Aug 16, 2010

Tips for Handling Information Overload: Too Much Content

Here's a quick rundown on three ways to manage the info flood: RSS readers, news aggregators, and RSS filtering...

The biggest problem with information overload for most people is that it's cumulative and comes from a variety of sources. In past posts, I provided some tips for managing information overload coming in via e-mail and social media. Another source—and probably the one most people think about when you mention information overload—is the huge amount of content we consume online.

We all want to keep up with the latest news and trends in our industry, along with learning more about other areas of interest, like our hobbies. With only so many hours in the day, people often struggle with finding the information they need to be successful while not spending too much time sorting through massive quantities of data. Here are a few tips to help you whittle the information down from a fire hose to a trickle of only the most relevant content.

RSS Readers

If you don't already use an RSS reader, you should find one, since this is the best way to get only the information you want pushed to you while being able to see easily which posts you've read and which you haven't. Google Reader (GOOG) and Netvibes are good places to start. For the rest of you who already use RSS, there are many ways to make it more effective.

First, change the way you think about RSS; it's more like a newspaper than e-mail. If you fall behind on the daily newspaper, you aren't going to keep trying to catch up and read papers that are months old. RSS is just like a newspaper, so don't worry if you don't get to everything, and don't feel like you need to catch up. Right now, I have thousands of unread items in Google Reader, but I'm O.K. with it. If that big number of unread items bothers you, simply take advantage of the "mark all as read" feature once a week if it makes you feel better or, better yet, use an RSS reader that lets you hide the number of unread items.

Second, do some pruning and get rid of the dead wood. Spend a couple of hours looking at which feeds give you the most value and get rid of the rest. If you're feeling overwhelmed and overloaded, you're probably oversubscribed. Some RSS readers even have tools to help you find feeds that you rarely read or that are rarely updated.

Third, spend as little time as possible in your RSS reader by prioritizing your feeds. I use folders in Google Reader to group my feeds, and I put the most critical feeds right at the top. I make sure I read through those high priority feeds first to spend more time on what I need to know while hopefully having some time left over to read a little extra. I also encourage you to learn the keyboard shortcuts for your RSS reader, since this can shorten your RSS reading time.

News Aggregation

While RSS readers are great for the things you know you want to read, they aren't the best way to find new sources of information or news from unexpected sources. This is where news aggregators really excel. My favorite aggregator is Twitter, since it takes the links from the people I follow on Twitter and displays them in newspaper-like format, with the links that have been posted by more of my friends appearing as headlines on my Twitter page.I also use Techmeme to find the topics people are discussing online. Depending on your interests, you might be able to find other news aggregation sources focused on your areas of expertise.


Filtering RSS feeds takes a little work, but it's worth it in the long run if it helps you find only the information on topics you want to see. While there are many filtering tools, my tool of choice isYahoo Pipes (YHOO). I use Yahoo Pipes to find out when people are talking about me or the topics I'm most interested in. For example, I have Pipes that comb through industry analyst feeds looking for a few specific keywords, which allows me to find the reports from analysts on those topics while ignoring the rest.

The best thing you can do to avoid overload is to stay focused on the most important information while not worrying about what you might be missing. If you can become more efficient at finding and consuming the right information for your needs, you can easily stay informed while minimizing the feeling of being overwhelmed. Read what you can and don't stress about what you don't have time to read.

Courtesy of Bloomberg Busiessweek