Information Anxiety | January 23, 2010

One of the problems of working in the knowledge economy is the constant need to keep abreast of current trends and thinking. This would be fine if you worked in a mature industry or one with a limited number of books, papers and conferences appearing each year. However in the knowledge economy of the web, more information is being published every day than could be consumed in a year. What’s more, that pace is increasing.

The problem is exacerbated by a number of things. First of all I’m a reasonably prolific speaker, so feel the need to spend time researching my next topic and synthesising the results. I also program two conferences so have to spend a certain amount of time researching potential speakers and reviewing their slides or presentation videos. Oh, and on top of that I’ve got a company to run, clients to satisfy and staff to look after. As such the majority of this research happens at evenings and weekends, outside office hours.

As such, I often find myself in a position of triage; making snap judgements about the value of information I find and then prioritising them accordingly. So I clip articles to Evernote, store audio in Huffduffer and podcasts in iTunes. I subscribe to RSS feeds, capture video presentations on PopScreen and store lists of books to read on Amazon. Oh, and I’ve got a stack of presentations to review on SlideShare at some stage. Every now and then I get chance to chip away at some of these data sources, but it’s rarely enough. Here’s a quick example of what I’m currently dealing with…

It’s a classic case of Information Anxiety. Not enough free time to process all the information I want to. The result is a constant background level of stress. Even when I’m at rest I’m thinking about all the stuff I should, and could, be doing. Now I’ve always been a fairly relaxed person so am comfortable dealing with the stress. But it’s ever-present all the same.

I’ve been thinking about going on a holiday recently. Now with most holidays the point is to go away, relax and re-charge your batteries. However I’ve been toying with the idea of a different, and thoroughly 21st century holiday. Not to relax but to consume. The idea would be to go somewhere for a week or ten days with a stack load of book, articles, presentations and podcasts and get on top of my information overload. I’m not sure if this kind of working vacation common but I know at least a couple of friends who have dome this in the last few months.

Holidays at home are popular at the moment, so it’s something I considered. However I felt that the familiar scenery would force me into learnt patterns of behaviour that would prevent me from getting stuff done. Instead I’m looking for somewhere quiet—but not isolated—where I can spend the day snacking on information. It could be a cottage in the country or a hut on the beach. Just as long as the surroundings have enough variety to keep me interested and prevent me from getting cabin fever. So if you’ve got any ideas, give me a shout.

In the meantime, do you have trouble keep on-top of the wealth of information thrown at you? Have you developed interesting or useful coping strategies? Would love to hear from you.

Posted at January 23, 2010 9:47 PM

Comments

Mark Wallis said on January 23, 2010 10:12 PM

Hi Andy,
I had been battling with the same problem for years now. Constantly gathering resources to review, watch, read later. My article count tagged “toread” stands at 339! As you say it all leads to a constant level of background stress. Lately I have found great success by simplifying. Make sacrifices and concentrate on what is really really important. This new found method I tried after listening to an audiobook titled “The Power Of Less”. I was very sceptical but it worked for me.

Bruno said on January 23, 2010 11:16 PM

Hi Andy,

Nice and pertinent article. It´s really a problem that most of us — the web workers and, in a broad sense, “knowledge” related workers — do suffer. The bad news is there isn´t really a good efficient way to deal with it. We lack better and more clever tools to filter information, ie, more relevant information…
As humans we have several limitations to deal with the amount of information that arrive to our hands and prioritize it. Even when we try to select, we often select more than we can consume without being a info-slave as you described.

For me holidays are, normally, the period of time that I´m way of information that I need to read. I take one or two fictions books and don´t check the mail or open my feed reader. Unfortunately with the more recent 3G smarthphones like the iPhone, network access is really ubiquitous, and it´s harder to keep away…

Information anxiety it´s a huge problem and probably we gonna listen to people talking more about it in a close future.

Cheers and keep sane,
B.

Paul Boag said on January 23, 2010 11:55 PM

Hi Andy,
I can certainly associate with the feeling but I don’t think the answer is to have an ‘information holiday’ if it comes at the expense of your personal life. By all means take time from work to do this but not your outside life.

We can get so absorbed in our web world that we lose perceptive and forget there is a lot more going on out there.

