4 questions for preventing information overload

I’m more selective about the information I put in my body than what food I consume. — Robert Reid

If you have wide-ranging interests or just a huge sense of curiosity, you may be like me — someone who could happily spend days just reading things online or in newspapers or magazines.

But, of course, we also want to do other things with our lives: earn a living, get exercise, see friends, pursue our hobbies, etc. So how do we cope with the never-ending flow of interesting information?

When I’m making my decisions about what to read, I focus on four questions.

Why do I want to know about this subject or read this article?

If it’s information related to my profession, it might change how I do my work. Since I do editing work, updates from Associated Press about changes to the AP Stylebook matter to me. As an organizer, sometimes there is a new product or an explanation of a specific technique or even just a cool way of wording a familiar concept that might really help a client.

News about what’s going on in the lives of family members and close friends matters to me, because I care about these people. So yes — I do use Facebook to follow the lives of the relatives and close friends who use Facebook for that kind of sharing.

Sometimes there’s information I need in order to take action. For example, if there’s an election coming up, I need to get informed about the candidates and the ballot issues. And I may want to learn more about a specific cause to decide if I want to get involved.

Irrespective of the reason, it is a good idea to be aware of why you want to know about a topic before you take to reading about it (even if it’s a simple reason like I want to smile at cute kitten photographs to lighten my mood).

How much do I need to know?

Do I need an in-depth knowledge of a topic? Often, I don’t. Sometimes just a headline is enough. Sometimes one thoughtful article by a trusted source is enough; I can read one article instead of 20.

Is this a source of information I want to pursue?

Many people write about the topics I care about. Over time, I’ve found which ones tend to provide the most useful information, so I can ignore the rest. I’ve also found which people tend to refer me to articles I want to read; if they share something, I know it’s likely to be worth my time.

Do I need to know now?

If the article relates to something I may do in the future — travel to a place, buying a product — I can just file the information away, often in the form of a bookmark to the article or others might save the link to Evernote. All I need is a very quick skim to determine if it’s likely to be useful; I’ll read it more carefully when the time comes (such as when I’m waiting for an appointment or relaxing on a Saturday afternoon).

Asking myself these questions allows me to skim through a huge amount of possible information and pick the few things I really want to read. It’s still a challenge — I’m an information junkie at heart — but these questions at least set me going along a path away from information overload.

7 Comments for “4 questions for preventing information overload”

  1. posted by Robyn on

    These are great questions! I’ve noticed that I tend towards a negativity bias, and I have learned to watch the tone and balance in the information I am tracking.

  2. posted by Marissa Thompson on

    This is a great list. I think number four, “Do I need to know now?” is most helpful for me. For some reason I’ve accepted this great pressure to read everything immediately, as if it’s urgent. It’s not. Now I usually skim the titles of articles and blog posts, then save relevant ones for later. I go back to them at the end of the day. Interestingly, most of them don’t seem so urgent when I return to them.

  3. posted by June on

    Excellent column, Jeri. We’re deluged with information everywhere, and this a very helpful guide to what will enrich our lives instead of just nibble away at our time and energy.

  4. posted by Mike Martel on

    Nice reminder about setting priorities on our information inquiries. Always good to have the end result in mind. Keeps us from going down too many rabbit holes…

  5. posted by Christy King on

    Great post! I sometimes feel that my brain is just too full.

    I only recently started using a RSS feed reader and that’s helped quite a bit, since I can glance at the summary and then move on unless it’s something I’m truly interested in.

  6. posted by adora on

    This is a great post. I am guilty of hoarding information. Obscene amount of library books, hundreds of RSS feed, opening 20 tabs on my browser in the same time to get to know more and more about a topic that doesn’t matter much. These question would definitely help me with information “diet”.
    I’ve come across a book about how to think like Sherlock Holmes. One idea is to think about our mind as “Brain Attic”, in which we must furnish the attic with useful information rather than cluttering up with as much as possible.

  7. posted by Jeremiah Stanghini on

    Thanks for this great post, Jeri!

    As someone with 30 (!) columns in my Tweetdeck, it’s always great to be reminded of questions like these when considering whether I want to scroll through *every* column or just certain ones when I’m in a pinch for time.

    I really liked your question, “Do I need to know now?” Continuing with my Tweetdeck example, I often “favorite” tweets to read later, but I sometimes find myself more interested in reading all the tweets I’ve favorited rather than doing what I was meant to be doing in a given time period.

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