Added On: Sunday, November 04, 2007

Dealing with information overload

A couple of people have sent emails asking me to write about information overload. It seems that a lot of you are drowning in data at the moment, and need some sort of direction about which way to swim. I've thought about it for a bit, and here's my conclusion.

The first point to note is that the amount of information and the efficiency of its distribution has increased enormously in the past few years. Twenty years ago, most houses had access to four or five TV channels, two or three local newspapers, a couple of hundred magazines, twenty or thirty radio channels, and a few bookshops and libraries.

Finding something that actually interested you out of all that was a reasonable amount of work. You had to plan your time around when a TV show you liked was going to come on, wait for your favorite magazine each month, and sift through bookshops or newspapers for the 5% or so of product that seemed relevant.

Today, you can have instant access to more information that's of interest than you can ever possibly consume. Every day, our email boxes fill up, RSS feeds blink with a thousand new stories, DVRs fill with interesting shows, text messages make our phone beep away, and boxes of books arrive from Amazon. Piles and piles of highly interesting information sits there demanding our attention, and mixed in with it is even more useless garbage that's come along for the ride.

And for most people, this information accumulates at a far faster rate than they can possibly consume it. Like Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer's Apprentice, every time they attack the problem it just seems to get worse. The burden can become unbearable.

What to do?

The thing to assert, with all this input flowing at us from so many different systems, is that it's there to serve us and not the other way around. We're supposed to be the ones in charge, not the systems that demand our attention. Make sure this is the attitude you take.

If your email box is full of unread messages, your RSS feeds overflowing, your DVR clogged with unwatched shows, and your bookshelf piled with untouched books then TOO BAD FOR THEM. That's their problem, not yours - and if they don't like it then they can take a long run off a short pier.

I officially give you permission to ignore the whole damn lot of it. If they yell and scream too much, blame it on me.

As I've written elsewhere, your time is an extremely valuable resource. The most valuable one you have. Without time, any other resource you possess is useless. It's pointless being the richest man in the graveyard, for example.

Because that resource is so valuable, outside forces will try all sorts of tricks to relieve you of some of it. Much like leaving all your money in a pile on your doorstep is likely to see it stolen - if you make your time easy to steal, don't be surprised if that's what happens.

Allowing a machine to dictate how your most valuable resource should be spent is just plain stupid. You should be the one deciding how your time is consumed and the circumstances under which it happens.

It's as simple as that.

Email, web articles,TV recordings and books can just wait for when you're ready to deal with them. And if you never get around to it, that's their loss, not yours.

Most of what's demanding your attention is probably pointless anyway. Information is so abundant and easy to get in today's world, that any individual instance of it is likely to be next to worthless. It's a simple case of supply and demand.

Twenty years ago, it was worth putting in effort to see the only TV show you were interested in on a particular day. Today, there are probably 50 TV shows or more that would interest you on any particular day. But you can't possibly watch that many. Instead, most of them should simply go to waste. Sure, you might miss out on that incredible and important show that will change your whole life, but you probably won't.

The same goes with email, 95% is it is fluff, so by skimming and only bothering with those that are clearly interesting, your chances of missing something important are low. The cost of paying attention to everything that demands focus from you probably isn’t worth the benefit of not missing something that may be important.

Worrying about losing one instance of information in today's world of excess, is like stressing over the loss of a raindrop during a thunderstorm. There's plenty more where that came from.

Besides, anything truly important will find ways to get your attention. You would have to live on the moon not to have heard about September 11th, the coming of the web, or the recent house-price boom. If that person you just sent to voicemail is really interested in doing a big business deal with you, they’ll call back.

As you're the one in control of how you spend your time consuming information, raise the standards of what you're willing to spend that time consuming. Limit yourself to only the spectacularly and obviously important, and let the rest die on the vine.

Don't even waste one moment mourning its loss.


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