Information Overload? My name is Laura and I confess, I’m an addict.

Information overload is one area of my work that is a constant. In the past recent weeks, I took some time away from the desk and computer with a pencil and big sheet of paper in hand. I hadn’t intended on blogging about it, but a recent message on one of my social networks prompted me to share it.

Beth Kanter put out a call on Twitter earlier pointing us to her post on Information Coping Skills – How Information Overloaded Are You?
Very timely, I took the quiz and was quite pleased that with some of my new coping strategies I managed to score a reasonable 9. Of course my strategies aren’t perfect and am looking forward to reading the comments and suggestions raised on Beth’s Blog and the outcomes of her forthcoming session at BlogHer Boston this weekend.

But it had recently come to a point where I really needed to take stock of the impact of information overload had been having on my working practice. As many of you will know, until July I was managing a nonprofit which provides support services to other organisations as well as juggling a growing freelance business supporting a wide range of non-profits to small business with their websites, social media and technical support needs. Oh yes, and trying to be a mom too. Plus, keep up to date with information and participate with the outside world.

Like many of us working in the nonprofit sector and supporting nonprofits, it’s sometimes hard to say no, not only to others but especially to yourself. I like information, in fact I’m probably addicted to it. I like keeping abreast of new technologies, new innovations, seeing projects evolving with their aim of supporting social change and more. I mix in a wide range of circles, non-profits, enterprise, education, local government as well as the core of my work, with design and web development; and accessibility and inclusion to all on the web. I use a variety of tools that help me keep up to date including RSS, email groups, forums, Twitter, Friendfeed, Facebook and other networks too. Living in a rural area means that I often am unable to attend many of the face-to-face meetings and get-togethers that take place in the major UK cities, so rely on using these tools to keep up to date with conversations and innovations that take place.

The speed and pace that social networking can function on is immense. I only began blogging in Spring of 2007, and often it’s my blog that suffers with my own time management. Like many of us, I have blog posts in draft constantly and by the time I get round to finishing a post off, the next issue or topic is already being discussed out there, so often don’t get round to posting as much as would like. I enjoy blogging but rarely make the time to share a post. This is one area, in time, I’m planning to make more for but do partake in lifestreaming and microblogging to keep connected in our interweb-connected world.

So other than managing the overloaded email inbox which overflows daily, what is my other biggest information overload ‘Vice?’

The affair

Well, it has to be Twitter. Twitter and I have a long-standing love/hate relationship. As I mentioned earlier, the speed which conversations and innovations can take place using web 2.0 is immense. Especially so with Twitter. I’m seeing it more and more being used to float ideas, even jobs and involve people in new ideas and projects. If you aren’t there at the time, you could potentially feel left out of the conversation. New social applications are appearing daily, and temptation to test them all out after hearing about them on Twitter to see if they could help the groups I work with is always tempting. Twitter also has another wonderful (and sometimes nagging function) with it being sociable, very sociable. Sometimes one little innocent tweet message can get lots of replies. Often conversations can be more akin to using Yahoo or MSN messenger.

Don’t get me wrong, I like my Twitter and without it I would not have the connections to such a wonderful diverse array of people across the globe. I use Twitter as a lifestream, mixing the professional side of me as well as the personal side too. I’m sat in front of a screen most of the day, and as a freelancer working alone, it’s like having an office of people working next to you. One of the best parts of Twitter is not only the people that make up the micro-world in your following list, but the news they share, especially when it’s good news or a success. There have been many times (and still are) where I’d like to give up Twitter but when weighing up the value it brings (for instance, I have the local and national news headlines delivered as tweets) I don’t want to let it go.

With the above and all the rest, oh yes and work to get done, how does it all fit together?

A few months ago, before switching on the kettle in the morning to make a cup of tea, I’d start up the computer, open the email inbox and RSS. Then, Twitter would be there as well as a myriad of other applications. I really like FriendFeed also and would dip into that often too.  For the work I do, I need lots of screen estate, especially when designing or coding.  My day would become ‘noisy’ and often disjointed. As well as managing work, the noise of everything else would be there, the inbox showing more mail had arrived and on it all went. When settling into my new freelance routine, as well as juggling lots of exciting new projects, with the added noise it all ended up with me entering the procrastination loop at times, kindly brought to my attention by Nick Booth of Podnosh in his post, the Flow chart of Faff.

So as mentioned at the beginning of the post, a few weeks ago I moved away from the computer, and brainstormed about my own information management.

