Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

Avoiding Information Overload

Information overload. That’s a phrase I’ve been hearing for … well, a long, long time.

And I think it’s a crock. Always have thought that and always will.

You can easily avoid information overload. It’s not easy. It might leave you feeling hollow for a while. But in the end, you’ll feel less stress and better equipped to deal with the information that you are getting.

Let me explain how I avoid information overload.

The Fault Isn’t With Information

Or even the amount of information that’s out there. The fault lies within ourselves. More specifically, within our ideas and expectations.

This quote, from a New York Times article in which Steve Chen (one of the founders of YouTube) discussed plans for social bookmarking service Delicious, says it all for me:

Twitter sees something like 200 million tweets a day, but I bet I can’t even read 1,000 a day. There’s a waterfall of content that you’re missing out on.

The question is do you need to catch every drop from that waterfall? I don’t think you do.

Take a moment to think about all of the sources of information that you tap into. How much of that information is duplicated? Probably more than you realize. Newspapers rely on the same wire services. Technology sites use the same press releases, either for entire articles or as the basis of articles.

Obviously, there’s a lot of duplication out there. More than any of us realize.

Stop Trying To Take In So Much Information

It’s that simple. But in many ways it isn’t.

Doing this kind of cull goes back to what I mentioned a few paragraphs ago about duplication of the information that you take it. It also moves into the territory of how much information you’re not taking in, and which is sitting there waiting for you.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

I know someone who subscribes to several dozen RSS feeds from various blogs, newspapers, publications, and the like. At any one time, he has well over 1,000 unread items in his RSS reader. No, that’s not a once-in-a-while occurrence. It’s a regular state. There’s no way he’s ever going to catch up.

A few years ago, I was in a similar situation. Definitely not as bad as my previous example, but bad enough to open my eyes. I subscribed to about three dozen or so RSS feeds. But I didn’t even read a third of them. I wound up marking them as read, even if I hadn’t read them.

If you have over 50 unread items in a feed reader or several months of, say, The Atlantic then guess what? You’re never going to read all of that, regardless of your best intentions. It’s going to keep piling up.

This will come into play into a moment.

Cutting Down

This can be a long and, for some, painful process. You start by taking a close, critical look at all the sources of information that you’re tapping into right now. Then, divide them up into the following four buckets:

  • What you want to know
  • What you need to know
  • What’s nice to know
  • What you don’t care too much about

The first two buckets are the most important. I’ve found that 80% of the information that I take in falls into the latter two buckets. What does that mean? You can comfortably cut out up to 80% (maybe more) of what you’re taking in. The other two aren’t as important. Whatever’s in those buckets you can dump.

Then, look at how much time you spend:

  • Reading in depth
  • Grazing/skimming
  • Ignoring

Chances are, you’re spending a lot of time doing the latter two. Which means all that information flowing to you is actually not worth anything. Cut out or cut down on everything you graze or skim and ignore and you’re ahead of the game.

Remember that the information bottleneck that you’re facing isn’t just caused by time or the processor between your ears. It’s how much of the information you’re taking fits into the need to know and want to know buckets. Once you have those buckets, think about how much of the information you will retain and how much of it will be useful. Or will a lot of it be part of a store of knowledge that’s mildly interesting at best and will be outdated in a short while?

Then look at all the ways in which your information is duplicated. Is there enough variation between those sources to warrant keeping them? Is there something that you get from one source consistently that you don’t get from the other? If so, focus on the source that offers the best quality information.

Take, for example, news: Try focusing on one source for local news, and one or two sources for national and global news. Then expand to other areas. Before you know it, you’ll have a lean and mean information filtering machine.

That’s not to say that you can’t take a look at other sources once in while to get a different perspective. But try to avoid drowning in the same information.

But I’ll Miss Something!

Chances are, you already have. If you’re like that person I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, then you’ve probably missed a lot. While you were sleeping. While you were in the shower. While you were out with your friends or family. While you were riding the bus or train. Chances are you won’t catch up.

As a result of missing something (or several somethings), has the world ended? Has your brain melted? Have your personal and professional prospects diminished? Have your friends, family, and co-workers recoiled from you in disgust and horror? I’m willing to bet that none of that has happened.

If you think you’re missing out on something, then what are you missing out on? Probably not something that’s life shaking or earth shattering. More than likely, it’s something that’s fairly trivial in the scheme of your existence. No matter what some people say, that hack to your smartphone won’t change your life.

I’m in no way saying that you should lock yourself in a cocoon of silence and ignorance. But you should be selective about what you take in, and about the amount of information you take in.

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