Tips for Handling Information Overload

Written on:July 30, 2010
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The reality for anyone who does most of their work online is that information is endless, and keeping up with the most important information without becoming overwhelmed can be quite a challenge. As a community manager, I have to be able to process large quantities of information quickly and efficiently in order to do my job, but it’s easy to forget that not everyone lives in my world.

As I work with colleagues to help them get more involved in the community, the most common complaint is that they won’t be able to read everything and can’t keep up with the volume of information coming into the community. However, the key is not to try to read everything, but to learn how to filter and find the information that you do need to read.


Most email clients have various options for filtering and processing at least some of your email automatically, which allows you to get through your email more quickly. I send community posts from mailing lists or forums to a folder with a threaded view, while also keeping them in my inbox. By keeping them in a threaded view, I can review all of the related posts together, which reduces the time I spend paying attention to each one since I can follow the entire thread. I also take similar actions for other information or community-generated traffic. This allows me to very quickly process certain types of high-volume email traffic.

This same principle holds for other kinds of information. I also filter my RSS feeds using Yahoo Pipes to automatically increase the relevancy of what I read; you can use similar searching and filtering on other types of data that has to be processed and dealt with quickly.

The Art of Skimming and Processing

I’ve talked before about embracing inbox zero. One of the keys to maintaining inbox zero is to be able to quickly skim through your email to process everything and decide whether you need to archive it or put it in a folder to respond later. The filtering techniques talked about earlier allow me to very quickly skim certain types of email while spending more time on others. Accepting that you can’t possibly read everything and staying disciplined about processing your email really does help you get more of the right things accomplished, rather than spending all day reading email without getting to your real work. I also use my phone to process email by setting up my “must respond” folder on the server, along with an “archive later” folder: a temporary folder where I can put email that can be easily dumped into the real archive folder on my hard drive when I get back to my laptop to save server space.

Like the filtering tip, skimming and processing can be applied to many other types of information. You can quickly get through your RSS reader if you flag or star items to read later when you have more time, and you can use various bookmark services to tag articles to read later. I also do this with Twitter by marking tweets as favorites from my phone if they contain a link that I want to read when I get back to a bigger screen or when I have more time.

Prioritization and Time Chunks

Getting through large quantities of information quickly also depends on prioritizing content to deal with important things first while also being able to work in chunks where you can be the most productive. For example, I use a color code system for emails from people who generally send me important email: my boss, the people who report to me, and a few others. By having these in orange, I can quickly see at a glance which emails should be read right away, and I prioritize this email over other types of email. I also try to process my email in big chunks; for example, my community has quite a few people from Europe and Asia, so the volume of email in the morning can be a bit intense. Since it doesn’t take too much effort to skim and process the mailing list email, I try to do it first thing in the morning while I’m making that first pot of tea. The key is that I’m only processing it to find the email that I need to do something with, but I wait to respond until I’ve had time to drink that first cup.

I do something similar with my RSS reader. I set aside chunks of time to spend reading feeds and have carefully prioritized folders with the most important feeds in folders near the top with less important feeds in folders near the bottom that I rarely read. I also set aside chunks of time to spend reading forum posts and other community activities.

These are just a few examples of ways to handle information overload with a focus on email, since that seems to be where most people get overwhelmed to start with. However, these tips also apply to handling information overload of other types.

How do you handle information overload?

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