Coping With Information Overload in the On-Line World
Posted on November 15 2009
Let me state at the outset that what follows in this post was inspired by Joel (aka Ted) R. – your Dailymile post this morning was my impetus to write this, and hopefully it will help those who, like us, are trying to navigate through a life filled with far too much information. Ted is one of the earliest readers of this blog, a frequent commenter, and a very supportive guy – I hope he gets the chance to read this.
Unlike most of the content on this blog, this particular post is only tangentially related to running. However, if you are reading it, you probably are very familiar with the topic alluded to in the title. This post provides my thoughts on how to manage the flood of information that faces us on-line, and how I divide up the precious time I’m allotted each day among my various real-life and on-line responsibilities and activities.
Let me start out by stating the obvious – there is no realistic way we can accomplish every single thing we would like to accomplish on a daily basis. This, therefore, requires that we prioritize our activities and allot our time to those that are most important to us. For me, this simply means that I devote my time to those things that I’m most passionate about. In my case, my foremost passions are my family, my job as a teacher, running, and interacting and sharing information with other people on-line (which includes writing this blog and various social media outlets like Dailymile and Twitter). On any given day, 95% of my time is devoted to one of these four passions. When I focus my time on the things that matter most to me, the things that I feel I’m good at, it becomes far easier to manage a very busy life, and to do so successfully.
The tradeoff involved in dividing my time among just a few passions is that other things that I like to do (or have done regularly in the past) get pushed to the side. This is simply the nature of things – I can’t do all of the things I would like, but I’m OK with that. For example, while I was a regular TV watcher until just the past year or so, I now very rarely turn on the tube. In fact, my TV watching has become so rare that we dropped our cable plan (this would have been a horrific thought to me just a few years ago). There are still a few shows that I don’t like to miss (LOST is one of them), but I can now watch those on-line if I feel like it, and I don’t generally miss time spent in front of the television. Not watching TV means that I usually have a few hours every night after my wife and kids are asleep (I’m the night owl of the family) to read or pursue on-line activities like posting to this blog.
I frequently get asked how I manage to post to this blog as often as I do, run 25+ miles per week, be an attentive husband and father to two small kids, and manage a full-time job as a college professor. My answer would simply be that these things are pretty much all that I do. I have a very supportive wife, and we make time for each other to pursue our passions. I steal small chunks of time here and there to write on this blog, check Twitter updates, or get in a run (usually first thing in the morning, after the kid’s bedtime, or just before dinner). On days where my work involves something like hours of video editing, I can have Tweetdeck open in the background and dip into the conversation when I feel like it. I take on Daddy duty on the weekends to give my wife a break or a chance to go to Yoga, and summers are filled with tons of family time.
Since I started this post with reference to Ted (Joel R.) from Dailymile, I want to focus in particular on managing life on-line. Prior to January of this year, I had never used Facebook, Twitter, Dailymile, Blogger, etc. Social networking was a completely foreign concept to me, and I frankly found it a bit scary. Facebook was my first foray into this world, and I was immediately hooked. I enjoyed checking status updates, and I posted my own fairly frequently. Nowadays, however, Facebook has lost its luster for me, and the two sites that I frequent the most are dailymile and Twitter. Dailymile is a social training site where I post my workout details and share support with other members, and I use Twitter, my current addiction and primary time-suck, to connect more directly, and often in real-time, with other runners. Making personal connections with like-minded people is what I like best in the on-line world, and this blog, dailymile, and Twitter are my outlets of choice for doing this. Even though I enjoy using them, these on-line sites have also required that I use them wisely in order to avoid getting overwhelmed with information, and I’ll finish by discussing my personal strategy for accomplishing this.
Dailymile is a site where people post workout reports, items of interest relating to exercise, video clips, etc. When I first joined up, I felt obligated to read each of my friends posts and comment on each on a daily basis. Now that my list of friends numbers well above 100, this level of dedication is simply impossible. Nowadays, I scan the first or second page of workout posts when I add my own workout data, and I have a few people that I check up on regularly, but I comment in moderation and have come to terms with the fact that I can’t keep up with everyone. I imagine everybody goes through a similar realization as their list of friends grows, and I take no offense at all if people don’t comment on my reports for awhile – their time, like mine, is precious, and we’re all managing as best we can to be supportive of each other. If you want, feel free to visit my dailymile profile, and don’t hesitate to add me as a friend!
Twitter is a completely different beast for me in terms of time management. The beauty of Twitter is that it allows for conversation in real-time through short bursts of 140 character messages. Like my initial experience with dailymile, I initially felt obligated to read all of the daily tweets from people I was following. The insanity of this became clear very quickly, and now that I follow over 400 people, it would be a full-time job to read everyone’s tweets in their entirety (actually, it would probably be impossible). I now tend to view Twitter as akin to a local bar where you get to select the pool of people from among whom the patrons at any given moment are chosen. You can stop in whenever you like, have a drink, and chat with familiar faces. Some of those people are regulars, some stop by only once in awhile, but all are generally friendly, supportive, and share common interests (in my case running, being a parent, teacher, etc.). As easy as it is to step in, it is equally easy to step out, and I do this frequently throughout the day. Often, I just have the Tweetdeck application open on my computer and check it periodically when I have a few free minutes. Tweetdeck also allows me to specify groups of people I check up on more frequently, and I have a column for “Favorite Tweeters” with whom I interact the most (membership in this column changes frequently). The friendships I have made through Twitter are what make the time spent on-line well worth it to me, and meeting some of these people in real life (e.g., at races) has been really cool. Of all of the social media sites, Twitter is probably the only one that I would find really difficult to give up (I could go weeks without checking Facebook and not even bat an eye). If you’d like to follow me on Twitter, you an do so here.
Now for some final thoughts. This summer I read a book called Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters by Scott Rosenberg. One of the things that Rosenberg discussed in his book is how people manage to keep up with the huge flow of information posted to blogs – there are 100’s of blogs out there that I would love to read regularly in their entirety, but the unfortunate reality is that I don’t have time to do so. I pick and choose carefully, and often use Twitter as a way of finding posts that interest me, or new posts put up by those that I follow. Anyway, Rosenberg (and I think it was his book where I read this) likens the online world to an ocean of information. You can jump into this ocean and easily drown trying to consume it all – this is how I initially approached my RSS feed reader, daiilymile, Facebook, and Twitter. A better way of viewing the on-line flow of information, Rosenberg relates, is like a stream. The information stream will always keep flowing, and in all likelihood it will continue to grow largher. Instead of trying to consume all of it, you can simply jump into and out of the stream while it flows past, consuming bits and pieces along the way. You will invariably miss some valuable things, but it’s the only truly manageable way to approach this world without succumbing to information overload and jeopardizing your real-life commitments in the process. I view my own blog in this way as well – I produce a fairly steady stream of posts, and I wouldn’t expect anyone to read all of them (looking at the length of this one, I wouldn’t blame you if you never returned!). However, if you drop by from time to time, leave a comment or two, or follow me on Twitter, I’ll more than likely reciprocate at some point. I many not read all of your posts, Tweets, workout updates, etc., but I’m sure I will read some of them, and moreso, I’m sure I will benefit from doing so. With that, I’m sending this post down the river, glad to see that at least you happened to be there when it passed.