🌲Stop Feeling Guilty — Rebrand your TBR List
A pile of things "to be read" is a to-do list of low-priority items most of us will never get to. That doesn't mean they're useless.
Many people feel frustrated and overwhelmed because their "to be read" pile is big or because they have too many notes or whatever. They worry about falling prey to collector's fallacy, which has, I'll admit, never been a particular problem of mine. I tend to err on the side of fewer notes than I "actually need" and at least once a week find myself trying to reference something I read and didn't bother to record the location of.
I was amazed when I started hanging out in personal knowledge management circles and saw people talking about having thousands — sometimes tens of thousands — of articles in their "read it later" apps. Two years ago, I didn't even know those kinds of apps existed. I have never really been a "read it later" kind of person.
For a long time, my instinct was: Why would I read something later when I can read it now?
It's important to note that I read very fast. In high school, I used to read 1-2 full-length novels a day. To be clear, I don't "speed read" and no, my retention doesn't suffer — I'm one of those insufferable people who passed the Bar Exam on the first try, and my "studying" mostly consisted of reading the Bar Prep textbook cover to cover. I'm good at remembering conversations and stories, and legal precedent in my country is very geared toward "here's a story and the outcome."
So when someone sends me an article that looks interesting, historically, I read it right when I get it. If I don't read it right away, when it is still fresh and new and exciting, the odds are good that it will never rise to the level of importance that will lead to me actually finishing it later. I usually read books the day they come out, unless I decided to wait for the library to send it to me or my workload is deeply overwhelming — in which case I'll read the book as soon as I have a spare minute and, being honest, sometimes slightly before I "should."
Because of those longstanding habits, a "to read" pile always sounded like a to-do list filled with low-priority items.
Generally if I need to read something for a high-priority task, it gets filed with that task, for example if I have an article I have to write for an outlet, the stuff I'm planning to read for that article is listed in the
References section of that article's notes, not my "to be read" pile.
I do not actually want to have a to-do list cluttered with low-priority items stressing me out. What I've found, though, is that I do find it useful to have an organized list of pre-vetted resources on various topics.
I don't feel guilty about having so many unfinished articles to read, I feel pleased that I have a filtered list of high-quality reading available to me when I am ready for it.
I can't be laser-focused on producing content all the time. Sometimes I don't have time for the deep focus required to really engage with a big project — maybe I've got to leave in 5 minutes to pick up my kid from daycare, or maybe I'm in the middle of cooking dinner. Even on days when I have lots of time, if I work my brain too hard on creative tasks, my body crashes and shuts down.
As a result, there are countless moments in my day when I'm looking for a quick distraction, and that's when I turn to my "recommended reading" lists or my "article inbox" to find something that catches my eye. I front-load the work of curating interesting content so that when I'm ready for it, it's already there and I don't have to go searching for it...
...which means I'm that much less likely to wind up doomscrolling Facebook because I wound up in an "ugh I don't know what I want to do" loop.
Thanks to apps like Zotero, Obsidian and Readwise, I've juuuuust about retrained my brain to reach for a reading app instead of social media when I'm "just killing time," and my "to read" pile is a big part of that — because it leverages the same kinds of dopamine-gaming lottery-esque manipulations social media apps do.
There's so much stuff in my recommended reading pile that I forget what's there, and rediscovering something wonderful sparks joy and motivation to read — in a moment when I'm primed for it to feel like a reward instead of a chore.
A big part of my productivity comes from the fact that I've managed to trick my brain into replacing games with productive things. Since I've changed how I approach things at the "top" of my content funnel, treating them as opportunities and indulgences in moments of downtime, they feel like much less of a chore — and I've been able to gather a broad base of "fertile soil" to work from.
This means that when I sit down to focus on work, I don't have to sort through a bunch of dreck to find the gems. Alternatively, when I suddenly find myself reaching for books or articles about Mesoamerica or nomadic lifestyles, I know where to go looking for a list of suitable books on that topic — somewhere more useful than a brand new search results page. And better yet — I don't have a pile of things I "should" do hanging over my head.
- Keeping an unread list by Joost Plattel (h/t Luke)
Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).
Check out one of these related posts
🌲Building a habit of checking in with the bigger picture
On the importance of knowing when to sit down and dive deep into your notes... so you don't get overwhelmed always keeping them neat.
🌲 My favorite productivity app that isn't a productivity app
Old, simple tools are often still useful, especially when paired with a practice of frequent check-ins with your goals and mental state.
🌲Using Obsidian for Teaching?
For the most part, my teaching notes are very simple and low-tech. But Obsidian was helpful when I was allowed to use it.