Dealing with Info Overload: Lists and Lotteries

I woke up this morning and saw a tweet from Drew at Throwing Light, asking me if I ever deal with information overload. In his own post today, Drew talks about how he blames all the blogs he wants to read for his recent creative slump and explains what he did to overcome. Since I was debating what I wanted to blog about today, I’m seizing this chance to answer Drew’s question. It’s such a common question from nonprofits too that I have several slides on it in my social media presentations.

Accept that you cannot read everythingThe first step is to accept that there is waaaaay more good information out there than you can possibly absorb. The second step is to realize that there is no great public punishment coming your way if you don’t absorb it. In fact, as Drew learned, if you try to absorb it all, your punishment is much more likely to be self-inflicted, like Drew’s creative slump.

Then what?

For me, it comes down to two strategies: the Lists and the Lottery.

The Lists

Spend a little time upfront creating lists that help you see the people who history tells you are most likely to having something good to say in the future. I use a custom page at Alltop to keep track of my favorite blogs. I use multiple lists within Twitter and Facebook (both public and private), and columns within Hootsuite (partner link), to parcel out various people and topics. Within those lists, I have a few must-reads (or my primary lists) and everything else (the secondary lists).

Now, list-making in and of itself can consume enormous amounts of time if you let it. Don’t. As you happen across various people who make you pause or think or laugh, add them to a list. Also add people who are good sorters of information themselves. A person may not have all that much original to say themselves, but if they are a good curator or editor, they are just as valuable to me, because they bring really good stuff to my attention that I would have missed otherwise. Don’t feel like you have to categorize every single person you follow on Twitter. That was an early mistake of mine, and I’ve let that go.

I look at these lists first thing in the morning, along with my email box, not because I think it’s the single most important thing to do in the morning, but because it’s an easy task for my sleepy brain to accomplish. I’m not a morning person. I also do it on my Droid X, which is helpful in two ways: first, because I’m usually still slumped in the big comfy chair in my living room, and two because that little screen forces me to look at just one thing at a time — no dozen tabs open at once like on the PC.

No one will come for youI try to take another peek at the must-reads twice more during the day, usually as a mental break in between blocks of my own work. This is where my tagging strategy becomes really important, because I don’t want to get sucked into having to absorb everything at the first moment I see it. This time is meant to be a break, not a whole task itself.

When I do come across something like a blog post that piques my interest, I rarely read the whole thing right then. Instead, I usually tag it. I’m transitioning from Delicious to Diigo for this, but the idea is that I somehow label it so that when I really am ready to think about that topic in more depth, I can go back and actually read it then and think about it.

The Lottery

This is where those secondary lists come in. If I have a few minutes here and there during the day, I go look at those other lists that are interesting, but not musts. I think of it as playing the lottery. Sometimes this skimming produces nothing; other times it produces really great stuff. Others like Beth Kanter call this leaving room for serendipity (which does sound a lot nicer than playing the lottery).  Beth says she’ll be blogging a lot this year about social media time management, so keep Beth on one of your lists!

This is not a perfect process. I’m sure I do, in fact, miss some stuff I wish I had seen. And sure enough, I still end up seeing a lot of things that are completely useless. But overall, I feel like I am seeing enough to keep up with the people and topics that I want to keep up with, and just enough of everything else to allow for some pleasant surprises.

Most importantly, this process lets me get stuff done. I believe I strongly benefit from reading what others are thinking and doing. This morning, and this blog post, are a perfect example. If Drew hadn’t tweeted me about his post, I wouldn’t have written this one today.

You also need to do exactly what Drew did, which is to find that thing — whatever it is — that sets your mind free for awhile. For Drew it was taking pictures of snow-covered statues in downtown Philadelphia. For me it’s often curling up on the couch with a pen and paper in my hand. It’s extremely rare for me to get a brilliant idea at the computer. They almost always come when I’m curled up comfortably somewhere, taking a hot shower, or working out. I know that about myself, so when I’m stuck, I do one of those three things.

It’s your turn. How do you deal with information overload, and what do you do to ensure that you don’t let it bury your own creativity? Please share in the comments.



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  • Anonymous

    I have concentrated my learning through reading blogs, tweets, etc. by concentrating more on my subjects of highest interest while still trying to keep up with general industry trends as much as possible. Narrowing my scope has allowed me to read less and get more value out of what I read as well as freeing up time to get actual work done!

  • Bettina_V

    Thank you for the great suggestions Kivi – I personally use google reader to categorize my blogs and it truly helps: When I’m just looking to keep up with industry news I look only at the blogs in one folder, vs. when I want to just browse things I like where I go through all my folders. I’d love for you to check out our EmailMarketing.Net Blog at: http://www.EmailMarketing.Net/Blog – we are constantly updating it with tips and tactics that will help non-profits make the most out of their Email Marketing Strategy and I’d love to hear what you think about it!

  • Very helpful advice as always, Kivi! Thanks:-)

  • Dianna K Wiggins

    Hi Kivi, I’m interested in hearing more about how to transition from one social bookmarking service to another, as you mentioned you are doing from Delicious to Diigo. I’ve been on Delicious for a while now, and I feel as though it would be rather cumbersome to move everything or reinvent the wheel over on another one, so I keep piling them up over there. How do you recommend going about this, and what would be the elements of consideration from one to another? Thanks.

    • Hi Dianna,
      I’m just doing it. When Yahoo announced that they were planning to sell off delicious, I just exported everything and dumped it all into Diigo. When I save new bookmarks, I’m using Diigo. Not the best approach, as I really need to do some cleaning and maintenance on all the tags, but I’ll never have time for that! So I’m just doing it!

  • It is sooo helpful to know how colleagues manage information… I share a few of the same techniques, but haven’t really made my way into bookmarking sites like Delicious… so I’ll take a look at Diigo. Thank you.

  • Info

    It’s not even 9 a.m. yet and I am already overloaded. I am thinking I may try to figure out how to only check my email, facebook, twitter at set times during the day…say 9a. 12 noon. 3p. and finally 5p. Mmmm…

    • Checking at certain times only is a great strategy, as long as you impose some discipline!

  • Betsy Baker

    I’m afraid I’m not much help when it comes to categorizing my “information overload” so these tips are very much appreciate! Looking forward to seeing what others add to the comments.

  • I rely on Google Reader to keep on top of the blogs I follow. It’s very easy to use and I can sort blogs into custom categories that are meaningful to me. Because I follow so many, I find it helpful to prioritize them by sub-categories. For instance, in have a ‘tech-top’ and a ‘tech-regular’ so I can get to the favorites as quickly as possible. This really is a great timesaver for me.

  • Information overload is something I battle on a regular basis! Thanks for the tip on Diigo. I’ve been looking for something like that to better keep track of links and whatnot. It was quick to set up with a very easy learning curve. I have recently streamlined what I follow through Google Reader – now I’m ‘only’ scanning about 70 RSS posts a day (rather than over 100)…

  • Tara Collins

    Technology Cavewoman would like webinar on Diigo…

  • I echo your recommendation to find some “curators”. I love having those folks in my community and rely on them do some filtering for me. I heard that more than 99.9% of YouTube videos weren’t relevant to a viewer at any one time, yet I find valuable YouTube videos frequently – mostly thanks to those editors on my lists.

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