How to Deal with Information Overload

Simon Frantz and I recently wrote an article focusing on information overload for ASN Kidney News, a newsmagazine that examines research findings and policy changes for practitioners in kidney health and disease. It just came out in this month’s edition of the magazine. I’ve republished the article below, but you can read the online version in the May 2012 edition of Kidney News.

How to Deal with Information Overload

Suffering from information overload is a frustrating and all too common condition today. If it isn’t hard enough trying to clear your overflowing e-mail inbox, then there’s the stress of staying on top of the blossoming number of journals and medical blogs in your field, papers uncovered through regular PubMed or Medline searches, not to mention the pressure of keeping up-to-date with the latest must-use social media tools. And yet, a small number of people seem to stay afloat while the vast majority of us are drowning in information. What’s their secret?

Every year, the Science Online conference in North Carolina brings together some of the most savvy digital natives in science and journalism. This provided a perfect opportunity for us to pose the question in the session Drowning in Information! How Can We Create Organization & Balance–Tools and Strategies for Managing Information Overload (Science and Otherwise). Below are some of the main themes and tips that emerged for managing the data deluge that hits you on a daily basis.

Find signals among the noise

You don’t need to subscribe to everything! Find the information gathering tools that suit your content needs. If you regularly read journals and magazines, subscribe to their RSS feeds so that you can read them all in one place. Google Reader is a free, Web-based aggregator that allows you to organize, read and search all of your favorite news sites and blogs in one place. If you like staying on top of the latest trends in a particular discipline, join Twitter and follow people in your field and/or people that share your interests and have your news curated. If you have an iPhone or iPad, Flipboard curates content from several social media sources.

Filter, filter, filter

For many people, email consumes the most time during a normal business day. Take back some of the time used to manage email by using folders to stay organized. In your email client, create specific folders based on topic, task or person. Whether it’s for must-read content or for messages you can turn to at a later date, automate the task of sorting email based on keyword(s) and/or sender. This allows you to immediately focus on the message rather than on the action of sorting. Color-code emails to distinguish family and friends from meeting requests or table of content alerts; do the same for RSS feeds, Twitter, etc. Divide information flows into folders or lists, such as “Must-read in my field” or “Weekend reads”, any category that reflects your desired reading habits. For more advance management between different services and devices, use ifttt (If This Then That), which enable the creation of customized, automated tasks.

Organize and archive

There are numerous free online tools that can help you store your information, but three repeatedly came up in the discussion: Dropbox, which allows you to share files between your work and home computer; Mendeley, a reference manager that allows you to organize, read and annotate PDF documents; and Evernote, a note-taking app which saves your most valuable notes, clippings and photos across all your computer and mobile devices. Pinboard was also mentioned, which you have to pay for, but in return you can bookmark and organize links, effortlessly saving links shared via Twitter.

Get into the habit

It’s easy to give up on a tool within days, especially if it becomes stressful to deal with its backlog after a deadline, conference or, heaven forbid, a vacation. People recommended throwing yourself into a method for 30 days and see if it works before ditching it. And try regular cleansing sessions — for instance, try clearing your information streams every Sunday evening. That way, you’ll start each week without the pressure or guilt of looking at old content that you are unlikely to read anyway.

Walter Jessen, Ph.D. is a computational biologist, knowledge curator and Web developer at Walter Jessen Discovery New Media.

Simon Frantz is the Science/Technology Features editor at BBC Future.

Walter Jessen is a digital strategist, writer, web developer and data scientist. You can typically find him behind the screen something with an internet connection.

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