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Wow! 13 years old, and perhaps more relevant – and important! – than back then…

Do you have a stack of books, journals, manuals, articles, API docs, and blog printouts that you think you’ll get to? That you think you need to read? Now, based on past experience, what are the odds you’ll get to all of it? Half of it? Any of it? (except for maybe the Wired magazine)

So you let the stack of “things to read” pile up, then eventually when the pile gets to high you end up tossing half of it–or worse, moving it to a deeper “stuff to read someday stack. We have selective amnesia about what we’ll ever get to, but mainly because most of us keep feeling like we have to keep up! Keep up with what?

You can’t keep up. There is no way. And trying to keep up will probably just make you dumber.You can never be current on everything you think you should be. You can’t simultaneously be current on:

Technology
Current events
Pop culture
Professional practices
Health/fitness/diet trends
And on and on and on…

Why do we pressure ourselves? Why do we constantly feel like we’re struggling to keep up, yet never succeeding? I remember when Java 1.02 came out (the first public release), and it had 200 classes. You could fit the entire class library in the same space as Miss January (magazine centerfold). But then 1.1 came out and the API more than doubled, to 500 classes. It no longer fit on a centerfold, but you could get it on a wall poster. With 200 classes, you really could master the entire API. With 500, it took some effort, but you could at least be familiar with just about everything, given enough time. But then… by Java 1.4, the library had swelled to 2300 classes. And today? It’s something like 3500 classes just in the Standard Edition (not including the mobile and enterprise extensions). You could wallpaper an entire room with the class library.

By the year 2000, it had become impossible for even a Sun Java engineer–someone creating the API–to be familiar with everything in the standard library. Yet the rest of us were feeling guilty. Like we were falling behind. Like we weren’t hardcore Java programmers.

So… it’s time to let that go. You’re not keeping up. I’m not keeping up. And neither is anyone else. At least not in everything. Sure, you’ll find the guy who is absolutely cutting-edge up to date on some technology, software upgrade, language beta, whatever. But when you start feeling inferior about it, just think to yourself, “Yeah, but I bet he thinks Weezer is still a cool new band…”

Besides letting go, what else can we do to combat Information Anxiety? I have just a few tips, but I’m hoping you’ll add more:

Find the best aggregators
Aggregators become increasingly more important. Finding the right person, business, web site, etc. who does the best job of filtering (attenuating) in a specific area adds time to your life.

Get summaries
Publisher Joe Wikert recently blogged quite positively about a service called getAbstract, that offers online book summaries. Initially skeptical, Joe found getAbstract to be a tremendous time saver. (I haven’t checked it out, but I tend to trust Joe’s advice)

Cut the redundancy!
Do you really need three news magazines? Do you have to subscribe to every technical journal? Get with your friends or colleagues and divide up the main ones. Each person is responsible for subscribing to and keeping up with just one, letting the others know IF there’s something in a particular issue worth a read.

Unsubscribe to as many things as possible
Like the previous point, you probably have way too much redunancy in both your printed and online subscriptions. Again, if you’re using the right aggregators, they’ll tell you when something is worth it. For print, you can save some trees if you give up more of your physical newspapers and magazines.

Recognize that gossip and celebrity entertainment are black holes
It’s like watching a car accident despite our best intentions… we just can’t help look, so the more you can stay away from the publications that document every personal detail of every music and film star the better. Let that be your guilty pleasure for when you’re at the dentist’s office…

Pick the categories you want for a balanced perspective, and include some from OUTSIDE your main field of interest
Better to have one design magazine (architecture, product design, graphic design, etc.) (regardless of whether you’re a designer or not), one news magazine, one arts magazine (music, photography, etc.), and one technology/lifestyle magazine (Wired, Make, etc.) than to get rid of everything but your three software development journals. Keeping up with a different field is sometimes just as useful (if not more) than keeping up with your current one.

Be a LOT more realistic about what you’re likely to get to, and throw the rest out.
Don’t file it. Don’t store it. What you don’t have piling up you can’t feel guilty about. Some people put little height limits on their “to read” stack. (OK, when it gets as high as that drawer, I must throw out the oldest 50%…)

In any thing you need to learn, find a person who can tell you what is:
* Need to know
* Should know
* Nice to know
* Edge case, only if it applies to you specifically
* Useless

Too many product manuals, tech docs, books, etc. include everything without necessarily giving you the “weighting” for how imporant each thing is.

Finally, are WE part of the problem? Are we overwhelming our users with documentation? Or are we part of the solution to their info anxiety? We’re the ones that should be helping our users really focus on the things they need at any stage. While we all recognize that we are stressed for time and on info overload, we tend to think our users have all the time in the world to figure it all out (RTFM).

There’s an opportunity for all of us to help our users (or start a business around helping people reduce the info overload/pressure-to-keep-up stress most of us feel).

In the meantime, take a deep breath and repeat after me, “I will never keep up. Keeping up is a myth.” And if it makes you feel any better, add, “John isn’t keeping up either.”

Once we let go of trying to be more-current-than-thou, we can spend more time on things that really matter. Like learning to Ollie.
(And thanks to Miles Davies for the spectacular tip from an earlier post: “stop trying to ollie. get zen on its ass…be point b.”)

Posted by Kathy on April 29, 2006 | Permalink

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