post

How to handle information overload

Philipp Lenssen recently had a good post on tips on information
overload by various
people
. It got me
thinking about the various tips and tricks I’ve imbibed in the recent
past and which work reasonably well for me. So I tried to collate them
into one place:

Email

  • Always bring the inbox down to zero regularly. ‘Regularly’ is
    defined by you.
  • Never allow anything to be in your inbox > 2-3 days
    • If you’re not going to reply in that time frame, you never will.
      So simply archive it or reply with a one-liner saying you can’t
      look into it now.
  • If you don’t have anything to add, don’t reply.
  • Make sure you are clear on what is the action you are expecting
    from the recipient.
  • Reply in bullet points. Because everybody
    skims
    .
  • Once you’re done with the email (replying, taking action or
    reading), archive it.
  • If it is not actionable, archive it. Don’t let it remain in your
    inbox.
  • Use keyboard shortcuts.
  • Mailing lists go into folders. I simulate them in Gmail using “Apply
    label, Skip Inbox” in the filters. The reason is that mails not
    directly addressed to me are not urgent, so I can process them
    whenever I have the inclination. Whatever is in my inbox is what
    deserves immediate attention.
  • Minimize the number of times you need to check email. The minimum
    that is required for you to stop worrying about it. The beauty of
    email is that you can reply at your pace. Make use of that feature.
    If you end up constantly checking email, you’re better off resorting
    to phone calls or instant
    messenger
    .
  • [new tip] Before you send the next email, go through the
    checklist.

Feeds

  • Use your feed reader once in a few days. The world won’t stop
    without you.
  • Use a desktop feed reader because it is faster to
    use
    .
  • Have a ‘Try Before You Buy’ folder where you add feeds. If it
    doesn’t turn out to be useful, delete it.
  • Have a number in mind, say 100 feeds. If you add a new feed, delete
    an old feed that is no longer interesting.
  • If you end up doing a ‘Mark all as read’ on a feed 2-3 times in
    a row, delete it.
  • Separate them into categories and/or priorities.
  • Most importantly, read interesting things. Do not aim for reading
    500+ blog posts a day. Optimize, don’t maximize.
  • Remember that the goal is to derive some value out of this reading
    and that value is usually knowledge. If it is not helping you
    towards that goal, delete it.
    Don’t think twice, just delete it.
  • While working, if you feel the need to distract yourself once in
    a while or read something interesting, don’t use your feed reader
    but use good filters like TechMeme or programming.reddit or a good
    link-blogger on your subjects of interest. Have a separate dedicated
    time for reading feeds.
  • Take
    notes.
    Over time, you’ll judge if a feed is useful or not depending on
    whether you’re taking (any) notes or not.

Inlets

  • Cut down on the types of inlets – Email, Feeds, Twitter, IRC,
    Messenger, Phone, etc. (this one is particularly hard for me)
  • Spend at least 50% of your time at the computer with all these
    inlets shut down.

Focus

  • Personally I find productivity inversely proportional to information
    overload. The days when I’m productive and “in the zone” turns out
    to be the days when I’m less affected by information overload. The
    vice-versa is true as well. So if you focus on the right things, the
    information overload problem will get solved by itself.
  • Maintain focus by having a todo list. Have a big todo list and then
    pick random tasks from that list depending on your energy levels
    and get things done.
  • Never indulge in tasks outside of your todo list. If you’re not in
    the mood for any of them, don’t indulge in
    wilfing.
    Go out instead – whether for a walk, or call up a friend or even
    read a paper book. If you’re not being productive, just get out of
    the chair.
  • Don’t use fancy software for writing lists. Use a good plain text
    editor (like Vim).
  • Use GTD.
  • Use an auto-pilot
    schedule

    (I’m still learning this).

P.S. Many of these ideas have been borrowed from elsewhere. It’s been
a long time since I imbibed all these, so I don’t remember all the
sources from which I gleaned them.

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Comments

  1. Very useful advice..I really liked the “Try before you buy” feed folder idea. But not check emails obsessively? That is going to take some time to do ;)

  2. Takeaways: 1) Optimize, don’t maximise, 2)Try Before you buy

    Thanks – will be sharing this with my friends.

  3. @Lekhni Very true… I’m still working on it too. But its good to have a hierarchy of urgency. For example, phone calls are urgent, emails are not, and so on.

    @Arvind :)

  4. An interesting blog I read the other day:
    http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/tech-manager/?p=500

  5. Very well said. Most of these are some things I ve been telling myself too. I feel organized.

Trackbacks

  1. […] your feed reader, tons of pending work and a general feeling of being buried under too much info?  Swaroop comes to your rescue with some really great […]

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