A practical guide to manage information overload

May 21, 2021 • ☕️ 5 min read

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TL;DR: Have as many input sources you may like, but have one or very few output sinks. Like a single notebook or a notes app.

I take a lot of input.

I’ve subscribed to some really good newsletters who fill my inbox everyday, my pocket read it later list has hundreds of articles (If I read one, I end up adding three new ones to the list), I’m on track to read 50 books this year, my kindle app on my tablet is overflowing with books I’m reading or want to read, I have an active Audible subscription to devour audiobooks at 1.50x speed, I really like taking courses on Coursera and I like watching interviews of high profile people that I admire.

I think its suffice to say my information diet is pretty heavy.

Information overload (or information anxiety) is when there’s so much going on in your head that it becomes virtually impossible for you to make any productive decision at all. This happens when you’ve bombarded your brain with so much information that it goes to hyperdrive and stops working productively. This is also called Action Paralysis.

I quickly came to the realization that I needed a system of sort to prevent myself from getting overwhelmed. Something concrete that works everywhere and something atomic because I’m a fan of devising and using simple systems.

This is what I learned:

Caution: This list is what worked for me so take these tips with a grain of salt.

Jot it down

In the landmark productivity book, Getting things done, author David Allen instructs to write down any idea that you come across. Don’t keep it in your head.

Although the comprehensive productivity system described in the book is not for everyone and it has fallen from the podium, the practical advice of putting things down is still one of the most effective habits you can cultivate.

The immediate effect of this is it takes things off your mind and lets you focus on the task at hand. By jotting it down you send your brain a signal that its fine, the information is stored in a safe space which I can get to later. Maybe you will, probably you won’t. And that’s fine.

Its just like having hundreds of bookmarks in your browser and never getting back to it. But the act of putting them down gives you an instant relief and frees up your mental energy.

Even the courses like Creating a second brain mention you should create a ‘capture habit’ to write everything down.

The systems may come and go but the atomic principles always stay.

You don’t have to consume information the way everyone else is consuming

Or in other words, let go of your FOMO.

I like podcasts, but I don’t listen to them much. I like watching videos by YouTubers like 3BlueOneBrown because they research the topic really well, but I don’t watch every single video.

Because there’s no space for me to adjust that input in my diet.

Don’t blindly start consuming what everyone else is consuming. Don’t jump on the band wagon without thinking for yourself. Maybe you have inputs that they don’t.

A simple hack is to describe before consuming anything what you think you’ll get out of it and why do you need it.

The best if the enemy of the good. -Voltaire

Remember, your eye balls are the product. Don’t be anxious that your inputs aren’t the best, just good is enough.

Be liberal about ignoring information. Trust your community to filter out the noise for you and send you the absolute best content. Let serendipity take over.

Resist the urge to bookmark

I don’t have comprehensive systems in place to manage my bookmarks. Ideally you could have apps like Readwise automate your kindle or pocket bookmarks and send them directly to your note taking app where you can ignore it later.

But I don’t like to have such things set up. Instead I try as much as I can to write things down in my own language. This helps in two ways:

  1. You reduce an input source. This helps me get rid of bookmarking and then forgetting and then getting anxious about having so many input sources.
  2. You let generation effect turn that raw text which would have been just another bookmark into something that you internalize and understand completely.

Filter out noise from the signal

With a shitload of content being created literally every single day, its crucial to know which content is actually useful to you. What is the signal and what is just noise.

Not every article/book/piece needs to be read word to word. Some books are just blog posts compiled and printed into a book. Some twitter threads have more value than a 500 page book.

The value you got from watching that 30 min YouTube video could have been concluded in a tweet. The newsletter you’re reading word to word might mostly contain sponsored content that you’re not even interested in the first place.

You need to train yourself to recognize the information which might be useful to you, now or later, and reject everything else.

“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.” - Bruce Lee

Always try to ask yourself why you’re consuming what you’re consuming.

Discard, skip, skim plentiful but always intelligently.
Intelligently means you know why you’re accepting or rejecting the idea. It means you know the arguments on both sides well.

Create a brain dump

I have a commonplace notebook and an Obsidian folder where I put everything down. Literally everything goes there.

The commonplace notebook is a literal brain dump. There’s no structure to it. On one page you’ll see some notes from a book and on another you’ll see an obscure idea about a webapp detailed out. The obsidian folder is a little more organized.

The idea behind this is that no matter how many input sources you have, you only maintain and focus on very few output mediums (Two in my case). Its so comforting to see all your consumption in one place, suddenly it doesn’t feel daunting at all. All you have is this one notebook, how difficult can it be to handle one notebook?

Piece of advice on starting a brain dump: Start anywhere, don’t try to find the best app or best methodology. Your system will evolve as you use it. The best system for you will be the one which suites your personally. The value of any system comes from you using it and sticking to it.

Multitasking doesn’t work

This is a very well researched fact.

Seriously, stop.

Too much multitasking also leads to decision fatigue.

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"Be so good they can't ignore you." - Steve Martin