Personally I would just proclaim information bankruptcy and start again. The truth is you can never stay on top of this stuff because there is always more. It is just a weight that will never be lifted no matter how many ‘holidays’ you take.

boon said on January 24, 2010 3:57 AM

Andy, I feel a need to “invest” in an information “holiday” is justified seeing that you need the new skills to be able to better make future “snap judgements”.

One idea I’d like to propose is not to run “away” to a remote location like a cottage hut or a nice beach on a tropical island - but to choose a strategic place that has the right environmental and physical properties to do the kind of work you need to do in gathering and processing all this information.

In a recent UX book club, we read Stewart Brand’s “how buildings learn” - and in one of his video series episodes, he shows how used temporary rented storage units as an office and also converted an old boat as a place to do his research - something fairly permanent, pliable, large, local but isolated enough for one to focus and work in.

You might want to consider doing this, if you suddenly realize you could do with a lot more wall and table space in your office/apartment.

Matt King said on January 24, 2010 10:36 AM

This sounds like a great idea, however those with significant others and offspring might find it hard to sell-in.

“So you want to go away… and do work?”

“Well, it’s not really work”

“Right”

Maybe a dedicated time every week would be enough? However that still has its issues. Oh God, now I’m feeling anxious!

Tom Coady said on January 24, 2010 10:40 AM

Why not move to London, commute to Brighton, and catch up on your information deficit while the train takes the strain?

Clive Walker said on January 24, 2010 11:03 AM

I think the idea of going on a break where you get away from the normal routine so that you can catch up is a good one. However, with the amount of information you listed, I think you have to somehow simplify, cut-down, and prioritise more (even if you have already done this). As you say, the pace is increasing and that must mean being more ruthless at prioritising …. surely?

Marko Samastur said on January 24, 2010 11:04 AM

I can certainly feel your pain.

I don’t know any solutions, but lately I’ve been leaning to 80-20 split, where 80% of my work time should be dedicated to things my job needs me doing right now and 20% to stuff I need to learn, read, listen or otherwise get familiar with so I can stay on top of things.

Tom Hume said on January 24, 2010 12:24 PM

My £0.02? Thinking of catching up with work-related information as a holiday is a bit dangerous… especially if you’ve not considered how you might stop things piling up again afterwards. Holidays are for relaxing and performing unmentionable degradations upon your significant other, not catching up with work IMHO - no matter how much you enjoy your work.

(Here of course, I speak as a total hypocrite)

Possible strategies?

1. Accept that you won’t be able to do everything you want to.

2. Delegate - between yourself and your immediate chums/workmates, you’re probably spending time reading the same things. Find ways to use each other as filters and spread the load.

3. Find other people out there that like the same sort of things as you, and use them as filters. I think this might be what Digg etc are about.

4. Make sure you’re getting some completely leftfield stuff (i.e. unrelated to anything digital or worky) to balance all this out and give your mind a chance to really effectively meander.

5. Prioritise better, concentrate on making yourself a better filter so you can triage quicker. Be more ruthless with what you reject.

riddle said on January 24, 2010 1:50 PM

When I reach hundreds of unread items, I just let it go. ‘Mark All as Read’ and I have a life again.

Dealing with thousand of pages of text or days of audio/video media it’s not worth at all – let your peers be metafilters and I assure you – important info will surface again. The key to all of this is consuming little, all the time.

David Szymakowski said on January 24, 2010 3:58 PM

Andy,
I feel your pain. I thought I was the only one with ‘background’ stress like this. I run a small web design business at night and find only a few minutes on a break or lunch to read up and study what’s new.
I had to chuckle when you mentioned taking a holiday to catch up. I have been considering the same thing for much of last year, and plan on doing it shortly. I need a few days to sit down and do nothing but catch up. No phones, no email, just lot’s of coding.

Lee Dale said on January 24, 2010 5:18 PM

Hi Andy:

This idea of a working holiday is great if, as Paul Boag says, it comes from work time and not personal time. I personally love the idea of stepping away from client commitments and other deliverables to focus on synthesizing new information.

