Core Skills in Personal Information Management—Managing the Flow

One goal of personal information management (PIM) is to have current information on hand to meet a current need. But equally important is making sure that your personal information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands or distract you from doing what matters to you.


In his book Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management, William Jones says that there are three distinct issues to consider here:

  • Managing your personal information as it flows out into the world. This starts with protecting the privacy and security of your passwords, credit card information, and other confidential data. It’s also about attending to the public image of you that’s created by outgoing information, including your presence on social media and other online venues.
  • Managing the information that flows in to your life. You’re out of control here if your in-boxes are overflowing with unread messages, your desktop is strewn with papers, and your computer is filled with files and folders that are disorganized or irrelevant.
  • Staying “in flow” as you use information for personal purposes. We use information in order to create things—anything from a text message to a book manuscript. But completing creative projects requires us to set aside time for deep work without interruptions.

Following are ideas from William Jones about how to deal with these issues.

Manage your personal information as it flows out into the world

There are mean people in the world who want to hack into your bank account and steal your credit card number.

Beyond them is all the information about you that’s managed by government agencies, marketing companies, and corporate IT departments. Every link you click and every character that you type while you’re online can be tracked.

“The best place to exercise control is at the points where information about us (e.g., our credit card number or email address) is about to flow outward,” notes William. For example:

  • Find the privacy settings for apps that you use often and websites that you frequently visit. Determine which settings you can change and their resulting effects.
  • Read the privacy and confidentiality policies adopted by websites and app developers. Buried in the legal jargon you might find mismatches between those policies and your preferences.
  • Control how much personal information you put online, especially on social media websites.
  • Use Ghostery or a similar app that blocks advertising and indentifies who’s tracking your online activity.

Manage the information that flows in to your life

You can cope with incoming streams of email and news with shortcuts, such as skimming rather than reading in depth. But at a certain point, even the shortcuts break down.

The best way to control inflow is at the source—not at the level of individual events (You’ve got mail!):

  • Reduce inputs. Review the number of bookmarks in your web browser, feeds in your RSS reader, and mailing lists that you’ve joined. Delete as many as possible. When choosing sources of information, keep the 80/20 principle in mind.
  • Give up on keeping up. “Learning can be defined as the process of remembering what you are interested in,” wrote Richard Saul Wurman in his book about information anxiety. Use your personal interests—not some vague intention about “staying informed” or “keeping up with the news”—as your primary way to filter information.
  • When faced with a decision, don’t force yourself to discover and research all the options. Keep searching only until you reach a satisfactory outcome—for example, finding a qualified person for a job even if you haven’t reviewed all the resumés.

Staying in “flow”

Companies invest heavily in finding ways to capture our attention. That’s the reason for beeps from your appliances, telemarketing calls, online advertisements, pop-up windows, and all those silly noises that your smartphone makes.

Contrast that stimulation with your experiences of being “in the zone” and “flow.” These are times when your attention is so completely absorbed in a task that time disappears. You perform at higher level than usual without a sense of struggle or effort.

You can’t always control the conditions that create flow. But you can take steps to prevent from being pulled out of flow when it happens:

  • Reduce interruptions from others. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t respond to email or text messages. Close the door to your office, studio, or room. Go online only if it’s absolutely necessary for what you’re doing.
  • Reduce self-interruptions. Before you begin a deep work period, get prepared. Assemble all the tools, materials, and information you’ll need to complete your task.