FARNAM STREET

Filter The Noise: Finding The Signal in an Information Overload World

(Photo via SerenelyRapt.wordpress)

(Photo via SerenelyRapt.wordpress)

In a world of too much information you need something or someone to help point you toward what’s relevant, interesting, and valuable. Otherwise you’d get overwhelmed.

Search engines do this but so do businesses and people. Some are trying to scam you, some are trying to collect your information, some are trying to entertain you, some are trying to sell something to you, and some are just trying to get you to click on a link so they can show you an ad. Most of these people will stop at nothing for your attention even when they are feeding you the mental equivalent of junk food. BuzzFeed, I’m looking at you.

There are a few, however, that try to help you.

I’m one of these people competing for your attention. I run one of the most popular newsletters in the world, a weekly digest that comes out each Sunday called Brain Food. It’s a curated collection of interesting and thought-provoking articles that should add value to your life.

In a world full of noise, I’m trying to consistently hit signal. And if I’m not consistently hitting on things that resonate with you—you can easily fire me by unsubscribing.

But what’s behind the scenes? If you pull back the curtain what does the process look like? How, in other words, do I distinguish the signal from the noise? What value do I add that people can’t get from, say, Google?

Let’s take a look at how I attempt to filter signal from noise online.

Intuitively we feel that if we consume more information we’re going to get more signal. That’s not necessarily the case. Our natural bias always seems to be more. If you don’t succeed, work harder (working less is often better). If you can’t do something, keep trying. This is a decent heuristic. We call it grit, and it’s more valuable than IQ. But as with all heuristics, you need to know when it serves you well and when it doesn’t. More information does not make you smarter. More information does not lead to better decisions.

Instead of thinking about ‘more’ information think about higher quality information. I use inversion. Instead of thinking about how I can find higher quality information, I think about how I can remove low density (a low signal to noise ratio) from my list.

This is why I cancelled my newspaper subscription. It’s not that I don’t like the newspaper. For me there is something almost magical about a coffee and a newspaper on the weekend. But generally reading the paper each day was too much noise and not enough signal. This isn’t the easiest thing in the world to implement but I try to be ruthless with my time.

Density is also why I impose artificial limits on the number of websites I follow and the number of people I follow on twitter. Rather than indiscriminately adding people and overloading myself in the process, I try not to follow more than 150 people because that’s about all I can handle. To make the list, you need to add more value than someone already on the list. That means you’ve got to be more signal and less noise.

While I have a core set of websites, authors, and other people I regularly read, at the fringes I’m constantly adding and, importantly, removing.

So now I have a feed into my head that is a decent mix of signal to noise but it is still more than I can possibly consume. Let’s talk about three of the other filters I apply.

The first is the foundation filter. While this isn’t a must, extra points are awarded to what I consider “core” knowledge: the big ideas from across multiple disciplines. Generally I call these mental models.

The second is the combination filter. Basically, does this information build on knowledge that I already possess? Can I layer it on to my existing latticework?

Lasty is what I call the expiry filter. This is a combination of a few things: what we think of as knowledge has a half-life; that is, it expires. If knowledge expires, the longer something has been considered knowledge, the more valuable it is to learn. Unless you need to keep up, sound impressive at cocktail parties, or want some entertainment there is not a lot of value in spending time reading, learning, and understanding stuff that expires in a few weeks/months. This is one of the reasons I’m trying to avoid bestselling books.

Now that I’ve applied those simple filters I try to further add further value with editorial opinions, setting the context or putting things into perspective, and combining ideas.

I think people underrate the importance of a few simple ideas to help filter content and distinguish signal from noise. I’m constantly tinkering with new filters, but I’ve given you the core here that you can use to build your own filters on. Keep in mind, these filters work because they are simple.

Most of us are capable of distinguishing signal from noise but it takes a bit of work. If you’re too busy give my newsletter a try. If you find I’m too much noise, you can always unsubscribe.

Shane Parrish feeds your brain at Farnam Street, a site that helps readers master the best of what other people have already figured out. Join over 40,000 other smart subscribers and sign up for brain food, his weekly digest of cross-disciplinary awesomeness.

Follow Shane Parrish via RSS.