Managing information streams (Pt 1)

This will (I think) be the first in a series of posts about this, mainly because it’s an ongoing struggle and area of conceptual development.

So, I’ll start by saying where my problem lies – a lot of the stuff online about being overwhelmed by email starts by talking about spam. Apart from when I’ve had my domain-name spoofed by spammers and suddenly had 3000 ‘user not known’ replies, spam has never been a big problem for me. If you’ve got your email on a dedicated server, then there are various very effective and ‘teachable’ spam filters out there. the Gmail one seems pretty damned good too. (if you’re still using Hotmail as your primary email interface, you’re probably sorting through spam now and not reading this…)

So, what is my problem with email? it’s largely two fold – one, it’s filtering the mass of information I get on a subject so that I get only the best information, and two, it’s how to process info as it comes in.

I’m on a few different email discussion lists, which are seeming increasingly anachronistic as a way of doing group interaction. With the web forums I read, I tend to browse via keywords in the search box on the really busy ones, and glance at the recent posts every few days on the less busy ones. That doesn’t take long, and means I can track where the things I’m interested in are being mentioned. I also have google alerts, and technorati alerts for certain words cropping up in other places. But the email ones still take time to filter.

I get a fair bit of info that relates to gigs and teaching that tends to get lost as I put it to one side while I consider what to do with it, or juggle my diary so I can fit it all in… then someone emails me and says ‘are we still on for tomorrow’s lesson?’ and I panic as I try to make it all fit… so I need a new system there, for sure. the Search box in Macmail helps a lot, as I can just do a search for ‘lessons’ or ‘tuition’ to find all the bass lesson related stuff… Maybe I should try the ‘smart mailbox’ thing.

My other big problem with email is that replying quickly creates an expectation that this is your norm, so people use email for things that are urgent. I REALLY need to get away from that… Tim Ferris has written some really useful stuff on this topic here

Anyway, I’ve not got very far with managing my information, have I (though I did just go and unsub from a couple of lists I receive but never read, so that’s good…) – as my friend Karen would say ‘Land the plane, Steve!!’

It’s about filtering. I’ve written about this WRT music recently, but it applies equally to information – the problem isn’t a lack of it, it’s a lack of quality control. If I want to keep track of what’s happening in the bass-world, I could spend all day every day reading stuff on forums, blogs, email lists, digests…. And even for an info-geek like me, less than 3 or 4% of it is useful or even particularly interesting. So I need to be able to target my info. Here are a couple of suggestions for how WE can do it.

#1 – collaborate – if you want filters, be a filter. Google shared items is such an amazing way to get someone else to filter for you. I’ve read SO many great stories that I’d have missed thanks to following Jeff Schmidt and Jyoti Mishra‘s shared items. Some of the blogs I them subscribe to, often I just leave it to them to filter them for me.

Same goes for – a GENIUS filter for stuff about the future of the industry. Not all the info, just most of the best info. And it gets better every time sarda tweaks it. He’s a genius, and lovely, and very busy, not surprisingly.

So using ready-made filters (here are my shared items for those of you who want them) – let others do the legwork.

If you have a very specific search criteria, use Google Blogsearch – put the searc term in, then grab the feed. Google rules. Technorati provide a similar service, but it’s hopelessly flakey…

So, get google reader, and start sharing – let me know when you do, and I’ll watch what you’re linking to… and then…

#2 – be ruthless. If you subscribe to a feed that you find yourself continually paging down past, delete it. Don’t clutter your reader. get rid of it, and let the google blog or news search watch it for you for keywords. (note to self, must see if google blogsearch can handle boolean commands). Don’t put up with duplicate feeds – if you subscribe to a feed that is fed straight into, delete the feed (with some blogs, including mine, only certain posts are cross-posted. With others more specific blogs, everything is aggregated there). I did this recently with news feeds – the beeb cross post a lot of articles to world and UK news, so I deleted one of them. Same with the guardian. strip it back, get the info you need, don’t sweat about missing some stuff – if it’s that good, someone else will share it anyway (thanks Jyoti for the political filter stuff – you rule!)

#3 – set limits. This is the bit I’m worst at, and the bit that from next week is going to get experimental. Have set times for this stuff, then click ‘all read’ – use the starring thing in google reader (do you get the idea that I think Google Reader ROCKS??) to come back to things at a later date, or share it then go read your own feed… But stick to them. I’m definitely writing this for myself now, I’m terrible at this. One thing I’ve started to do is not have feeds loading in the background. Using I’ve turned Google Reader into it’s own application. I read, then close it, so its not giving me alerts all the time. I read it like a newspaper in the morning or evening. I also set my email to only check once every 30 mins, so I do it in batches. Soon, I’m hoping to switch to twice a day email too… we’ll see if that works.

