Saturday, January 10, 2009

Information Overload

I know we've all experienced this, come back from a week vacation unplugged and all of your inboxes are full and RSS feeds are jammed full. The consensus that I've read from all of the GTD sites basically tell you to start eating less information, congregate them all in one place and if you get over your head in things you don't need but rather want that you should just mark as read all of your personal feeds and just pay attention to the work stuff until you are caught up.

I've developed a personal technique that lets me process important things for work timely during the times that I'm caught up and then mixes "info" notifications from work and personal feeds. This allows me to catch up on everything and/or keep up with priorites built in. Let me oversimplify what I mean and see if you get it.

I have a single (yes, single) email rule. I developed this system after Gmail gave me a different way to think about how to process my email. I use an archive folder and the inbox..only. The rule specifies that any email with my email address in To: or CC: get left in the inbox. All other pieces of mail go to the Archive folder. This means that for work, where I receive automated email notifications from almost every system that we have get lumped into one folder. My email applications only give me a visual or audio notification of new email in the Inbox only. That way as the tons of emails spew in during the day they don't distract me from the important things.

I have to confess that even 3 years ago I was sorting email into 40 folders based on who it was from, while this is nice in the moment, it usually prevents most email applications from being able to show a thread or discussion in one continuous flow. I then move Inbox emails to the Archive folder once the final response to the confersation has been sent. This means my inbox is actionable and the stuff in Archive is in fact done.

That way I can interact with people in my workspace, address the important email messages from customers and co-workers in real-time. I then set asside two or three times a day to check both the bulk emails and my RSS fieds. That way my time is utilized for what I need to do when I need to do it. And, the time I set aside for the lower priority bulk is usually not interupted.

I have to say that my way is grossly oversimplified for the purpose of processing hundreds of emails a day. Your case may be different, it may even be paper, but the priority built into the way it arrives at your desk is the important for you to manage your flow. The hardest part of this is when the information comes to you via channels that are beyond your control and that can produce a lot of frustration. Even for folks who receive their information in the same way as I do have a hard time taking the first step to change the way they have been processing that information for ages.

Change is good, it has really helped me in my workflow and the few co-workers I have to have seen what I do are usually impressed and benefit from seeing my method even if they only apply some of these ideas in a very high level method.

Feel free to put your real-world methods in the comments and share how you managed to make digesting all of your information in a more sane way.