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Your brain is a landfill

Hendrik Schriefer
Nov 21, 2018 · 6 min read

Our millennial generation is more concerned with self-improvement than any other generation before. On the quest to strive for our best selves, we turn to a myriad of books, podcasts, and guides. Today, self-help is the largest growing category of non-fiction books and business around self-improvement forms a multibillion dollar industry. I support this trend toward personal growth. Yet, I believe that our approach to self-improvement is broken.

Think about the last book you read: Do you remember its title? Can you recall an aha moment you had while reading? Did you ever take action on this aha moment? I have asked professionals and managers these questions and most of my interviewees, all of whom work with my company Sharpist to grow their careers, quickly name the last book they have read. However, they are unable to describe any action they took on the learnings from their literature.

Those who want to grow professionally and personally, need to change their thinking and behavior. Instead, just as the professionals I interviewed, most of us treat our brains like a landfill. In an urge to satisfy our millennial minds’ thirst for improvement, we clutter them with ever more recent and concentrated information. However, the daily information overload in our newsfeeds and email inboxes, combined with our limited time, directs us away from the quest for personal growth. Instead, we are being steered toward an evolution of problems, resulting in an even greater overload of condensed information.

Problem 1: Recent Information Overload

In an attempt to overcome the urge to consume only what shows up at the top of their newsfeeds, persistent self-improvers direct to an “ancient” technology: search. Who seeks to find truly individual and relevant advice on the Internet, gets lost among the hundreds of new top-rated books on personal growth published every year. Not to mention the countless number of blog posts and articles like this one. The result: Now, alongside the overflowing inbox of recent news, huge reading lists of recommended, seemingly relevant content pile up in the backs of our minds.

Problem 2: Resource Overkill

This sheer amount of “invaluable guidance and insights” in books and “genuinely surprising insights” in podcasts drives us to consume content faster, true to the motto “more is more”. My most motivated interviewees shared the opinion that they simply needed to use their spare time to learn more efficiently. They were listening to podcasts during their commute in 3x speed. They tried speed reading techniques and turnt to Blinkist summaries, rather than reading “actual books”.

Instead of seeing improvements in their professional, or their personal lives, they felt overwhelmed and frustrated that they did not perceive any progress, despite all the content they had consumed. As a result of dedicating so much of their time to consuming information, rather than processing their learnings, they felt unable to take any actions.

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The evolution of problems in information consumption.

Problem 3: Information Overcondensation

Indeed, we tend to cure the symptoms of our faulty information consumption behavior with false beliefs: The more we focus on solely consuming the most relevant content and the more we try to condense this content to its core, the less time we leave our brains to process all of it. The result: our brains are landfills of unprocessed, non-recyclable information.

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Current time allocation of the average professional toward personal growth.

Solution: Reallocate your time toward information processing and action.

If you truly want to grow as a person and take actions on your learnings, you need to stop feeding your brain with the most recent junk news. Since Ebbinghaus’ 1885 research, psychologists are aware that the lasting internalization of learnings arises from relentless repetition. Compare your recent insights on decision making or leadership to French vocabulary. If you do not spend time on its memorization, new information will hardly stick. Equivalent accounts for habitualizing desired behavior. The implementation of positive change takes practice. This applies to piano playing and leadership skills alike.

In a nutshell, think of your brain as a recycling plant and turn your time allocation upside down, with a focus on processing information and taking action.

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Suggested time allocation aiming for true personal growth.

What does that mean for your self-improvement in practice?

Define your development goals for the next month. Whenever you read a new article or blogpost, decide on its quality (mentally rank it between 1 and 5 stars for example) and the relevance to your goals. Then note only 5 star rated information in a list, mindmap or any other form of documentation of your choice.

Extract the most relevant findings from the new content and add them to your note (your personal list of aha moments). This will help you find useful information later on.

Frankly, the first two steps do not vastly differ from the behavior that led my interviewees to the problem of information overcondensation. The actual recycling of new information, and thus personal growth, arises from implementing your learnings into your day-to-day interactions: Every Friday, refer to your list of aha moments and define at least one action you want to take on them. For example: if you extract from this article that you want to allocate a significant amount of your time on information processing, book a (daily) 30 min slot for reflection into your next week’s agenda.

Sticking to these three simple steps will help you transform your brain from a landfill into a recycling plant that focuses on learning, action taking, and ultimately personal growth.

Will it though? The process above will help you tackle this information overload. Still, it does not address the limited time professionals have. You might think: even if I turn my entire time allocation upside down, I will still not find enough time to take action on my self-improvement. I am simply too caught up in day-to-day business.

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Is there an end to the evolution of problems?

Can we stop the evolution of problems after all?

You can change the amount of time you allocate toward the different steps of information consumption, processing, and taking action. Yet, changing their order, or even skipping a step, will result in chaos. In review, with every new step represented in this value chain, some form of service or technology attempts to thus accelerate or automate manual labor. Recommendation systems supersede time-consuming desk research, while Blinkist addresses the extraction of actually relevant information from long books.

Building on these existing advancements, my company Sharpist aims for a solution that assists professionals with personalized, actionable content. We enable our learners to “skip” right to processing information and taking actions — without the chaos. Whether this is merely the next step in the evolution of problems, or an actual revolution, is yours to judge.

Thanks to Mel from APX, who helped sorting my trapped mind. Thanks to Sarah for making this sound a bit less like a German TV commercial.

Hendrik Schriefer

Written by

Experimental Psychologist & Airbnb Superhost | Co-Founder of Sharpist

APX — by Axel Springer and Porsche

APX is the leading pre-seed VC and accelerator program for very early-stage startups in Europe, based in Berlin. Read more and send us your pitch on APX.ac

Hendrik Schriefer

Written by

Experimental Psychologist & Airbnb Superhost | Co-Founder of Sharpist

APX — by Axel Springer and Porsche

APX is the leading pre-seed VC and accelerator program for very early-stage startups in Europe, based in Berlin. Read more and send us your pitch on APX.ac

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