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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 January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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