A Google search for "How to cut screen time" turns up more than a billion (with a "b") results. But what if the best advice for spending less time on our phones was written before screens even existed? That's what we'll explore in the fourth edition of New Problems / Old Answers:

How Napoleon's Mail-Reading Strategy Can Help You Beat Information Overload

A Quick Story:

In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, "Napoleon, or The Man of the World," he described some surprising instructions Napoleon gave his secretary:

"[Napoleon] directed Bourrienne to leave all letters unopened for three weeks, and then observed with satisfaction how large a part of the correspondence had thus disposed of itself and no longer required an answer."

Think about that: the most powerful man in France had no interest in his era's primary form of communication. Why? Because he couldn't afford distractions on a quest to conquer Europe. If the information was important enough, he would know about it. The rest would take care of itself.

Why It Matters:

Today, the average response time for a text is a mere 90 seconds. The average person checks their email every 37 minutes. 80% of us check our phones before we even get out of bed. There are teams of software engineers whose sole job is making your smartphone notifications irresistible.

Granted, many of us need our devices to make a living. But ask yourself: over the past few weeks, how many emails, news alerts, or Instagram notifications actually warranted your instant attention? Was your life drastically improved? Or were you just pulled away from what was important?

We don't need to take Napoleon's three-week rule literally to benefit from the underlying principle: set limits on information consumption. Maybe that means no phone until 9 a.m. or turning off notifications. Whatever the case, you'll be surprised how little you miss (and how much you get done) once you stop the influx of pings and buzzes.

Nassim Taleb said, "To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week's newspapers." The same can be said of news in general, or your friends' Instagram posts.
My Only Political Commentary of 2020
I wrote this article in an attempt to add some nuance in a year that's been defined by rage-fueled clickbait. The early responses were overwhelmingly positive from people on both sides of the political spectrum: The Silver Lining of Growing Up in a Partisan Household.


As always, I hope you enjoy these stories as valuable as I have. Feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. You can email me at with questions, comments or suggestions. All of my writing can be viewed at  If this email was forwarded to you and you'd like to sign up, just click here.

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Dominic Vaiana · 1401 Dana Ave. · Cincinnati, OH 45207 · USA

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