The Collector’s Fallacy: Why We Gather Things We Don’t Need

Collecting feels like learning, but it isn’t. Pexels

I have a confession.

Sometimes, I am horribly unorganized.

A few months ago, my Evernote inbox looked like this:

A few months ago, my Evernote inbox looked like this. Author provided

Over a few months, a small pile of digital notes, articles and screenshots grew, and grew and grew. Until I couldn’t take it anymore.

It took me two weeks (15 hours) to process all of those notes — to read them, interpret them, and integrate them into my knowledge library.

Why did I let the notes build up?

Well, uh…I blame human nature.

One of my favorite Japanese words is tsundoku (積ん読). Aside from being a fantastic pun, I think it’s captures our shared problem pretty well:

“Tsundoku” is the condition of acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them.

Buying books does not equal reading books. We all know that. Yet, so many end up victims of tsundoku anyway.

Why?

One problem, I think, is that collecting feels like learning. Each time we discover a new productivity toy, internet article or bestselling book, our brain sends us a jolt of dopamine (our brain’s “reward” hormone) for doing nothing at all.

Ahh, says our brain, a job well done.

The best name I’ve found for this problem is the “Collector’s Fallacy,” which comes from an essay by Christian Tietze:

“Research is addictive, because it rewards us with the false impression of making progress. Finding something interesting isn’t the same as knowing something and being able to work with it. I call this the Collector’s Fallacy.”

A cabinet full of recipes does not make you a chef. To know of something is not the same as truly knowing.

Umberto Eco—bibliophile, novelist, philosopher, and polyglot — echoes Tietze in his excellent How to Write a Thesis. Students, says Eco, often confuse photocopying with learning:

“…a set of photocopies can become an alibi. A student makes hundreds of pages of photocopies and takes them home, and the manual labor he exercises in doing so gives him the impression that he possesses the work. Owning the photocopies exempts the student from actually reading them. This sort of vertigo of accumulation, a neocapitalism of information, happens to many. … There are many things that I do not know because I photocopied a text and then relaxed as if I had read it.

Eco’s book was published in 1977.

Today, many of us struggle with a different form of “photocopying” — an ever-expanding pile of bookmarks, articles, and links culled from the endless web of the Internet. With photocopies, at least, you eventually run out of storage space.

Whether it’s for papyrus scrolls or for holograms, I think we humans will likely never fully transcend our obsession with information.That does not mean, though, that there is not a way to fight back…

Combating Collector’s Fallacy

What follows are a series of tactics for combating Collector’s Fallacy, adapted from Eco and Tietze’s advice.

“Own” Before You Collect

Umberto Eco (again in How to Read a Thesis) advises students on how to fight the Collector’s Fallacy:

“…as soon as you have the photocopy, read it and annotate it immediately. If you are not in a great hurry, do not photocopy something new before you own (that is, before you have read and annotated) the previous set of photocopies.”

Put simply, Eco is telling us to finish what is on our plates before we get up for more. Make sure you master what you have before moving on.

My answer to the Collector’s Fallacy is to set aside a daily “processing block”—at least 1-2 hours a day — devoted solely to processing my inbox of notes, clippings, links, and ideas.

This method guarantees that I make real progress each day.

Do A Monthly Purge

Inevitably, though, the amount of information grows to a point where processing can’t keep up.

That’s normal. In an age with near-infinite amounts of information, an undervalued skill is the ability to filter information.

Here is what my Learning inbox (on Todoist) looks like after a month or so:

My Learning inbox. Author provided

My Learning inbox. Author provided

I won’t go into the details, but the “Reading” folder is for books, the “Clip” folder is for articles and the “Explore” folder is for concepts I want to explore.

Each month, I’ll go through these lists and purge them. Books are (1) purchased or (2) logged on Goodreads. Articles are clipped to Evernote. The “Explore” concepts are delayed to “someday” or defined as projects, GTD-style.

The most important thing here, though, is to be relentless. If anything doesn’t excite me anymore, I delete it.

Measure, Measure, Measure

“What gets measured, gets managed.” —Peter Drucker

I know, I know.

“Measuring” isn’t romantic at all. We want to believe our heroes are capable of spontaneous, chaotic bursts of good work. Romantic or not, though, measuring works.

Hemingway kept a spreadsheet of his daily word count. And if it’s good enough for Hemingway, it’s good enough for me.

As the great Peter Drucker mentions in The Essential Drucker:

“Man is ill-equipped to manage his time. Even in total darkness, most people retain their sense of space. But even with the lights on, a few hours in a sealed room render most people incapable of estimating how much time has elapsed. […] If we rely on our memory, therefore, we do not know how time has been spent.”

I use a system called “Cycles,” to track my time spent on reading- and focus-related activities. Cycles are split into 30-minute blocks, and anything related to the Collector’s Fallacy is out.

This system forces me to stay accountable to how much learning, writing, reading I am actually getting done. (Note: I wrote in detail about Cycles in this patron post.)

The Takeaway

Without self-awareness and discipline, our “default state” is to hoard information. Collecting reading lists, bookmarks and articles feels like progress, but it is not.

Now, what’s your next step? Well, I suggest you go to my Medium profile and save all the articl-

Joking, I’m joking.

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