Information Overload? Filter It With These Three Questions

It’s no wonder that people complain about information overload. Most of what we do is managing information. This includes input from thinking, conversations, and all the content that we consume via print media and digital devices.

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But as David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, reminds us, “the problem is not information overload”:

If it was, you’d walk into a library and die. The first time you connected to the Web, you’d blow up, and merely browsing a newspaper would make you a nervous wreck. Actually, a plethora of information is relaxing. One reason a stroll in the woods can be so calming is because of the quantity and variety of visual and auditory input. In an environment of too little information, we get really uncomfortable. Sensory deprivation is unsettling.

Another useful perspective on “overload” comes from Clay Shirky, who teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications program at New York University. In an interview with Russ Juskalian for the Columbia Journalism Review, Shirky said that “there is no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure…. you never hear twenty-year-olds talking about information overload because they understand the filters they’re given.” These include social filtering sites such as Digg, Metafilter, and Reddit.

An even more immediate strategy is to filter information by asking three questions:

  • Does this information relate to a project I care about? I define project as David Allen does — an outcome that you can achieve only by completing more than one task. One advantage of having a list of your current projects is that you get an automatic set of filters. Say that my list includes finish the first draft of my novel and launch a new blog by December 1. Any information that I find about novel writing and blogging will rise to the top and probably get included in my commonplace book.
  • Does this information relate to a person I care about? I often recommend books and articles to friends because it might help them complete one of their projects, solve one of their problems, or simply experience a moment of delight. This is a sweet spot where content curation and compassion overlap.
  • Does this information relate to a passion of mine? In this wonderful post about organizing large bodies of information, Tiago Forte suggests that you focus on “topics and themes of ongoing interest.” Like me, Tiago is interested in topics such as habit formation, note-taking apps, and project management. Your list will be different and unique to you. The key point, as Richard Saul Wurman reminded us, is that there is no such thing as “keeping up” with the news and other information. There is only the sacred path of “following the trail of your own interests.”