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How do you avoid information overload?

I'm interested to know how Mr. Tufte and readers of this Web site, as people who are interested in learning, education, and good information design, solve the problem of information overload.

These days, how do you decide, for example, what -- and how much -- to read and watch? And how do you divide that diet up in terms of professional development vs. personal interest? How do you decide what to subscribe to or what to read, watch, or listen to regularly?

How do you avoid becoming glued to your computer screen? What -- and how much -- do you read online vs. on paper? How do you decide how much time to spend reading, learning, or surfing the Web vs. being active and interacting with real people?

Thanks to all, and a note to Mr. Tufte: I attended your most recent seminar in Chicago and, as another colleague at the national YMCA office promised, it was life changing--a true delight.

-- Celeste Wroblewski

One of the things that I got out of reading Tufte's books was that the information overload problem might be more usefully thought of instead as an organization underload problem.

We probably wouldn't be bothered by massive amounts of well-structured information, but we are distracted and confused by relatively small amounts of distracting bells and whistles in the form of ads, headlines, gossip, scare stories, nonsensical or misleading graphics, must-see TV, and so on.

The way I try to think of this is accumulating and organizing information instead of being overwhelmed by its chaotic volume. The relevance of Tufte's principles was to me to illustrate how much structured information can be compressed if we aren't limited to cookie-cutter approaches. However, that implies a tremendous creative effort at least by a few individuals to process and compress information and provide it by means of a relatively protected channel. Unless we've started to get ads on medical monitors, that's probably a good example of a focused, organized cluster of information that can also have great density.

In a previous comment, someone mentioned Saul Wurman, who writes about "information anxiety." One of the things I think I remember him concluding was that people have to seek out specific channels of information according to their own interests, and focus on those to create their own information environment. I agree with that, and I would add that I think it is becoming increasingly important that we also promote good quality information channels, from academia and news sources that still have relatively high editorial standards.

Receiving random mailings and seeing whatever headline news happens to bubble up seem like very weak and distracting sources of information to me and will probably tend to increase rather than diminish information anxiety overall. For me definitely books yield much richer understanding than online sources for the same material, because I can engage them more actively via margin notes, because of their better resolution and mobility, and not least because authors tend to put much more content into their book format than their web pages, which are usually optimized to grab and keep attention rather than provide rich information.

The things I do are:

1. Use a few focused mailing lists in my interests to help identify new areas of investigation. Unfocused mailiing lists and newsgroups tend to be time-wasters except for searching for something specific. I promote those and avoid using them for chatter. There are plenty of channels for chatter already.

2. Use the web mostly as a broad map of topics, to get an overview from many sources and identify the best books to persue in an area. Make use of new search technologies such as categorizing searches (Vivisimo), link reviewing (Alexa), customized search bars (Ultrabar) and summarizing (Copernic).

3. Focus on a few key books to learn about an area, read them deeply and actively investigate their arguments and implications, and build a list of sources in agreement and disagreement with them. Go back to the web to find reviews of those sources and locate more. Then focus on those for further learning. Locate people with the same interests around you and on the web. Now you are prepared to discuss things with them fruitfully.

4. Use visual tools like mind maps and concept maps to help organize topics and keep track of resources. Keep running notes on your topics of interest. Reorganize the information you learn for your own purposes, and then once you have it organized, share it. Be a source of organized rich information sometimes instead of passing on chatter as we tend to do most of the time.

That's my strategy for continual learning while avoiding "information overload" or "organization underload." I favor taking an active approach to organizing our own information making good use of existing and emerging technology, rather than allowing the flood of chaotic information to throw us around in all directions. If a small handful of people serve as sources of rich, usefully organized information, they soon serve as trusted nodes in a broader network and we are all enriched. That's a promising use of networking.

kind regards,


-- Todd I. Stark (email)

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