In an earlier part of the century I was suffering from information overload. TV, radio, podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, clones of Twitter and Facebook… and even with a feed reader, there were too many websites to keep up with. I was getting burned out, and I started having frequent daydreams about giving up and raising goats. This would’ve been dangerous for my bank account, even if my wife was down with the idea. As it is, subsistence farming is part of our vague retirement plan, but to go cold turkey now would probably quickly leave us homeless.
I see symptoms of this in my colleagues, as well, both in my city and across the globe. We feel obligated to keep up-to-date with absolutely everything that might be even tangentially interesting or useful. And while this is possible, it is not possible for a long time. You will burn out.
What’s more, spending a lot of time looking at the shiniest new story will hurt productivity, and even worse, it will hurt creativity. In order to create, there needs to be at least a little bit of a vacuum. That’s why we frequently have good ideas in the shower and while driving.
I suspect it’s largely generational, because when I look at people over the age of 45 or so, they don’t seem quite so obligated to read and watch everything. When I look at people under, say, 22, they also seem more well-adjusted to our cultural glut of information.
I have a proposal: in order not to burn out and give up, you have to learn what to ignore. Instead of blaming “society” for being too full of information, and as an alternative to risking missing out on something truly important, here are some suggestions for putting yourself on a lean information diet.
Watch out for re-Pete
It’s part of the blogging and social networking culture to share interesting stuff, to embed videos and do some (but please, not a lot of) re-tweeting. It’s almost certain that some of your information sources are interested in the same topics, so they’ll want to share those things with you. Because of the shape of overlapping social circles, you’re seeing the same thing more than once.
Spend a few days with your eye on these repeated items and make a note of the people / blogs that do more than their share of repeating. Then stop paying attention to those people. If it’s interesting enough, you will see it elsewhere.
For example, I used to be following a lot more Web design big-wigs until I realized that I could get the same information by replacing them all with the Twitter feed for popular links on delicious.com.
(I feel confident that Consumerism Commentary won’t end up on the “repeat list” for a lot of you. I like how we keep things original and interesting around here.)
A smarter auto-pilot
You have a set of favorite blogs, but not even they can manage to make every new post interesting to you. Let’s say you’re a fan of Apple, Inc., but at the moment, all you really care about are the specs for the new Mac Pro. Instead of trying to keep up with a subscription to MacRumors and/or MacNN and/or The Unofficial Apple Weblog, just set up a Google News Alert for something like:
apple "mac pro" update
Set it to “once a week” and you should learn what you need in plenty of time to make an intelligent decision. Then, just delete or modify the news alert as necessary.
This might seem extreme, but maybe you’ve already got a person in the office you can rely on to share relevant industry information. Maybe your company even has a system in place where links are collected. There’s no reason why your company’s Twitter account can’t benefit its employees as well as colleagues and clients.
Not that the world couldn’t benefit from more goat farms, but assuming you still like what you do, I hope you consider some of the ideas above. I think it will improve your quality of life, and make your co-workers happier, to boot.
Published or updated May 31, 2010.