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Simplifying Your Information Intake

Simplifying Your Information Intake
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    Productivity. We spend more time reading about it, talking about it, writing about it, thinking about it than actually making it happen. We complicate it with a disjointed system of hacks that don’t really work well together, then we decide to simplify it; every year, every month, it’s a vicious cycle for those of us addicted to the cool-aid of productivity and lifehacking that streams forth from the feed reader.

    But both processes are important, the process of growing, advancing, experiment, complicating your system, and the process of cutting it back, simplifying it, minimalizing it. Experimentation and exploration is when you discover which systems, hacks, tips and tricks work for you. Then, the process of elimination retains what did work and clears out the clutter you picked up along the way.

    One way we can continue to experiment with this ‘productivity’ thing while minimizing the amount of decluttering that needs to occur later on. We do this by simplifying our information intake.

    I focus on email and my feed reader, since these are my main sources of information. Chances are, if you’re the type of person who regularly reads Lifehack, that you get your information the same way.

    Email

    The Empty Inbox: the obvious one. The one you’re probably already doing. Keep your inbox empty by processing emails as follows:

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    1. Responding and archiving,
    2. Reading and archiving,
    3. Reading and deleting,
    4. Ignoring and deleting,
    5. Creating actions and deleting

    The delete and archive buttons are your friends, as is a judicious use of labelling to organize those emails you’ll need later.

    There really is no sense archiving everything. Some people are archive purists. I know at least two people who archive junk mail. Don’t do that.

    If you can create an action (using a to-do list or task manager), take any notes from the email you might need and put them in your task manager or to-do list. Delete the email. You shouldn’t need it, unless it’s mixed with information that’ll be relevant for the future (and only then).

    Here’s another one where people get caught up: responding to every message. If you have nothing to say but “Thanks, I received it,” don’t bother. If there isn’t any really important reason to reply there isn’t any reason to reply at all.

    “Just in case” is a terrible phrase. Eliminate it from your speech, when it comes to email at least. If you think you might need it “just in case” you don’t need it.

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    Learning to process email is one way to cut down your time at the computer immensely.

    Feed Readers

    I use NetNewsWire as my feed reader, and it’s perfect for what I want. It allows me to get through feeds quite quickly.

    I wouldn’t use a web-based feed reader—I don’t know how well they perform on internet connections in other countries, but in Australia, and in my experience, you can expect at a minimum about two to four seconds waiting time between each item. If you take that as an average of three seconds and multiply by the number of unread posts you get in the morning, there’s how many seconds you’ve wasted. For me it would apparently be 7,500 seconds, or 125 minutes – two hours just waiting for feeds to show up.

    I doubt Americans will have this problem, and with ADSL2+ rolling out here it’s probably less of a problem. In any case, it’s a personal preference thing.

    Posting Frequency

    I love Boing Boing, but seriously, read it from your browser.

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    Keep a careful eye on the posting frequency of your feeds and automatically unsubscribe after a certain threshold. Sure, you might find the information useful, but if you’re serious about simplifying your information intake this is the only way to go.

    Subscribe to feeds that have no more than ten posts in a day, but preferably two or three, as a rule of thumb.

    10 Day Trials

    Have a folder in your feed reader called Trials and subscribe new feeds to that folder. Review the feed for ten days, and if you feel you could live without the feed after ten days, unsubscribe.

    The point is not whether the feed is useful, or the content is great. The point is whether you must have that feed as a feed, rather than a site you visit when you want to.

    This is different if you’re a writer, journalist, blogger or some kind of new media professional. Depending on how much you need to write and for how many varying areas, you may not have a choice but to keep saturated in information from those areas and a feed reader is a fantastic way to keep informed about breaking news in your field(s). This is why I have so many feeds.

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    Use the Space Bar

    In many feed readers, the space bar marks a post as read and skips to the next unread post. Let headlines do the talking, and skip those that don’t appeal. That’s what the purpose of a headline is: to inform you of the nature and content of a post.

    Note to bloggers: don’t use clever or cute headlines. Don’t try to be a smart-ass with them. Use keywords and clarity, and if you can tie in a pun, a joke, or some sarcasm without losing that clarity, go ahead. But keyword-based clear headlines are not only going to do well for you in the search engines, but will help you stay in feed readers longer.

    Flags

    My final feed reader tip is the judicious use of flags. Use it sparingly, use it carefully. Reserve it for only the best content that needs to be absorbed later when you have more time, and for content that is going to inform your next actions throughout the day—such as writing a news article.

    Don’t overdo it, try to keep it well below ten flagged items. That said, writers, journalists, bloggers and new media professionals may need to flag more than ten to get all their content research ready.

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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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