social media. It seems like everyone wants to give you free information. Why? Because accepting this ‘gift’ has a cost: your attention. Your attention is valuable. It can be sold for ad money.
The default is to accept all this information. You might ignore a lot of it. But even this ‘ignore’ has a cost. You looked at the notification/ email/ post and decided to ignore it. This implied processing of information from it and evaluating whether you want to know more.
I propose it is healthier to make information gathering an active pursuit. This means you block all unsolicited information.
You stop all notifications.
You don’t keep email open while working.
You don’t keep twenty browser tabs open because they might be interesting.
The idea is to stop external information from reaching you especially for periods when you want to focus. It does not mean you reject email or the smartphone completely. Only that you open email when you decide, not when a new email comes in. It helps to set specific times for checking email and other communication sources so that you are not tempted to do it as a distraction.
I am going into much more detail on this in my Attention section in the book (which is not finished yet).
If you want to learn more now, Cal Newport’s brilliant book Digital Minimalism is a great solution to reducing information overload.
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2. Filter sources
Besides preventing information to distract you, it is important to avoid harmful or erroneous information. You achieve this by adopting a different attitude towards information sources.
Our default is to believe information on a new topic at face value. We operate with a presumption of truthful. This was advantageous for our ancestors. Most of the people they met in their lives were tribes-mates who had similar goals. Most of the time they were truthful.
But now the world is full of contradictory information. Yet we are awful at judging whether something is true or not. The fact that fake news spread faster than truthful news is sufficient proof of that.
Thus we should operate on a presumption of falsehood. Presume any new information as false. Then try to verify it.
How do you verify information?
There are four types of arguments for the truthfulness of information: personal experience, social consensus, authority and data. This is the order in which we believe them at an unconscious level. Personal experience convinces you more than seeing a statistic. This is also the reverse of the objective truthfulness of each. A statistic on a sample of 10,000 people is much more relevant than the experience of one person.
So you check information through the following, in this order: data, authority, social consensus, personal experience.
Data. Seek data and judge whether it supports or contradicts the new piece of information. Unfortunately data is difficult to understand, and easy to misinterpret. That is why data literacy is so important, regardless of your profession. It helps you find truth.
Authority. If you do not feel confident in judging the data yourself, then you look at expert’s view. The trick here is to judge the validity of these experts in a correct manner. Don’t look at appearances on TV or press. Don’t look at popularity on social media. Don’t look (that much) at pompous credentials. Look at past work. Was this person proven correct in the past when he had an opinion different than the majority? Was this person’s perspective useful for you? Does this person use data and research to argument his points or does he use emotions and presumptions? Does this person have anything to gain financially by making you believe his viewpoint?
Finding reliable people and organizations to trust takes time and effort. I recommend making a list and when you find one, put him in the list. I also recommend making a list of unreliable sources and putting names down in that list as well.
Social consensus. This is highly unreliable. Read a history of superstitions and false beliefs if you do not believe me. I recommend against relying on general social consensus, or the consensus of people in your Facebook feed. What you can do is look at the consensus among experts in the topic you are looking at. So if you are judging information about a vaccine for example, look at the consensus among doctors, especially virologists, not at the consensus of a random subreddit or you Facebook feed.
Be advised the consensus of experts in a field is not a guarantee of truth. Especially in medicine, there is a lot of authority and social pressure shaping doctors’ beliefs, rather than relying only on scientific data. But when you look at experts, it is more likely they have a better model of that topic that other people.
Personal experience. Really bad source of information. Our perception of reality is incredibly subjective. Believing a sugar pill is a wonder drug might cure you of a terrible disease. Believing real medicine is useless makes it have no effect. Thinking that running is awful makes you suffer. Thinking that running is great makes the same activity more exhilarating than drugs.
That being said, you should not completely discount your personal experience. If you are doing something that causes pain, that is a clear signal you should examine the activity and identify the problem.
Lifehack yourself in 10 minutes
Open your personal email. Look at the last 100 emails you received.
Which did you ignore? Unsubscribe from these.
Which would you read if you received another email from that same source right now? Mark these as important.
Open your phone. Disable all notifications. If you feel you need to know what is happening in a specific channel (like work email), set alarms at times in the day when you will check that channel.
Put a timer on your phone for three minutes. Look outside the window for these three minutes. Don’t look at any screen. Don’t listen to anything. Just look out the window. Give your brain a rest from the information deluge.
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