Solving “Information Overload”—Matching Information With Need and Making It Personal

My previous post described what’s really behind “information overload.” It’s not about quantity—that is, too much information. It’s about quality. Information is a burden only when it lacks context or becomes inaccessible—incomplete, unorganized, or outdated.

This is hardly a new problem. In the early twentieth century, Paul Otlet invented the card catalog system—adopted by libraries around the world—as a solution.

Vannevar Bush, author of As We May Think, envisioned another one in 1945:

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

Today the memex actually exists. I call it a commonplace book—a system for collecting and storing information that’s centralized, personally curated, and continuously maintained.

A commonplace book can take many physical forms. People such as Ryan Holiday fill a box full of index cards. Others prefer to write by hand in a bound journal. And others use an app such as Evernote or OneNote to create a digital, searchable collection of notes.

book_cover_smallAs it turns out, there’s a whole body of knowledge about how to effectively create and maintain a commonplace book—personal information management (PIM). William Jones, author of Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management defines PIM as:

… the practice and the study of the activities a person performs in order to acquire or create, store, organize, maintain, retrieve, use and distribute the information needed to meet life’s many goals (everyday and long-term, work-related and not) and to fulfill life’s many roles and responsibilities (as parent, spouse, friend, employee, member of community, etc.).

In essence, PIM is about matching information with need and making it truly personal.

Matching information with need

“One ideal of PIM is that we always have the right information in the right place, in the right form, and of sufficient completeness and quality to meet our current need,” notes William Jones.

The need can be small, such as finding the phone number for someone we want to call. It can be large, such as managing all the information needed to make a career change. Or it can be anything in between.

William reminds us that “we manage our information so that we can manage our lives.”

When we’re skilled at PIM, we seldom waste time looking for information that’s lost. We have the information on hand that we need to solve problems, make decisions, and achieve goals.

This is the ultimate context for the information we manage. PIM is not essentially about using any particular set of tools—apps, notebooks, or index cards. It’s about completing the projects and connecting with the people that matter to us.

Making information truly personal

Consider for a moment all the concrete ways that information shows up in your life, such as:

  • Documents, digital and paper-based
  • Photos, digital and paper-based
  • Music in CDs or MP3 files
  • Videos in any format
  • Books, printed and digital
  • Emails
  • Notes stored on paper or in a note-taking app
  • Bookmarks in web browsers
  • Articles saved in a “read later” app such as Pocket or Instapaper
  • Social media updates

Add all of this together and you have something that William calls a personal space of information. “We inhabit this space as surely as we inhabit a physical space, he writes, and it “affects the way we are seen, categorized, and treated by others.”

With the Internet, our information spaces can extend across the world. They overlap with the information spaces of millions of other people.

William states that “PIM is about extending our control, or at least our influence, out over this sea of personal information. We will never have perfect control. We do what we can. And most of us can do much more than we’re doing now.”

PIM is worthwhile because we want to protect our privacy and security in the online world.

But we also practice PIM in order to create a personal information collection. Steven Berlin Johnson captured this beautifully in a New York Times article:

There’s a fundamental difference between searching a universe of documents created by strangers and searching your own personal library [commonplace book]. When you’re freewheeling through ideas that you yourself have collated there’s something about the experience that seems uncannily like freewheeling through the corridors of your own memory. It feels like thinking.


  1. […] Making sense of the facts, stories, and quotations that fill your commonplace book gets back to the purpose of personal information management (PIM)—to do what matters to you. As William Jones notes in his book  Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management, PIM is about taking charge of information so that you can take charge of your life. […]


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