One Writer’s Strategy for Avoiding Information Overload

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read periodicals and books—again, mostly on my iPad or Kindle. Right now I have digital subscriptions to The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Pacific Standard, and print subscriptions to the New York Review of Books and Technology Review.

Almost all of my book reading happens on my Kindle Paperwhite, which I like for extended reading because it’s so much lighter than the iPad. Both the Kindle device and the Kindle app on the iPad make it easy to highlight key passages that I might want to remember later, and I do that a lot. I use a service called to copy all of my highlights into nicely organized notes in Evernote, one note per book. Which leads me to…

3. I Put Really Important Stuff Into Evernote

Many times a day, I find articles that relate to my work in science and technology communication or to one of my hobbies or interests, and I know I’ll want to hang on to them for future reference.

That’s when I use the Evernote plugin for Chrome (on my Mac) or the share sheet in iOS (on my iPad or iPhone) to save the material to my Evernote account. Or if I’m in Pocket, I can save articles to Evernote with just a few taps.

Once the article is stored in Evernote, I know I’ll have it forever—or, at least as long as Evernote is in business. I won’t have to search for it again or risk having it disappear from the Web. Plus, I can add my own notes or highlights.

Evernote is also the place where I store recipes, receipts, tickets, important e-mails, tax documents, poems, personal notes, and my to-do list (see Step 5).

4. I Aim for Inbox Zero Every Day

When I was a full-time technology journalist, I received 300 to 400 e-mails every day. These days, it’s more like 100, which is a lot more manageable. But still, I’d be sunk if I didn’t have a system for taming my Gmail inbox.

My goal is to clear out my inbox completely at least once a day. Most days, I succeed. Here’s how.

First, I use a smart prioritization service called SaneBox to divert unimportant e-mail, such as marketing messages, into a separate folder. There, I can review and delete the messages in bulk after skimming the From and Subject lines. It’s a huge time-saver. I wrote a feature on SaneBox in 2012.

Second, I read the important e-mails one at a time. Usually, these require either a response or an action or both. If I can write the response or perform the action in a couple of minutes or less, I do it, and then archive the e-mail.

If I can’t do it in a couple of minutes, I create a to-do list item, then archive the e-mail. The key thing here is that I try not to treat my inbox as a to-do list. I explained why this is important in a 2013 article called Six Secrets to Slaying the E-Mail Monster. In the end, it’s all about putting things where they belong, so they’re not taking up precious mental space.

5. I Move Tasks to a Hybrid Digital/Physical To-Do List

I like to have my to-do list in a place where I can see it easily and instantly from where I’m sitting at work, but where I can also access it when I’m on the run. That means it has to be both physical and digital.

My system starts with a giant white foamcore board covered with Post-it notes in up to four colors. Every time I want to assign myself a work-related task, I make a green Post-it. For personal tasks, yellow. Sometimes specific projects get pink or blue Post-its. If there are enough Post-its piling up, I separate them onto multiple boards for different projects.

As soon as I create a Post-it, I snap a photo of it using the uber-cool Post-it Camera feature in Evernote. That creates a digital simulation of the Post-it in my Evernote account, and I can set Evernote to store the notes in specific notebooks depending on their color. When I’m on the road, for example, I can check my Personal To Do notebook to see all of my yellow notes.

When I’ve completed a task, I move the virtual Post-it into the Completed folder, and I remove the physical note. I take time to relish the action of scrunching up the note and tossing it in the trash bin—it’s strangely rewarding.

For all of the details on my to-do list system, see How I Learned to Stay Organized with Evernote, Post-its, and Foamcore.

6. I Turn Off Most Notifications

I’m happily ensnared in the Apple ecosystem. I have an iPhone, an iPad, a MacBook Air, an Apple Watch, and an Apple TV, and I feel that each one provides value for specific contexts and tasks. I feel the same way about lots of the apps and services I use, like Facebook and Twitter.

Now, I know that notifications are one of the main ways smartphone makers and app developers get people to engage with their products many times each day—and, hence, one of the main ways they stay in business. But if I let all of those devices and apps interrupt me whenever they felt like it, I’d go insane.

I want to be in charge of how often I look at my phone or my watch, so I’ve turned off notifications for all of my apps except the basic utilities like Mail, Calendar, FaceTime, Messages, Facebook Messenger, and Reminders. I’ve also turned off the little red badges that show you how many Facebook posts or tweets you’ve missed. I agree with Note to Self host Manoush Zomorodi that the badges are just an annoying distraction. (If you’re one of those people with thousands of messages in their e-mail inbox, disabling this badge for your Mail app will lower your stress level instantly.)

Lastly, I set all my iOS devices, including my Apple Watch, to go into Do Not Disturb mode from 10:00 pm to 7:00 am, so that I can get a good night’s rest, free of digital distractions.

* * *

My system may sound complicated, and perhaps it is. But I’ve internalized it to the point that the individual actions, like saving articles to Evernote or making Post-its for my to-do list items, are pretty automatic.

The net result is that I’m not stuck in information quicksand all day. I try to be conscious and deliberate about whether I want to be in information hunting mode or information comprehension mode. If I’m in hunting mode, I quickly put new information where it belongs, then come back to it at the appropriate time. That leaves plenty of time and mental space during the workday to think about stuff and, hopefully, advance the projects I’m working on.

There’s nothing “infomagical” about my system. It does require daily thought and maintenance. But I haven’t found anything that works better for me.

Flickr photo by Dean Hochman, Creative Commons license


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