How to Avoid Information Overload, 6 Easy Ways to Pare Down Your Consumption

“Information is not knowledge.” – Albert Einstein

Do you suffer from “information overload”?

I do. I think that most of us do.

In fact, in thinking of a topic for this post, I tried to think of interesting things that I have read or seen recently – but then realized that I have been taking in far more information than I have been able to process. In my quest to learn more, I am probably reaching a point where the constant influx of information is causing me to be counterproductive.

That is not a good process. When I read/listen to/watch things that I think will improve my life in some way, I usually start with an idea of what I want to get out of that piece of information. However, when I am overloaded, I am not only wasting my time by consuming information that I likely will not absorb or apply, but I have also likely crossed that material off of my “to-consume list”. In other words, I tell myself that I am done with that particular item and it’s time to move on to the next thing, even though I haven’t taken the time to reflect upon or apply the things I should have learned from the first item. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t always the case, but it is the case far too often. And, as the above quote from Albert Einstein so eloquently explained, simply consuming more and more information does not mean you are gaining more and more knowledge.

I suspect that I am not alone.

Too much information

Here are 6 key items that I have incorporated or am in the process of incorporating that may help you tackle information overload:

1. Focus on one topic or project at a time. It is very easy to fall in to the trap of consuming too much information at once if you are focusing on too many different things at the same time. That seems obvious, but we continue to do it. Do you read multiple books at the same time (excluding fiction, which, presumably, you not trying to learn from)? Even if the books are on different topics (i.e. how to write better and how to learn Chinese), you are likely absorbing very little information from either. This problem magnifies once we add in our RSS feeds that focus on a third, fourth, or even tenth subject, and then try to apply things that we learn from those posts. Sure, we did this in high school or college, but as adults I think that we process information different, considering all of the other external factors we face.

How can you fix this? Focus on one thing at a time. It sounds simple enough and it is, if you try. It doesn’t mean that you can’t shift gears after you finish the material you are currently on, even if you have more materials on the same subject that you want to read – just don’t try to absorb two different topics at the same time.

2. Reread the important materials. Or listen to/watch them again. Remember, the point is not to consume the most information, but to absorb and apply the most useful or important things. If you find something is important and offers valuable takeaways, read again once you are done. Take notes on the useful parts. Review those notes. It doesn’t matter if you read a book twice in a row or wait months between readings, just know that if you are looking to really absorb the material a one-time read is probably not going to accomplish that goal.

3. Clean up your RSS feed and e-mail subscriptions. How many feeds do you currently subscribe to? Me? Too many. Do I read all of them still? I try, but not really. I do periodically delete feeds when my interests or needs change or I am no longer getting value from that source. I think I have added at least 10 in the last few weeks, while deleting what probably was a similar amount. Take a look at your reader, are you getting value from or still interested in all of the sources you subscribe to? If not, delete them. Either reduce the total number or replace the deleted feeds with ones that you find value in, like Better Lived Life.

The same applies for e-mail subscriptions. You may have signed up for mailing lists that you are no longer interested in, but still receive e-mails, which you find yourself deleting without even opening. That is a waste of time. Open it up and unsubscribe. Yes, that takes a moment, but saves time down the road. I did this with nearly all of the solicitation e-mails that I receive and it made a noticeable difference in how many e-mail alerts I would receive and the amount of information that I had to process.

4. Cut back on watching or reading the news. I am not the first person to suggest this. In fact in the The 4-Hour Workweek, author Tim Ferriss, explains the importance of cutting back on news. Most of what is reported is sensational and are things that you cannot control and probably don’t care about.

I used to be a news junkie. I have cut back though. Now, I very rarely read news online. We watch it at home for the weather, but find that most of the content is a waste of time and clutters my mind with information that I don’t care about – or actually frustrates me. Besides, you will hear about important events in your Facebook and Twitter feeds.

5. Streamline your social media networks. Are your social media feeds overwhelming? Is there more there than you can possibly read or care about? Probably. Cut them down. I recently cut my personal Facebook friend list by about 30%, simply by eliminating people I would probably not talk to in the “real world”, which consisted of people that I knew 10 or 20 years ago and haven’t seen since and people that I barely knew (i.e., friends of friends). I also reduced the number of posts I see from people that share annoying pictures and things all day, and drastically cut down the number of pages that I “liked”.

