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Going Fishing in the Backlog River

Thu, Mar 30, 2023

I read a great take on overflowing backlogs today. The point was that even if we filter well, there's just too much information that we will want to consume. The author posits that rather than assuming that we've failed filtering, we should accept the inevitability of our overflowing backlogs, and treat them with a different mental model than the “bucket” we are putting it all in (the author focuses on to-read, but I think they'd agree it would apply a bit more broadly).

To return to information overload: this means treating your "to read" pile like a river (a stream that flows past you, and from which you pluck a few choice items, here and there) instead of a bucket (which demands that you empty it). After all, you presumably don't feel overwhelmed by all the unread books in the British Library – and not because there aren't an overwhelming number of them, but because it never occurred to you that it might be your job to get through them all.

Coming at life this way definitely entails tough choices. But it's liberating, too, as you slowly begin to grasp that you never had any other option. There's no point beating yourself up for failing to clear a backlog (of unread books, undone tasks, unrealized dreams) that it was always inherently unfeasible to clear in the first place. I like to think of it as the productivity technique to beat all productivity techniques: finally internalizing the implications of the fact that what's genuinely impossible – the clue is in the name! – cannot actually be done.

A great way to consider your backlogs: rivers, not buckets. I think it invites another welcome mental model not proposed by Burkeman: That we can actively choose to spend time consuming things from the river, which enriches our life more. Let's say, go fishing.

I think it's a helpful addendum to the metaphor because the subtle consequence of the bucket thinking is that your backlog is never going anywhere—so really it feels like you'll have all that knowledge, it's just a matter of when. In reality, you can ignore the river for your whole life, or you can spend every free minute there. Both are valid, but has vastly different implications for how much time you should spend filtering what goes into that river, organizing around it, and the kind of outcomes you can rely on.

To stick with the fishing metaphor for a second: Imagine you like to fish twice a year with some friends. You don't financially rely on the fish you are catching, and really it's mostly something for the pleasure of it, and to have something to talk about, than about catching something. You don't need the fanciest equipment, you don't need to spend a lot of time learning how to slightly improve your catch rate, you certainly don't need to spend more time in fishing courses than you do actually fishing to optimize the outcome.

Similarly, consider how much time you spend on the meta of your information backlog. For me there's RSS feed organization, book backlogs management, checking reviews, finding new entries, filtering, podcast discovery and trialing, online courses that I'm bookmarking and subscribing to newsletters about, and more.

That's a lot of time spend preparing for actual fishing. The critical view that I need to take is, do I even spend enough time consuming all this information to justify my increasingly neat and powerful workflows for information discovery, or have I been wrongly leaning on the dopamine rewards of adding things to the bucket that I'll eventually finish, while never considering the amount of time I could have spent fishing instead of reading about it.

I can't prescribe a ratio, but I think this metaphor quite liberating and grounding.