That said, given your current circumstances (and mine for that matter) this is a stop gap measure. In fits and starts we’d be waiting for the next “holiday” to try to get caught up, with more pileup and more anxiety. I rather see two long term options which remove the ongoing stress of never being caught up:

1. Commit to less. Some method of quickly separating the wheat from the chaff so there are fewer total things to consume. And keep these items in a nice Instapaper folder or Things project until you’re ready for them, or tagged appropriately in Delicious. The joy of whichever of these methods is appropriate to you is, you’re not overwhelmed by a volume count until you look in the folder, which you don’t need to do until you’re ready to dive in. But that will never be enough, because you’ll just casually pile this stuff up, so;

2. Find an assistant. Find someone who knows your needs, topics of interest, the next important presentation, event date, and can roll through this information from your point of view, analyze it, and provide you with a condensed and annotated report with all source references. You can synthesize away and dig in deeper where you see fit. Better yet, on a weekly or bi-weekly basis you can keep on top of a report rather than find 10, 20, 50, 100 individual items piling up each week.

Tom Hume’s idea of delegation and connecting with like minded people is great but you have very specific needs and goals. The only way you’ll benefit from filtering is by having someone focused on those goals and working on your behalf to sift through the right information at the right time.

Good luck with this. And be sure to share out your results. I’ve been talking about getting an assistant for several years now, so I am plainly terrible at solving these types of issues.

Rob Smith said on January 24, 2010 8:08 PM

Andy,

Interesting post. One of the big things for me is trends. The reason I say trends is that the important things will appear in multiple places, multiple times. The general buzz around a particular topic lets me know its important and so to look into it more. This way I’m not afraid of missing that one killer post or article because generally when it comes to new developments the trend will become clear.

I also agree with all above who say this is a work thing not a personal thing. Sometimes though, because we love what we do, it may not feel like work. I can easily understand that consuming a lot in one go and having some great thinking time to digest it is actually pretty enjoyable (sad I know).

Lastly, I’m not a fan of storing information. The more you store the more you feel like to you have catch up on. To me, an article posted 6 months ago which I have not read will probably never be read. There’s no such thing as doing it ‘sometime’ - there’s three things that can be done for me:

1) Action it then and there
2) Schedule a time and place to action
3) Do nothing and ignore it

There’s very little background stress with this method. It’s hard though as well when there’s a great quantity of information.

Hope those thoughts help - just my two pence.

Jeff Bridgforth said on January 25, 2010 2:32 AM

I constantly feel overwhelmed by the amount of things I want to consume. I bought over 20 books last year and only completed 8. I started using Instapaper so I could process my RSS feeds like an Inbox. But now I just have too much in Instapaper than I will ever get to.

I think it comes down to priorities and budgeting. I only have a set amount of time to give to it. So I have to make better choices or more focused choices about what I consume. I still have not figured it out.

One thing I am trying to do this year is be more intentional about planning what I read as far as books. I am setting goals and realizing I am not going to get to everything. But I will be happy to get to some things and be more intentional and focused. At least that is my hope.

I like Lee’s ideas of commit to less. I am trying to separate more of the wheat from the chaff in Instapaper so that I actually do read the things I am most interested in.

Louise Hewitt said on January 25, 2010 10:38 AM

Hi - Haven’t read all the comments ;) but here’s mine.

Less of this. We need to change the culture of communication, so that we become less like chattering women (oops) and more like the guru on the mountain, saying only what needs saying.

We’ve lost paid edited channels, so we’re doing the editing ourselves. And we all need to be seen to be involved to keep up our profile, so we’re all at it: tweeting, blogging, commenting!

If we went back to a culture of being respected (and recruited on) for the work we do not the words we say, perhaps the noise would be easier to bear.

Web design Company said on January 25, 2010 10:54 AM

Hi

Great idea you have define and this idea would be to go somewhere for a week or ten days with a stack load of book, articles, presentations and podcasts and get on top of my information overload.

Yogesh said on January 25, 2010 6:33 PM

Interesting post and agree that information overload is difficult problem to cope up with. I also could relate with background tension due to unread items.

I subscribe to all the blogs/sites/news/slides in google reader and categorize them as per my interests/need. I make sure that I read 3 most important categories. If I can’t read it then I send them to delicious bookmarks via google reader where I tag them as Unread/ToDo and their category.

