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 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 Clippings.io 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