I was reluctant to pare down my friends list, and I don’t know why, but I think that is a common reaction. When I told a friend how I reduced my list, she said that she wasn’t sure how/if she could do that, although her friends list was much larger than mine. I think that unlike Twitter, where I often switch who I follow based upon interests, Facebook friends are people you usually know to some extent. But don’t worry, if you delete someone that you don’t interact with, they probably won’t even notice and you will feel better with your less-cluttered feed.

6. Ask yourself, do I really care? Finally, as you start to read or listen to something, as yourself do you really care about the contents? It doesn’t take long to know if something is going to provide you with value. If it doesn’t appear that you are going to get value early, ditch it. There is no point in wasting more time consuming information that you don’t care about. You did the hard part, you started something, it doesn’t mean you are obligated to finish.

So what about you? Do you suffer from information overload? What do you do about it? What do you think the root cause is? Please share in the comments.

Also take a moment to sign up for e-mail updates or the RSS feed for Better Lived Life. I promise I won’t overload you with information.

[Image Creative Commons via SparkCBC on Flickr.]

{ 13 comments… add one }

  • Kathleen Caron March 23, 2013 at 2:58 am

    Yes, yes, yes and yes! I have fallen victim to all of those things, and sometimes I go to bed at night and my mind and body are so wired from information overload it is palpable. I like these suggestions and will incorporate them.

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  • Patrick March 24, 2013 at 1:54 am

    Thanks Kathleen for reading. I know what you mean about being wired at night with information overload, I have been there a lot recently too. I hope that incorporating these suggestions is helpful. Let me know what works for you.

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  • Johanna at ZigaZag WA Travel & Lifestyle March 23, 2013 at 9:33 am

    Yes, I hear you. There is so much noise and so many sparkly bits that just demand attention, that you have to consciously cut some out. Great post and I found it via Darren’s ‘How to’ link-up. Would be awesome if you might pop over to mine at Zigazag.

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  • Patrick March 24, 2013 at 2:11 am

    Thanks Johanna – I stopped by and found your list very useful. Thanks for the comment.

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  • Johanna at ZigaZag WA Travel & Lifestyle March 25, 2013 at 6:56 am

    Thanks Patrick! Going to follow you and Tweet you.

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  • Helen Hoefele March 23, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    For me, I think the fear is that I’m going to miss something important by cutting back. Yet, I absolutely recognize the need to be intentional in what I consume. I definitely need to take my time back from those energy-drainers and -distractors. For #4 though, I still think it’s important to stay connected with the issues of the day, even if so many seem out of our control. For that, I find the cable news programs better, but still quite time-intensive, too. Either way, I agree that it is important to focus on what you care about first. We can’t do it all.

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  • Patrick March 24, 2013 at 2:14 am

    Helen – I think that social media is certainly the biggest feeder of the “missing out” feeling, but I imagine that the same problem would certainly occur if you were trying to stay abreast of a constantly changing/evolving field. But you nailed it right on the head – be intentional in what you consume.

    Thanks for stopping by!

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  • Anna March 24, 2013 at 7:43 pm

    I end up deleting my Facebook account after realizing that I didn’t care about anything that my “friends” posted there. Glad I did it!

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  • Patrick March 26, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    Anna – I am not quite there. I have to admit that I am that person that loves sharing pictures of the little ones, but to a mostly willing audience, and Facebook is a perfect platform for that. But, like I mentioned in the post, I did a good job of weeding out a lot of what I didn’t care about. However, it is what works for you that matters. Thanks for stopping by!

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  • Alex Blackwell | The BridgeMaker March 26, 2013 at 10:15 am

    Great tips. With smartphones, tablets, laptops and televisions all consuming our lives, finding ways to cut back is important to mind, body and soul.

    I’m, in the process of cleaning up my email. It’s a time commitment now, but no doubt will pay huge dividends later.


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  • Patrick March 27, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    Alex – thanks for the comment. I hope that you have success in cleaning up your email box – something I am not very good at. However, I have not tried to strive for the inbox zero target that I have seen many bloggers strive for. I actually like the ability to search in my inbox and figure that if I move important messages to Evernote or Dropbox then I would likely just be searching there, which would take more time. But, that’s my two cents.

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  • karen crossett April 1, 2013 at 11:50 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I love simplicity and authenticity. We weigh ourselves down with unnecessary emotional, mental and consumer clutter.

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  • Patrick April 2, 2013 at 1:36 pm

    Thanks Karen, I am glad you enjoyed. I plan to write on emotional clutter sometime in the near future – keep an eye out and thanks for the visit.

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