And here’s the clincher, and the link to the next post (later) – I’m using twitter to do a lot of my filtering. Twitter deserves its own post, but so far my online presence has gone through the roof as a result of using it (even with a fairly modest number of followers) but I actually spend LESS time on that than I used to on forums, IM and email… next post will explain how and why.

I hope that lot helps – PLEASE post suggestions – I’m still working this one out. Blog about it, and post a link in the comments, ask questions if I’m using geek terms you don’t get. This shit is important because it threatens to swamp our time to be human, creative and alive. Help me out here…

7 Replies to “Managing information streams (Pt 1)”

  1. Good stuff Steve.

    Here’s another thought. GESTATE.

    Being bombarded with hundreds of items per day is sure way to pick up on the latest waves of interest – but it also can leave you massively confused.

    There’s simply no way to process that much information in any meaningful way. As you know, getting 1000 or more items to read per day can happen fairly easily. It’s just too much stuff.

    So I try to set aside time to lay off heavy feed reading every few days. I focus on processing the information I’ve already consumed.

    I try to concentrate on a few ideas and understand what they mean to me & my world rather than add more ideas.

    I’ve also been listening to a few more podcasts than usual. Probably because it SLOWS the information stream down a bit.

  2. Oh yes indeed, I certainly hear you on this one…

    Re lesson emails getting lost: What I would do (not presuming this would work for you, just saying) is set up an incoming mailbox for lessons. Then I’d tell all my pupils that they need to put “Lesson” in the subject line along with the date if any, and filter anything with that in the subject line into that box. (I’m using Thunderbird.)

    Alternatively (depending on the chances of my pupils emailing me about other stuff) I might set up a box called “pupils” which captured all pupils’ email by email address. Not quite as elegant in a way, because it means if they email you about something else, it gets mixed up with the “Lessons” stuff. And it means you have to keep adding new pupils to the filter as you get their email addresses. (But also useful as an occasional addition to the subject-line method, e.g. if you get the odd person who consistently forgets about the subject-line convention.)

    Or both – everything from pupils and anything with “lesson” in the subject goes there.

    Then, anything that escaped the box but was relevant, I’d drag there manually when I first got it.

    Something similar might work for gigs too.

    In both cases the method may not work for approaches from new people, whose email address you hadn’t seen before and who didn’t know yet there was anything particular to put in the subject line. (Though of course you can tell them on the web site.) But it would at least handle communications from the regular people.

    The wider area, though – this is something I’m thinking about loads at the moment, because at some point I plan “the return of Single Bass”, and I already can’t keep up with my email replying & blog reading _now_! So will be “all ears” for any further posts on the subject 🙂

  3. Some great pointers in here, I’m digesting them! I think you’ve covered pretty much everything I’ve come across so far. I still overcome by what my wife describes as ‘the desire to try and read the whole Internet’.

    I am working towards more disciplined ‘time boxing’ based on the different ‘roles’ that I have in my life – to be concious about what I am doing at any moment, and why I am doing it. This means sorting information into different streams and managing it like that. It is turning out to be non-trivial!

    Generally anything that helps you hit the delete or skip button, or even better saves you having to do those in the first place, is going to help. I love the idea of setting a time limit then clicking ‘all read’ at the end of it. Psychologically hard, but probably a very good idea in the long term.

    Cary Cooper was on the Money Program this week, talking about email overload. The program was a bit lightweight (read: no new info and could have be covered in about 15 minutes), but I think his blog is worth checking out. Ops… More to read…

  4. Two random thoughts on this great post:

    — Now I know what my ill-advised experience as an English Lit grad student (with a course-load of 500-800 pages per week) actually prepared me for: reading the Internet! Which is to say that all of the external filtering strategies and mechanisms are essential (and thanks for getting into that subject), but perhaps even moreso when paired with techniques of reading that allow for skimming without misreading or oversimplifying. (And this also gets at ideas about reading the screen vs. reading the page…)

    — I think Jeff is right to add in that bit about getting away from it all periodically. I would even go so far as to say that sometimes the mind benefits from being allowed (even in the context of being online) to drift, daydream, wander without any direct purpose or set of goals to check off. Sometimes that sort of “time-wasting” can be a mask for the processing that is happening at a deeper level — but sometimes it can also (accidentally) lead to valuable discoveries.

    Thanks for hipping me to — looking forward to your thoughts re: Twitter.

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