by Ken Rogers

Get more done by reading less: how over-consuming content might be hurting your career, and how to fix It

Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

One of my goals this year is to read less. Not that I don’t think reading is important, actually quite the opposite.

I want to read less because I consume too much content and don’t ever actually take action on any of it.

Let me give you a few examples, maybe you can relate.

I’m subscribed to multiple newsletters on varying topics like web development, design, entrepreneurship, etc.

I eagerly consume the content from all these newsletters, and then get overwhelmed because I feel like I have to take action and try all these different things, even though I’m already in the middle of 12 different things that need my attention.

I go through a similar process with books. I get excited about a new book on starting a business or web development or personal improvement. I rapidly and enthusiastically consume the book, every once in a while I even finish it, then I attempt to take half-assed action on it for a day or two until I read something else and decide I need to take action on that thing now.

Never half ass two things, whole ass one thing — Ron Swanson

I have a content consumption addiction, and I’m willing to bet you do to.

So my goal this year is to read less, but read the things that matter, read them intentionally, and actually take action on the things they teach me, and I want to make the case for why you might want to do the same.

Why Consume Less Content?

I realize the irony of writing a piece of content telling you to consume less content, but if reading this means that you will read less of my stuff in exchange for furthering your career, I’m okay with that.

I also want to clarify here that I’m not telling everyone reading this that they should stop reading.

I’m speaking to a specific group of people that suffer from shiny object syndrome like I do and have trouble sticking to projects because of it.

If you are that person, I think there’s a strong case to be made to read less, and consume less content in general. This might be reading, but it might also be podcasts, courses, and videos.

Or if you’re a pro at being distracted easily like me, all of the above.

I have ambitious goals to start my own business and live a life of independence using my web development skills.

Unfortunately I have zero self control and am pretty bad at focusing.

Part of being a web developer means we have to be pretty tuned in to the internet and many, if not most of us are addicted to learning and consuming content.

On the surface, this seems like a good thing, but it needs to be tempered.

We want to learn as much as we can and obsessively consume content, at our own peril if we don’t learn how to control it.

One thing I’ve realized over the past few years of working like crazy but actually accomplishing very few of my goals is that without the ability to focus, we won’t get very far, if anywhere.

As I’ve reflected on why I get so distracted so easily and so often, I realized that a major contributor to it was content consumption.

I realized something really sad the other day. I’ve been a web developer for about 5 years now, have consumed countless courses and tutorials, and yet my online presence and portfolio is shamefully bare.

The reason is, again, a lack of focus and overconsumption of content.

I see a cool course come out, or a tutorial that utilizes some fancy new tech, and all of a sudden I’ve spent 5 hours trying to get some new random app working, while never actually completing anything meaningful.

Okay great, we’ve figured out that the problem is overconsumption of content and lack of focus on one project at a time, now what do we do about it?

I think the solution can be broken down into two rules, at least to start with.

Rule 1 — Don’t Consume Any Unrelated Content

This means articles, books, podcasts, videos, courses, etc. Unless it is directly related to your current project, it’s off limits.

A drastic step? Maybe. But a necessary one, at least right now.

I’m subscribed to all kinds of design and development-related newsletters, and inevitably one or seven of them will link to a tutorial or tech that has recently come out that I can’t resist trying.

I’m willing to bet that just this one step will make a big difference.

I also have a bit of an addiction to business and productivity books. I read so many of them that I never actually take the time to act on what I’m reading.

And then there’s podcasts.

At least for now, until I learn how to control myself better, I’ll be avoiding consuming any of this content unless I am doing research for a current article or development project.

Rule 2— One project at a time

I’m committing to not starting a new side project until I’ve finished the one that I’m working on right now.

For example, right now I am very interested in serverless apps built using Vue, so I’m building a calorie and macronutrient tracker using Nuxt, GraphQL, and Netlify.

I’m going to finish this project before starting on any others.

This one project at a time rule could apply to courses and tutorials as well.

The crux of the rule is this:

I can’t start another project/course/tutorial until I have the finished product from this one up on GitHub.

The main goal with implementing these two rules is to stop getting distracted so I can actually product meaningful things.

My hunch is that following the first rule will make following the second much easier, since usually when I jump to a new project it’s because I read something about some other tech I want to be using.

The Practical Side

However, I’ve gone from saying I have horrible discipline and self-control to making a blanket statement that I’m simply just going to start sticking to these rules.

Real life is rarely so simple.

Inevitably, we make commitments like this and find ourselves falling back into old habits almost immediately.

We unsubscribe from newsletters only to find ourselves subscribed again a week later.

We say we will finish the book we are on only to hear about another one that we are just sure will be the most important thing we need to do, so we put it down and start the other one.

We start a project and then get sidetracked because this other tech stack is what we should really be focusing on right now.

Rinse and Repat. Ad Infinitum.

So, how can we make sure we actually stick to these rules and start building a meaningful development portfolio?

I believe the answer lies in changing our habits.

For example, I have an RSS reader installed in Chrome, and multiple newsletters subscribed to in my email.

Usually, the first thing I do in the morning is catch up on my reading.

6 hours later I realize that a good chunk of the day is gone.

Almost every time, the days I have no new content to read are the days I get the most done.

So I’ve removed my RSS reader and unsubscribed from all of those newsletters.

The next step is to replace that bad habit in the morning with a good habit.

In Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about the idea of habit stacking.

It’s the idea that you start off with one small habit each morning, and then finishing that habit cues a new one, and so on and so on.

My current habit stack for my work day looks like this:

  • Get to desk
  • Unpack bag and take off coat
  • Fill up water bottle
  • Make cup of coffee
  • Open Skype
  • Check Help Desk tickets
  • Focused work
  • Check email at 10:00 AM
  • Workout (Mon, Wed, Fri)
  • Meditate
  • Make protein shake
  • Eat lunch
  • Focused work
  • Check email again at 12:30 PM
  • Focused work
  • Check email and assign tomorrow’s tasks at 2:30 PM
  • Current learning project/article at 3:00 PM
  • Pack up bag
  • Leave work at 4:00 PM

You should tweak this habit stack to your own personal needs and schedule, but the idea is that as soon a I get to work, I complete a few small tasks, which triggers starting another task.

I’m starting a new routine of writing one new article and releasing it every Friday. My learning projects and articles will be related, so whatever my current project is is what that week’s article will be about.

Right now my learning project is getting my content consumption under control, so that’s what I’m writing about.

Next, I’ll be working on creating and integrating good habits into my workflow, so I’ll be writing about how developers can use habit formation to improve their skills and career next.

Read Less. Do More.

The root cause of my lack of robust portfolio was my content consumption, so I’ve decided to read less, but read more purposefully. And, most importantly, take action on what I am reading.

Right now that’s Atomic Habits.

  1. Only articles, tutorials, podcasts, courses, and books directly related to what I’m currently working on.
  2. No starting a side project until I’ve finished one.

I’m willing to bet there are a lot of other developers out there that struggle with shiny object syndrome. If you do, take a look at your content consumption habits and see if reading less would help you get more accomplished.

Hey I’m Ken. I design and code web applications. I also write guides, essays, rants, and manifestos for developers and designers on Medium. If you want to keep up with my writing and get notified when I write something new, you can sign up right here or subscribe via RSS. You’ll get one email every once in a while when when I write something new, that’s it. You can also send me email at [email protected] if you have a question, comment, piece of hate mail, or just want to say hello. Thanks for reading 😘