There’s too much to learn

post by Yi-Yang (yiyang) · 2022-02-27T08:01:26.435Z · EA · GW · 6 comments


  Goal relevance
  Information value
  Pivot potential
  Trust level
  Probability of success

Now that I have less time in my hand, I find myself getting more picky with what I learn. I think most of us have some intuitions on what we pick to learn, but I haven’t seen anything that has been codified. This is my rough attempt to make my own intuitions more explicit.

Here I define learning as the act of acquiring knowledge or skills, and I’m keeping it pretty broad. It also encompasses ways of learning that are informal (checking direct messages or social media), reflective (reading fiction) as well as entertaining (watching a series). 

I think there are some benefits in knowing how to prioritise learning well:

In general, you want to prioritise learning something when they are: 


Goal relevance

How is learning about it relevant in achieving your goals?

If you have a high priority goal to complete a research project on insect welfare, learning about insect biology is more goal-relevant than learning about painting.  

Information value

How much uncertainty can you reduce by learning about it?

You are deciding between shipping feature A or feature B for your product. If you’re still feeling uncertain after testing A with a group of users, it might be worth testing B too. 


Note: It might seem that this factor is related to “goal relevance”. However, you can technically learn something with a high value of information (reduce a lot of uncertainty), but it doesn't help with your goals. 

Pivot potential

How learning about it could potentially change your goals? What are your riskiest assumptions?

You are hoping to travel to a conference in a few months, but might face travel restrictions. You set a weekly Google Alert for this. You might not change your goals immediately, but there might be a non-trivial chance you need to. 


Note: Technically you could have a meta-goal for prioritising goals, but I’m putting this here just in case. 

Trust level

Before engaging with the material, how much can you trust the material based on prior information you have about it (e.g. author, platform, etc)? 

The prime minister in your country is hoping to make a televised announcement regarding the pandemic. They seem to have a track record of misleading people, but the ministry of health has a good track record. There are some incentives in place that make lying costly, so it’s somewhat more likely that this coming announcement is trustworthy. 


How helpful is learning about it now versus later?

If you know you’ll be outdoors in a few hours, it’s urgent to learn about the day’s weather. 


How motivated are you when it comes to learning about this?

You might feel more curious or excited when it comes to predicting AI take-off speeds, so you’re pretty motivated already.


How much time and effort do you need to learn this? How challenging is the material? 

You might feel naturally motivated, but reading about this specific article on AI take-off speeds requires a lot of time and focus. 

Probability of success

How likely will you complete learning this?

You have three children who are currently sick, and require a lot of your attention. You think it’s not likely you’ll complete learning this until they’re better.


Note: “probability of success” seems like a function of “motivation” and “challenge”. Again, just putting it here so it’s explicit. 

 Sometimes you can’t avoid learning something despite scoring badly on some of these factors, especially for “motivation”, “challenge”, and “probability of success”. Here are some ways that can help:

I'm looking to improve how this decision making tool works. If you have any suggestions, please let me know! 

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Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Kirsten (Khorton) · 2022-02-27T11:20:23.905Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'll be very curious to see how this works in your life with examples. Please keep us updated!

comment by Jay Bailey · 2022-02-28T05:45:27.116Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Another thing I try and remind myself of when I start thinking "Ahh, there's too much to learn!" is that I should be thinking on the timescale of months and years, rather than days and weeks - it's amazing how much progress one can make by consistently plugging away at something for a few hours a week.

This is more an emotional strategy than a strategy of actually learning more effectively, but I find it helpful.

Replies from: yiyang
comment by Yi-Yang (yiyang) · 2022-02-28T14:14:35.781Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Agree with this! I can definitely see that there's some kind of fine tuning you can do, like making it less challenging so your motivation and probability of success goes up. 

comment by Anjay F · 2022-02-28T03:16:26.593Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

As someone who often feels  overwhelmed by all there is to learn in Effective Altruism (and outside of EA), I appreciate this post! 

comment by CristinaSchmidtIbáñez · 2022-02-27T18:56:57.442Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you so much for sharing Yi-Yang :)

(1) I think there's another great benefit you didn't mention: Reducing overwhelm and anxiety!

I know enough EAs (including myself) that just feel like devouring a lot of information in order to learn something.

(2) Might want to add: Expected time to learn the "thing". I think the framework becomes truly valuable once you pass some sort of subjective expected time threshold, e.g. if I need more than 30 min, 1 h etc -> Use the framework, for everything under that use other heuristic(s)

(3) Aside from trust level and urgency (maybe) I think this is actually a very useful framework more generally to do career experimentation e.g. one could use this framework for picking an internship or even prioritizing independent projects.

Replies from: yiyang
comment by Yi-Yang (yiyang) · 2022-02-28T14:12:09.179Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

(1), (2) great points!

(3) Possibly, I definitely took some inspiration from 80K's career planning guide too.