There’s no such thing as information overload. There is only filter failure.
This idea, uttered by new media guru Clay Shirkya couple years ago, is both profoundly true — and encouraging.
In fact, everyone is already filtering almost everything. You’re already not reading 99.9% of the available newspapers, web sites, books, blogs and newsletters. You’re not listening to 99.9% of the conversations taking place. You’re not following 99.9% of the items posted on Twitter, Facebook and Google Buzz.
Congratulations! Unfortunately, if you feel overwhelmed, or if you’re spending more time trying to “keep up” with all your incoming information, then your filters are failing.
Are you feeling more overwhelmed lately than you used to? Blame Google. The company unveiled Google Buzzlast week, which is a set of social features designed to overwhelm us with yet another time-consuming, energy-gobbling stream of information to process.
It’s not designed that way on purpose, mind you. But information overload is baked into the Google Buzz design as it was first implemented. The absence of a Twitter-like or Facebook-like limit on post size, the way threads are handled, the way items force themselves into your inbox, the lack of tools for managing threads and messages – all conspire to make Google Buzz a burnout machine.
Google Buzz added a massive incoming stream of information without helping us eliminate others.
The good news is that Google will probably fix all this very quickly, making Buzz not only far less overwhelming, but also a tool that will eventually enable us to filter out other streams as well.
So how do you fix failing filters? In part, the solution lies in developing a better understanding about information overload.
Understanding Information Overload
First, it’s important to understand that you’re engaged in an evolutionary arms race. When you create new filters to block information, the Internet will evolve the capacity to route around your filters and reach you anyway.
Second, information overload is really about mental energy. It’s a psychological and a physiological condition, not something that exists “out there.” Part of the solution is to learn how to use your mind efficiently.
For example, there is no such thing as multitasking. You can rapidly switch your focus from one task to another, but that switching involves a mental cost. Each time you shift focus, you’re expending energy. Multitasking is nothing more than interruption mode at the expense of “flow.” By avoiding interruptions of all kinds, including multi-tasking, you’ll cut info-burnout.
Third, (and the most challenging to embrace), is that ignorance is the goal. Ignorance about something unimportant is the happy product of a good filter doing its job.
To embrace ignorance is to abandon delusion. You cannot know everything. The goal is to gain control, to clearly identify the information that isn’t worth your time, then avoid that knowledge. I know, for example, that the “Brangelina” family is vacationing in Europe. I know that the leader of the flying monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz” is named “Nikko.” And I can rattle off a list of trivia about the show “Jersey Shore,” even though I’ve never seen it.
This knowledge is the product of filter failure. With better filters, I could have remained ignorant about all of this, and replaced that information with data from the vast ocean of useful information that I am still ignorant about because I didn’t have the time or energy to learn it.
Fourth, the price of freedom from information overload is eternal vigilance. Every single piece of information — every e-mail, tweet and post — is removing available time and mental energy. Whenever you confront a useless e-mail, a time-wasting tweet or a redundant post, take action. Why did I get this? How can I stop this kind of thing in the future?
Don’t do what almost everyone does. Don’t just delete it and move on. You’ve been robbed! Your right to control your attention has been violated! Do not accept this. Take action every time.
Fixing filter failure is not about using this service or that feed. It’s about cultivating a low tolerance for broken filters.
How to Fix Filter Failure
1. Master your e-mail filters.
Outlook “Rules” and Gmail “Filters” are the most important tools for overcoming filter failure. Get in the habit of making nearly all incoming e-mail rule-governed. Automatically delete, save, reply to, flag, tag or set up alerts for all incoming mail.
2. Favor e-mail as your point of entry.
You can use services to send RSS feeds, online articles and a vast range of content into your inbox. The benefit is that your e-mail rules or filters can apply to content, too.
For example, if you’re a BlackBerry user who feels your time is wasted by iPhone chatter, you can set up filters to auto-archive content mentioning “Apple iPhone.” Many authors make their articles available via e-mail. (For example, you can subscribe to all the columns I write by going to this pageand clicking “Subscribe to this Posterous” on the right.)
3. File for searching.
Some information is urgent. But most of what is pushed at us is really just information we might need to know someday. Set up filters that file stuff in a searchable format for later searching.
For example, I’m on all the tech-journalist PR lists. I get 20 press releases a day. I have a filter set up in Gmail that looks at sender, as well as content, to identify press releases. My filter tags them, and archives them without placing them in the inbox.
I never see them unless I search, or choose to browse my “press releases” folder. I have a dozen or so such folders where content is automatically filed, skipping the inbox. This auto-filing also helps me with #4.