I asked myself the following questions –

  • Why do I need all of this?
  • What do I need these tools for? Name each of them and the value they bring to what I do?
  • What else do I need to achieve each and every day?
  • Which areas do I fear most? (seriously, that inbox can create fear when you open it to find lots of new unexpected mail!)

The next part was to map out a perfect day, including the work and personal/family routine.
Then, add how my favourite applications/tools can assist me in that day and when best to use them.

Not rocket science, but simple plotting and asking myself has shaped a better routine.

I use web 2.0 for listening, learning and sharing.

My simple steps that are working so far for me –
(please add your tips to this list!)
Firstly, I no longer turn on my computer until I’m really ready to settle into working mode. (cup of tea and the dog walk comes first now!)

Email – In my previous role working for a nonprofit, and also my freelance role, email has always been an issue. I receive many requests each day, many are for signposting (“ask Laura, she always knows the answer”) as well as helping organisations with their technical/web support, and updates from all the email groups and much more.

I’ve admired how Luis Suarez has continued his work on giving up email at work, and had instilled many of the practices when in my old working role and slowly integrating them into my new role.
First part of the day, I check my inbox, prioritise which mail needs attending to first or not. Emails then get tagged for read later or respond later. The ones that aren’t urgent or for signposting I will often deal with later in the day. I only check my mail morning and afternoon and shut it down the rest of the time.

RSS feeds – I subscribe to far too many. I use Netvibes and have created seperate pages for themes of blog/news but don’t always look every day, in fact it’s often only once or twice a week. I’ve also unsubscribed from many feeds, as I’m feeling more so that I’m following people, not their blogs; and if they are on Twitter (or identi.ca or Jaiku) and if it’s a good post, and I follow that person, they’ll shout out or tweet a message about it.

Social Applications – Facebook, Friendfeed and more. I had nearly given up on Facebook as I personally don’t like it that much. But many of the people I communicate with use it regularly so, I made the effort to use it more and dip in once a day to quickly view and deal with what arises there.

Twitter – I think I’ve tried nearly every desktop application for Twitter. I often use the website itself, although that can be a big time eater. I like using Twhirl as it can sit politely on the side of my screen and I can get on with my design work. More recently though, I’ve discovered the wonderful FireStatus which is an extension for the FireFox Browser. You can send updates to Twitter, Facebook and FriendFeed easily. I’ve found that it has become a great listening tool for my own needs. It displays updates from these services in notification popups that fade in and out at the top of your screen. To me it’s gentle and without noise. I can focus on working intently and listen to the conversations and updates from friends and followers. It doesn’t work for everyone, but has helped my own personal workflow a tremendous amount. I can listen and easily jump into a conversation too if I want to.
I also now try to save my ‘social’ messaging for when I’m having a tea or coffee break rather than respond continuously. I have two ears and only one mouth, so consciously do try to listen more than talk.

One valuable asset of using Twitter isn’t just the conversation, it’s the sharing of links. I make use of my Tumblr for many of the links that appear that I like or want to come back to later as well as my Ma.gnolia for managing my bookmarks. For managing FriendFeed, there is a little script for Firefox that I use which enables you to Read Later. Another useful tool to help manage time!

The blog – I have been on a journey and a half with the blog in the past few months, questioning it’s need and purpose, but I do enjoy it when I make the space to write. I have a healthy number of subscribers and enjoy the conversation and comments that often appear. I’m still unsure of it’s future role, whether to focus on nonprofits and social media, or web design and accessibility as often it’s different audiences. I don’t blog about the everyday occurrences of my life and the universe that surrounds me, which is sometimes what I’d like to do too. Time will tell with how the blog evolves but I do feel personal satisfaction when blogging. I tend to keep my life-streaming out of my blog, but would like to integrate my bookmarking in a useful manner. Using ScribeFire has helped with creating quick posts on the go, although as mentioned earlier, most never get to being published. Something still to be work on.

Finally, even though there are days in every week where I want to participate and join in the conversation and the inbox is overflowing, I’m learning to step back, just a little. I tell myself it’s all okay and information will keep moving and evolving with or without me reading or taking part in all of it.

Please do leave your tips and suggestions here so that I won’t need to start a new non-profit organisation “Information-a-holics Anonymous”, or head over to Beth’s Blog, take the survey yourself, see how you are doing and leave some suggestions there too.

(and just to note, turned off my Twitter, email and more whilst writing this post!)