Home Info Overload: What Can We Do?

Info Overload: What Can We Do?

This is post #2 of a 2-part post on today’s information overload problem and how we can cope. Please read part 1 here.

The information overload problem has reached a critical point. Workers drowning in their inboxes and jumping from task to task have now cost the nation $650 billion in lost productivity. A research group attempting to understand and combat the problem has recently been formed. We can either wait for answers for them, or we can start finding solutions ourselves. Let’s do what social media addicts do best: let’s crowdsource this thing!

Nature vs. Nurture

Without a thorough understanding of psychology, it’s hard to determine whether those who keep up with the overload of information are somehow wired differently than those who become overwhelmed. We do know that there are varying levels of distractibility in children – the severely distracted are sometimes even diagnosed as suffering with a medical disorder. They are often treated with pharmaceuticals to combat this, so it seems entirely possible that that nature plays a role in how well we cope.

However, that’s not to say that we all can’t learn a few tricks to better manage our information overload. Below, we’ll present some ideas to help fight this problem, but please share your ideas in the comments too, so we can all learn from each other.

Create a Routine

When facing a full inbox, new tweets, new posts on FriendFeed, and an RSS reader with 1000+ unread items, the stress often comes from not knowing where to begin. This is where having a routine can be important. An everyday ritual where you deal with A, then B, then C, etc. can help you put everything in order. Not everyone’s routine will be the same – the trick is finding one that works for you, then sticking with it.

Last month, Jeremiah Owyang shared his morning habits on Twitter, which prompted a discussion on FriendFeed. For Jeremiah, he like to begin his day by reading then blogging for two hours before delving into email or work.

An earlier post by social media enthusiast Louis Gray also had him sharing his daily routine, something he called his “social media consumption workflow.” This post seemed to conflict with a later post he wrote about continuous parallel attention, but, after speaking with Louis, we cleared up the confusion. For him, the trick is to begin the day with the routine, then continue the day in the parallel attention mode (more on that later).

For Louis, the routine is 1) Email, 2) Read RSS feeds, 3) Twitter, 4) FriendFeed, then 5) Miscellaneous Additional Activity. Others responded in the comments of that post and via blog posts with variations on this routine, but the elements were either very similar or the same, just in a different order.

Yes, structuring social media consumption sounds a lot like work, doesn’t it? Well, considering the 8 or 10 hours some of us put in a day behind the computer screen, I’d argue that it most certainly is work. No matter what your personal routine is, the bottom line is to stick to it.

Easily Distracted? Dial Down the Noise…Temporarily

While it would be great to treat noise pollution like the goldmine it should be, the truth is, a good many people are easily distracted. Twitter, FriendFeed, email, IM, and RSS take away our focus when we’re really concentrating and switching to and from each task can mess us up. Instead of pining away for the overstimulated sponge-like skills of Scoble, it may be time to embrace this quality about yourself and use it to your advantage. Just because you’re not able to write a great post while concurrently dealing with new email and IMs, that doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with you that needs fixing.

Even the great American novelist Steven King admitted that when he’s writing a novel, he locks himself in a room and commits to no distractions. In his book, On Writing, he says this about his writing room:

“Writing room: really needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk…The door closes the rest of the world out; it also serves to close you in and keep you focused on the job at hand…No telephone. It’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction. If you continue to write, you will begin to filter out these distractions naturally, but at the start it’s best to try and take care of them before you write.”

Want to eliminate your distractions, it’s easy. Disable email alerts. Exit Twitter, sign out of IM or set yourself as “busy.” Trying to write? Launch Darkroom, Notepad, or Windows Live Writer. Then just work…in peace.

Later on, as you become better at whatever it is that you’re doing, noisiness can be slowly added back in, but you can’t go from zero to sixty overnight.

That being said, it’s not a good idea to spend an entire day in this state – as our own Marshall Kirkpatrick wrote not too long ago, there are many reasons why online noise is good for you. However, if you need a quite half hour or hour to really focus, there’s no harm in that. It’s not the end of the world.

Learn To Embrace Distraction

No this isn’t a contradiction to the section above, it’s just what’s next. You may find yourself easily distracted when performing a certain task whether at work or at home – like solving a complex problem, for example – but after that task is complete, you can turn up the volume again.

To get a crash course in this behavioral technique, we’ll turn again to the post on “continuous partial attention” where Louis described how he deals with info overload. While it may seem unbelievable to some, Louis claims to be able to watch TV while writing blog posts or write emails while listening to music while reading RSS feeds and watching Twitter update.

“No way!,” you think? It is possible – it might not come naturally to everyone, but you can, in fact, learn to do this…at least a bit. The trick here is to start small and not try to do this when performing those tasks that require the most concentration (as mentioned above). What throws people off is thinking themselves incapable of this type of multi-tasking because certain aspects of their work require more of their focused attention than others. You must first identify the areas of work where you need less distraction and turn down the volume. When those tasks are complete, crank it up again. Simple, right?

Create Your Own Filters

In order to process mass amounts of information, you’ll also need to identify and attack what we’ll called the unfiltered noise. This may be in the form of “bacn” in your inbox, busy Twitterers, RSS feeds spliced with links from del.icio.us, or extraneous information on FriendFeed. To get back in control, you have to invest time in structuring the noise.

For example, most email programs have rules or filters that you can use – whether it’s Outlook at work or Gmail at home, you have to take the time to set these things up. Unless you’re using the GTD method to immediately combat every piece of mail as it arrives – something which only certain people have been able to master – then you’ll need to establish a routine to deal with the lower priority mail at a particular time. For social media users, the big problem in our inboxes is “bacn” – these are the informational, but non-critical messages from the networks and services we’ve signed up for. A suggestion here is to not let these messages constantly steal your focus – deal with them en masse on a regular basis, but have them automatically archived upon arrival.

For RSS, the trick is using folders wisely. Not all feeds are created equal. You can separate lower-priority feeds from high-priority ones, classify feeds by genre, or move the feeds from bloggers who write long, thoughtful blog posts into a folder so you can thoroughly read them at a later time. Whatever the method you choose, it’s important to set up a structure so you know what to read and when.

For example, less important feeds could be in a folder that you can hop into at any point in the day and flip through quickly when you have a minute. Feeds that you only browse if you have time to kill can be put in a “Can Miss” folder. Feeds where you like to comment and participate can be put into a “Great Blogs” folder. Blogger Mrinal added he likes to use people as filters. for example, in Google Reader, your friends’ shared items is a great place to find human filters for content. These are just a few ideas – all that matters is that it works for you.

For Twitter and FriendFeed or any other social network or service you’re involved in, it’s just a simple matter of time management. Don’t get so caught up that you’re spending every minute of your day there. Set a time of day when you’re going to delve in and really participate and for the rest of the day just keep jumping in and out when you want to. Yes, you might miss something here and there, but it’s OK. Really.


This is by no means a definitive guide to dealing with information management nor will these suggestions work for everyone. This is only meant to spark a conversation about the subject so we can learn new tips and techniques from each other. Please share yours in the comments.

Image Credits: Mobile Email: natala; Noise:

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