4. Group comparable information.
Invent content categories for your life — “personal correspondence,” “social networking,” “professional education,” “personal interest,” “political argument,” etc., and figure out how to selectively immerse yourself into each category one at a time. Most of us have all categories pouring into all our feeds. Jumping from one kind of stream to another can burn energy needlessly.
5. Maximize screen alternatives.
We’re all reading on screens a lot more than we used to, and it’s contributing to that burn-out feeling. Seek alternatives.
Replace some blogs with podcasts. Listen to audiobooks. Cancel one of your online sources of news, and start listening to BBC radio online. Use a voice-to-text service like reQallto write stuff by talking (for example, I “wrote” most of the notes for this column by talking into the reQall app on my iPhone).
6. Screen calls and get voice-mail via e-mail.
I use Google Voice, but alternatives abound. If phone calls are contributing to burnout, screen calls with voice-mail, and have your voice-mails transcribed and delivered via e-mail.
7. Avoid Google Buzz until they fix it.
If you’re a Gmail user, Buzz has been thrust upon you, followers and all. The fine print at the bottom of Gmail includes a “turn off Buzz” link. This won’t cancel your account, or delete your followers. By clicking again, it all comes back, posts and all.
8. Embrace Buzz after they fix it.
Within the next few weeks, or possibly months, the feature set of Buzz will very likely cross some threshold that makes it a tool to fight information overload rather than just another source.
9. Re-embrace narrative.
As social streams have become more important, fragmented, disconnected nuggets of information have displaced stories. The former increase information overload, and the latter relieve it. Try to get less of your information in the form of tweets and posts, and more in the form of articles, essays and books.
10. Avoid overwhelming yourself.
Don’t forget about the number-one source of information overload: You!
How do you manage your ideas, to-do lists, projects, reminders, schedule, contacts and other information? Try to consolidate each type of data into a single place. Favor tools that provide clarity and peace of mind. My personal recommendation is reQall and Teuxdeux for tasks, Google Calendar and Contacts for schedule and address book, and Evernotefor everything else. (What these all have in common is superior “findability.”)
11. Beware of information addiction.
Much of our excess media consumption is driven by addiction. That information fire hose is like a crack-pipe for some people. If you feel anxiety whenever you’re away from info-streams, then you’re an addict. (Admitting you have a problem is the first step.)
Info-addicts are constantly clicking here, there and everywhere — and signing up for new streams compulsively — out of a feeling that they’re missing out on something. This is a bad reason to overwhelm yourself. And it can leave you without enough mental energy or time to get your work done. If you’re addicted, take drastic action. Go cold turkey one day a week without turning on your computer or reading anything on your phone.
12. Watch out for escapism.
Information overload is compounded by a feedback cycle of burnout medicated by escapism. We fry our brains with information, and, as a relief, we go watch crazy videos, browse Facebook, check in on humor sites and generally seek out diversions.
Here’s the problem. These diversions add to burnout. They require mental attention and energy. And they don’t solve the problem. It’s best to schedule or group your frivolous online entertainment, because switching back and forth repeatedly between work and fun adds to that feeling of information overload.
Instead, go outside, take a walk, turn off your computer for 20 minutes or do something that doesn’t evolve mentally processing information on a screen.
13. Outsource your filtering.
For some kinds of information, you need to be very meticulous about what you filter and why. For example, take care with company e-mail, or professionally relevant RSS feeds. But for other, more general information, sometimes the best filter is the outsourced one.
Let’s say you’re a movie buff, and subscribe to a half-dozen of the movie-related RSS feeds or blogs. You’re going to get a lot of redundant news, as well as too much inside baseball. Instead, outsource it by going to a social bookmarking site like Digg, finding the “movies” category and grabbing the Digg Movie RSS feed for it. Get rid of those other feeds, and use just this one. Let the “crowd” pick your movie news. You can even outsource the discovery of random items of interest. Delete all those streams you’ve got set up to discover random cool stuff, and subscribe to the Google “Cool” feed.
14. Embrace zero-sum stream consumption.
The biggest single reason for filter failure is that we add more info-streams than we delete. It’s driven by a delusional superman complex that makes us believe that we can and should read it all.
It’s time to stop increasing your streams. If you subscribe to an e-mail newsletter, unsubscribe from another. If you follow someone on Twitter, un-follow someone else. Want to start using Google Buzz? Stop using FriendFeed, and so on. Never add without also subtracting. The biggest benefit to this practice is that while quantity remains the same, quality goes up because you’re always deleting the worst content.
All these filter failure fixes share a common feature: They’re all about identifying the most valuable information, then making sure you have the time and energy to take full advantage of it.
It’s true: Information overload is nothing more than filter failure. So do yourself a favor and master the art of filtering incoming information.