One Writer’s Strategy for Avoiding Information Overload

Xconomy National — 

This week one of my favorite podcasts, WNYC’s Note to Self, is featuring a project called Infomagical. Every day the show is sharing new challenges designed to help listeners cope with information overload.

We all know that feeling of being so far behind on the e-mails, texts, articles, and all the other stuff our digital devices are shooting at us that we’re unable to focus on our real goals at work or at home. Infomagical is an attempt to help people banish that feeling.

One challenge in the project is about the virtues of monotasking, as opposed to multitasking. Another extolls the calming effect of deleting unused apps from your smartphone. Another is about opting out of the day’s social-media memes, and a fourth focuses on the value of face-to-face conversation, sans devices.

Tens of thousands of people are participating in Infomagical, including me. Most of the tips so far have been great. But the truth is that I conquered information overload in my own life a few years ago.

I didn’t do it by cutting back on the amount of content I consume. I don’t think I’m any less of an information junkie than most of my colleagues in the worlds of journalism, academia, entrepreneurship, and innovation. But I’m not stressed by all the data coming at me. Most of the time, I feel clear-headed and ready to deal with whatever challenges and opportunities life sends my way.

I think that’s because of the system I’ve carved together for sorting incoming information into buckets, where I don’t have to see it or think about it until the appropriate moment.

I didn’t invent this strategy. Staying organized—putting things where they belong—is one of the first tips you’ll get from almost any productivity or self-help guide, from David Allen’s Getting Things Done to Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. But you won’t find my system in any book, mostly because it depends on a quirky hybrid of apps, gadgets, cloud services, and personal habits.

In honor of Infomagical, I thought I’d try to spell out my strategy for staving off information overload. Some of these ideas have popped up in my past Xconomy columns, so they might be familiar to longtime readers. But this is the first time I’ve put them together in one place.

1. I Carefully Curate My Information Sources

The simplest way to avoid information overload is to control the flow. I have a regular information-gathering routine. Every morning, over breakfast, I skim the New York Times and the Boston Globe on my iPad, saving interesting stuff as I go (see Step 2). Then I go for a run for about an hour. I use that time to catch up on the latest podcasts in my queue—see my list of favorites here.

Then I head to work. There, I check Twitter and Facebook to see what my friends and colleagues are sharing. But I generally try to save my work time for, you know, actual work. I don’t go back into active information-browsing mode until late afternoon.

That’s when several of my favorite e-mail newsletters usually show up in my inbox—for the curious, that includes Dave Pell’s Next Draft, the Nieman Lab Daily Digest, the New York Times’ What We’re Reading, Today’s 5 from This, Pocket Hits, and Caitlin Dewey’s newsletter. I read those and save the good stuff for later. And occasionally I go directly to a favorite news, politics, or tech site like FiveThirtyEight, The Verge, Vox, or Xconomy to see what’s on their front pages.

Note what I don’t ever do: I don’t watch any live, broadcast television and I don’t listen to broadcast radio. Sure, I have favorite TV and radio shows, but I get them on-demand at convenient times through Apple TV or the podcasts app on my phone. Seceding from real-time radio and TV feels like a huge win to me, since I don’t have to endure loud commercials or sit through stories that aren’t relevant to me. I’m my own programming manager.

2. I Save Almost Everything for Later

Gathering information and actually ingesting it require two different mindsets. I find that it’s way more efficient to stay in one mode or the other.

When I fire up the New York Times app or check out the Boston Globe over breakfast, I really do read the interesting articles. But after that, I mostly just save stuff for later. If I tried to read every cool article the moment I found it, I’d never get any work done.

For the most part, I skim enough of an article to determine whether I want to read it later (sometimes the headline suffices), and I put it into my reading queue. My favorite app for this is Pocket. I wrote a whole column about that back in 2014. You could do the same thing using Instapaper, Readability, or the Reading List feature in Apple’s Safari browser. Facebook now has a nifty Save Link feature that lets you save articles, sites, or videos shared by your friends.

But if I’m saving everything for later, when does “later” come? For me, it’s at night, after dinner. Typically I spend 30 to 60 minutes each evening reading the stuff in my Pocket list, and saving or archiving it as I go.

The evenings and weekends are also when I … Next Page »

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