Dealing with information overload (Credits – Joy of Tech)
So much information out there! How to keep up with it?
Such filter failures (Clay Shirky would -allegedly- say) in the way we process information bubbles! How can we fix these?
So little time to do so much! Where lies our salvation from the digital flood?
People around me are constantly grappling with this: my researcher colleagues say they wouldn’t use new platforms and channels (they’re struggling with existing ones as is), my family wonders how I manage to engage on social media (beyond the obvious Friend&Family-focused Facebook), my friends mostly don’t really know about my info-flow-survival tricks… All of this led me recently to wonder if only dedicated knowledge workers are able to strike a balance with information flow, between fast pace and slow space.
My mantra to keep the head above the info water is: PACMAN. Or rather PACMan: Plan-Act-Capture-Manage. PACMan helps you eat information nuggets all along the way and keep going happily, while fixing filter failures letting phantoms through. It has a lot to do with personal knowledge management (PKM) so perhaps it should be called PaKMan ;)
What does PACMan entail?
One of the main reasons why we don’t manage to find the time to read all the relevant information there is, is that we don’t plan for it properly. Typically our (lack of) planning is lousy because:
Plan openly, adapt relentlessly (credits: BlogWestinteractive / FlickR)
- We usually don’t plan! We don’t set goals, which would give us direction and, very importantly, give us energy when we complete them;
- As a result we don’t manage to channel energy and time to activities that fall off our crisis-mode (like Alice’s eternally late rabbit), such as reading interesting stuff;
- When we DO plan, we over-plan. We put too much on our fork. And by the same token we ignore what we unconsciously sense (and know from experience): reality -usually- does NOT follow the plan. We need to keep our plans flexible. I’d say keep 20-25% of your plans open to allow spontaneity and serendipity (remember pinballs and bulldozers);
- We’re usually lousy at saying ‘no‘ to more work; perhaps because it’s interesting but it still means we’re constantly pushing our multitasking limits (when some say multitasking doesn’t actually work), reinforcing this crisis dynamics… We just have to say no to too much work! It’s the only way to maintain focus, quality, energy and inspiration…
- Oh, and we typically forget to plan holidays. Fatal mistake, as no one else will do that for you ;)
Turn these planning mistakes on their head, forget about perpetual fire-fighting and enjoy the luxury of quality time, for reading and otherwise.
What I do (among others): I plan on a weekly basis, keep one day entirely free, maintain manageable daily objectives and accommodate the unknown by pushing things back to when I have free time available. My reading time is early and late in the day, at the edges of a working day, when I have a break and if I need to read a specific document, I include that in my plan. Ticking off my to-do’s gives me joy and a sense of achievement, while I can still open any unknown along the way – ideal! Ha – and saying no and planning holidays were the two surviving skills I learnt with my previous employer IRC – just try it!
…on the spot! I already covered dealing with email overflow – a lot of that advice applies to other information sources. Act is about avoiding future problems. It’s about finding heuristics that work for you (e.g. do, delegate or dump), but doing it in the moment, as it happens. Act according to your plans, act on capturing (see next point) when the opportunity presents itself, act on what you observe and feel, act rather than just think. Seize the moment to read, use your ‘dead time’ and combine opportunities to do reading (to serve another purpose) if that makes your life easier.
Try and stick to the plans when it makes sense, don’t dilute your focus. Keep zen habits… Though when a good opportunity presents itself to absorb that information in a slow, qualitative kind of way, just seize it, it might be your best chance in a while. It’s about being in the moment and honing the wisdom of insecurity.
What I do: I execute my plans, I regularly read stuff and when I see something valuable I share and/or save it on the spot. And a whole lot more which I guess I should unpack in a future post…
Managing information flow is also about deferring / staging the time to absorb that information – and indeed fixing filter failures.
Staging the consumption of information means that you not only plan time to that kind of quality reading, but you can also save information for later consumption (and easy sharing). Like recording a program you don’t have the time to watch at the moment. Social bookmarking helps you do just that (see this video about social bookmarking).
RSS feeds are also a great way to differ your information consumption. What are RSS feeds? See the video below. What’s great about it is that they capture information for you – ready to be read any time – in one convenient place, like your personal, customised newspaper.
Fixing filter failures is itself about leveraging the combined filtering power of your personal learning network (PLN). Invest in your PLN, on all social media/networks you’re using; prune those networks, remove the people that you don’t really engage with or benefit from, act as the constant knowledge gardener. If well maintained, your PLN will help you find the cream of the content crop, by retweeting/saving/blogging about/referring to/sharing these great resources – something that Twitter does particularly well but other platforms too.
What I do: I’ve been using Del.icio.us for a while to bookmark resources that I have found interesting – or that look interesting. Sometimes I don’t come back to those. Most of the time I do, at some point, use these resources. Favourites in specific collections such as FlickR, Slideshare etc. also provide similar features. I use those two, Pinterest for graphs and funny pictures (that are not mine), Instagram to store touched up pix taken with my phone, TumblR to keep track of fragments of conversations and blogging ideas etc. – I collect stuff on the spot. And I check RSS feeds (via Feed.ly) on my phone or over the weekend + a very quick check some mornings, possibly reading whatever incredible stuff appeared in my stream.
At some point it really helps to manage and curate your content: organise your tags/keywords to make sure you collect your resources around consistent references, bundle important references on specific channels, analyse your resources and blog about it. Robin Good recently shared this excellent resource on good (and new) curation tools and practices which will give you a lot of great ideas to curate relevant content.
What is content curation? (Credits – Webbythoughts)
Managing also covers learning – analysing the content and reflecting on your planning, acting, collection and curation practices. It can be part of planning, it can be done on a daily or weekly basis but it needs to be done regularly to adjust. The bad news: it will take you a while to get on top of your content collections and information flows. But once you do and you have properly managed and are regularly curating them, your practice becomes an unconscious competence: you just do it without noticing, so it doesn’t (feel like it may) take time.
What I do: I recently reviewed all my Del.icio.us, tags removed all duplicates etc. it took me half a day but it is now so easy to save a new resource (without wondering which tag I should be using) and to retrieve any of them later… I regularly save pictures aside and put them on Pinterest and FlickR to keep them in sets/collections. I also analyse my own (and other) content I ‘take stock‘ of important topics on this blog. I use my blog for many different purposes, including reflecting on my information management practices, it’s a powerful way to surface deeper issues and structure solutions for me. When I have more time I review how I use my collections such as Pinterest, RSS feeds. However I don’t reflect enough – every day – about what I could improve or why things didn’t go as intended.
So what now?
With PACMan you should now be able to stay on top of your information flows and progressively handle more and more of it – if you so wish – or balance the time you absorb information with other personal priorities of yours. Oh sure it will take some time but you no longer will be part of the people who feel constantly overwhelmed with information…
And that’s agile PKM for you ;)
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