I also found that giving 30 minutes in a day for consuming info is much more useful and productive than giving 3 hours on weekends. Part of the reason in your goal on weekends is to get stuff done rather than paying careful attention to the content itself.

Thanks and Regards,

Kate Russell said on January 26, 2010 4:54 PM

Now I know why my stress level has gone up so much. I’m 56 years old, learning a new job (IA), and I’m so far behind the curve I couldn’t catch up if I tried (and believe me, I try).

There is some satisfaction, though, knowing that younger, smarter people are feeling the same pressures!

Vangelis said on February 7, 2010 11:11 AM

Hi Andy

I’ve been through the same thing myself and after a long time of battling to keep up with all the info out there I just stopped caring. The internet has 1.7 billion users at the moment. It’s almost 30% of humanity. Can you realize the endless amount of information created by 1.7 billion minds ? Even the google servers have a hard time indexing all that data. It is impossible for any human to keep up with even 0.1% of that data.

At some point I realized that I had a tendency to overrate the “nice” articles/ebooks/presentions/blogs I was finding on the web.

For example this sunday morning I woke up and had my breakfast on the bed while scanning posts on google reader. I run into a post from alistapart.com about SVG graphics on the web. I thought it would be a great post. On the bottom of the post the author mentioned that internet explorer is not supporting SVG graphics at the moment but maybe will in the next version. So practically this will be great information in 5 years from now when all browsers will be supporting the SVG format. Right now it was a pure waste of time.

How much of the information you find online is really worth reading and how much is just “nice” ? For me the best antidote to information overload is developing a critical mindset.

I have done the mistake of going holidays with a laptop in the past. Now I take 2 weeks offline for every two months of work and you can’t imagine the rise in my productivity ever since.

In the past 2 months of work meant, 2 weeks of real work and 6 weeks of useless (in the long run) activities. Now 2 months of work are at least 5 or 6 weeks of real work.

Brieftachen said on February 7, 2010 9:03 PM

Well it depends if you use your laptop for work or just for surfing :-) I do both and if you like your work - and don’t exaggerate it’ll be ok

plexasys said on February 9, 2010 11:16 AM

I often find myself in a position of triage; making snap judgements about the value of information I find and then prioritising them accordingly

Greer Mitchell said on February 10, 2010 3:06 AM

Hey Andy,

The irony is strong in this one Luke…
Working and studying within the digital design, I am indebted to the Gutenberg Press and the internet for offering me such a plethora of information to choose from. The flip-side is the mental anguish from information overload.
This is exacerbated by my masters study and ironically I’m writing a section on information overload. I’m on a constant search for the ‘right’ information. Personally I think I need to be firmer with myself and stop being such an infovore.

The solutions for information overload would/should be different for each person.

However, time prioritization is important - I have read that the distractions from email can take up to 25 mins. to refocus from. I know a few people who allocate time for emails once or twice a day. The tools you listed above are helpful organizers/streamliners too.
Liz Danzico in her Webstock 08 talk mentions Barry Schwartz’s call for “designers, to start acting as editors”. With the information available increasing daily, we should do this more for ourselves as well as others. Set aside chunks of time to research or complete certain tasks and stick to it…this is made a bit harder by reaching for the ever elusive perfection, but has to be done.

Wurman refers to ‘Information Anxiety’ as “the black hole between data and knowledge” a condition created by exposure to massive amounts of information with no clarity of message.
I’m a good pattern matcher so this helps, yet I’ve read that information overload can reduce your ability to function optimally so a balance between mind and body is what I’ve been striving for lately.

Recently I’ve started going to hot yoga (basically yoga in a sauna temp. environment). I find this really helpful to get out of my head and just relax. I find afterwards my concentration is greatly improved and I feel refreshed, and therefore can make decisions with greater ease and speed. Is there a sport or hobby which helps you escape the constant brain whirring & relax near?

The idea of escaping to a quiet place with different surroundings / distractions appeals as this may help with a different headspace.
Alas I cannot afford this at the moment so have decided to bite the bullet and focus at home with a little help from my friends, and yoga.
Good luck Andy

bekee said on February 16, 2010 2:58 PM

your article reminded me to check my read-it-later contents (a pretty neat firefox add-on), only to find 15 articles i meant to read but haven’t. thanks a lot!

:)