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959734_22089591A few weeks back, I wrote about information overload: how overwhelmed I felt by the internet because it made it easy to find brilliant ideas. Because every click took me somewhere fascinating, I lost the ability to incorporate new information with my existing knowledge.

The solution I embarked on was a diet: a diet to cut information to a manageable level.

Since then I’ve added just one new blogger to my watch list. I’ve ditched bloggers who are only occasionally brilliant. Whilst this has made some difference, I’m still not happy with my current position.

Yesterday night, burning through another Rebus book and contemplating his chaotic life, I remembered this story:

A philosophy professor stood before his class. When class began, wordlessly he picked up a large empty jar and filled it to the top with rocks.

He asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed it was.

The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them in to the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the rocks.

He asked his students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was.

The professor then picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. The sand filled up all the empty space in the jar.

“Now,” said the professor, “I want you to recognize that this is your life. The rocks are the important things – your family, your partner, your health, your children – anything that is so important to you that if it were lost, you would be nearly destroyed.”

“The pebbles are the other things in life that matter, but on a smaller scale. The pebbles represent things like your job, your house, your car.”

“The sand is everything else. The small stuff.”

“If you put the sand or the pebbles into the jar first, there is no room for the rocks. The same goes for your life. If you spend all your energy and time on the small stuff, material things, you will never have room for the things that are truly most important.”

“Pay attention to the things that are critical in your life. Play with your children. Take your partner out dancing.”

“There will always be time to go to work, clean the house, give a dinner party and fix the disposal. Take care of the rocks first — the things that really matter.”

“Set your priorities. The rest is just pebbles and sand.”

As I contemplated Rebus’ skewed priorities, it dawned on me that I could interpret the professor’s actions as an answer to my own difficulty. Information overload, in its own way, is about priorities.

The jar is the brain. It represents the total capacity to learn. Putting in today’s newspaper, blog posts or magazine articles into the jar is like filling the jar with sand first.

This is the wrong approach.

The proper approach is to fill the jar with ‘rocks’ of learning. These might be an introductory guide, a general college textbook, or a subject specific text. For example if you want to learn about international investment law, you might start by reading Shaw or Brownlie to read about international law and then read Dolzer & Schreuer for more information on the principles of international investment law.

The next step is to pour in the pebbles. This can include specialised texts in the field. In international investment law, this could be things like the ‘Fair and Equitable Treatment’ standard or ‘Damages in International Investment Law’.

The final step – the grains of sand – is to move on to the likes of blog posts, journal articles, current cases and other contemporary material.

Most of us mistakenly put this last step first. I believe this is because of the short tem buzz we get from reading new material. It doesn’t matter whether there is any lasting benefit: we feel is that we have incorporated that slice of insight into our lives without realising how little we can integrate a flash of knowledge into our existing understanding.

If you spend your entire life, flitting from grain of sand to grain of sand, you will never acquire a proper foundation of knowledge. Without a foundation, you will always feel like you’re jumping from idea to idea without enough time and contemplation to develop a deep understanding.

This is the ultimate solution to my problem. In my fields of interest, such as economics, law, politics, design, graphics etc I need to go back to first sources and forsake the short term insights that come out of the blogosphere.