I remember when you entered a search on the internet, before the likes of Google, and you were lucky to get a handful of links to choose from and most would contain useful information. You could happily surf, clicking through links to other sites and feel like you were doing something useful. The internet is now full of noise with pages full of flashing adverts and even link farms where there is no valuable information at all, just links to other websites, and the owner even gets paid when someone clicks any of the links.
The signal to noise ratio had become unbearable, so I turned away from the wonder that is the internet. The only way to find out something was to use a search engine, like google, and trawl through the thousands of links returned, hoping to find the specific piece of information you were after.
Then I started to come across other ways of finding useful information. Blogs and RSS feeds.
Once you have found a source you find interesting you can be updated whenever that website releases a new article. I have now gone from one extreme to the other, reading as many articles, blog posts, essays and even e-books as I can about a multitude of different things.
In fact I would say that I have reached Information Overload, hence the title of this post. The question is what can I do about it?
Just a few months ago I was occasionally skimming through the BBC News feed and even less frequently looking at articles on The Register, which carries news about IT, generally with some humour chucked in.
Right now I am following all sorts of news feeds using Google Reader and reading blogs and tweets covering a variety of areas including Travel, Tech News, World News, Web Design, Photography and Lifestyle, amongst others. So much in fact that I don’t think I am taking any of it in completely.
Finding out about Google Reader was originally a boost to my productivity as it just collected all the articles from the news feeds I was interested in and I could just skim through them and read any interesting articles when I got the chance.
The problem began when I kept coming across new feeds that seemed interesting. These feeds always seemed to link to other bloggers and so I added them as well to see if they had anything useful to add. Most of them did, so even after removing the odd few that didn’t, the list kept growing.
After a while I was following all sorts of feeds and so many of the articles seemed interesting that I just seemed to spend all my time either reading different articles or at least bookmarking them to read when I got the chance. More on that later.
I have just realised that I am reading a much too diverse range of information Just In Case. That just came out of nowhere but it feels exactly right. Let me try and explain.
I come across all this information and, based purely on the brief heading of an article, decide whether it might have some relevance to me. As the headings are so short I opened a lot of articles Just In Case they might have some relevance to me. Even if I don’t end up reading the whole article once I have opened it I will need to read a fair chunk before I decide whether it is actually relevant or not. This is wasting a lot a lot of time on useless information.
This has led me to drop a few feeds from my Google Reader, especially the more prolific ones, and being a bit more selective about which articles I open to read. To begin with this was hard as there were a lot of headings that wanted to draw me in even though that had no relevance at all to me.
The only problem feed I now have left if the BBC News feed. I seem to find 1 or 2 articles a day that have some interest for me out of the hundreds that are put out. That is a terrible conversion rate as I have to read all the hundreds of headings to decide whether or not to open the article. Ideally I would like to replace this with a less prolific feed with a much higher signal to noise ratio but I haven’t found a suitable feed yet, so I am going to have to keep an eye on this and possibly drop that feed as well.
Don’t get me wrong I do find some of the information I have come across very useful indeed. In fact I probably wouldn’t be posting these blog posts without some help from the self motivation stuff I have read about.
I think that was the problem, because I came across some excellent blog posts that seemed to get me motivated and also helped me get on top of all my outstanding jobs, I tried to increase my consumption of information in the hope that it would improve my lifestyle.
Unfortunately I handled this the wrong way by trying to read everything I could get my hands on, and when the lifestyle stuff began to feel repetitive I expanded the scope of my reading, covering less and less important areas for me.
Luckily I think I have noticed this fairly early and so I plan to keep a check on my information streams from now on.
Another area that got out of hand was my email inbox. I was subscribed to loads of newsletters and so I regularly received literally hundreds of emails in a day, most of which were irrelevant.
I remember coming back from holiday once to over 1500 unread emails sat in my inbox. I had to read through the subject and/or the sender of all those message to check the importance of them. It took days.
After a bit of inspiration from Getting Things Done, the book by David Allen, and some lifestyle blog articles I managed to get a handle on this. (I don’t have links unfortunately as I wasn’t creating bookmarks at the time)
Now my inbox is never unbearable and I keep it completely empty every time I check my messages.
Explained simply I just go through all messages in my inbox and follow these steps, being careful to not spend too long deciding:
- If there is something for me to do with the email then if it can be done in less than 2 minutes then do it immediately otherwise I file it in a folder called _Action.
- If I plan on reading the message later then I file it in the _Review folder.
- If the message has any possible future relevance then I file it in an appropriate Reference folder.
- Unsubscribe if the message is a newsletter that is no longer relevant.
- Delete everything else.
When the inbox is empty it is much simpler to check the _Action and _Review folder when I have a spare 5 minutes knowing that nothing new has come in.
I have even extended this thinking to blog articles and other pages I come across on the web. So now I quickly scan through all the articles in Google Reader and apply a similar process:
- Scroll through all new articles opening any articles where the heading sounds interesting in the background.
- When this Inbox is empty then I close Google Reader and go through the opened articles:
- I quickly scan the article to see if in fact it is of any interest to me, if not delete it and move on to the next one.
- If the article is short enough to read in a couple of minutes I read it there and then, otherwise I bookmark it on Instapaper to read later. I consider this similar to my email _Review folder.
- If I found the article truly interesting or it has some information I may find useful in the future then I bookmark it on Delicious, marking it with tags to help find it again. I consider this the same as filing an email away for Reference.