Taming Information Overload

Email and web

I used to think of myself as an information junkie. I read every news article I could find, endlessly scrolled through social media, and took pride in staying “informed.” While I may have been informed, I was not happy. Instead, I was stressed and distracted.

Many of us consume information reactively — we read whatever is put in front of us by news feeds, daily emails, social media posts or articles shared by friends. By default, we just absorb whatever information comes our way. The problem is, not all of that information is beneficial. In fact, much of it is totally unnecessary, and merely distracts us from focusing on more impactful things that would better ourselves and enable us to grow.

Last year, I made a conscious decision to exert greater control over the information I take in. It meant a major shift in mindset, from trying to consume as much information as possible to being heavily selective on what information I will benefit from. It has meant a disciplined approach to not read every article, not scroll through social media, not listen to every podcast a friend sends and ultimately, consume less.

The results have been remarkable, though not surprising. I’m less stressed, less irritable and more focused on things that actually matter (e.g. growing my business, talking to close friends, etc). Here is a breakdown of the tactics I used to tame information overload:

1. Delete social media from your phone

We know that social media apps are designed by brilliant teams to be deeply addicting. Once they become ingrained in our lives, we tend to just open them on autopilot without even thinking about it (often literally hundreds of times per day). To be sure, there is still plenty of value in social media, but I found that when it was on my phone, I wasn’t consciously choosing when to engage in, I’d just always open it by default. So the simple solution: delete social media apps from your phone. You can still log into them from your desktop when needed. But this way, you have to make a conscious choice to login, rather than just opening them everytime you’re bored.

2. Hide social media news feeds

Even when I visited social media from my desktop browser, I felt the addictive pull to scroll. And scroll. And scroll. There’s a simple(ish) solution: hide the feeds. I wrote a basic Chrome Extension and installed another that hides the feed section of some social sites. Once installed, you can visit a social media site but the feed is empty. This way, if you want to go to someone’s profile, you need to do it manually using the search bar. This preserves some of the tactical benefit of being on social media while preventing the time-sucking mechanic of feed scrolling.

3. Turn off notifications

The average smartphone user has 80 apps on their phone, and many of them have permission to send notifications. That means on a constant basis, everytime we are trying to focus, our phone is screaming “hey look at me! LOOK AT ME!” The phone ends up controlling where your attention goes, and that is ridiculous. So I turned off all notifications, except for phone calls. When I want to check my texts, I can open up the Message app to do so. New email? Cool, I’ll read it when I am in the mode of checking my email. This gives the power back to you — you get to control when and how you allocate your team to incoming information on your phone.

4. Pick websites to block and install a blocker app

One of the biggest allures of social media and news is that it serves as a welcomed break when we are trying to accomplish something difficult. If I am working through a hard problem, or trying to write something mentally intensive, I feel the subconscious pull to just type in a news site and start reading. It’s easier than actually accomplishing the difficult task I was trying to complete. Needless to say, that behavior is a recipe for lacking focus. So, I built another simple Chrome Extension that blocks specific websites (it just replaces all of the content with a big message on the screen that reminds me to get back to focusing). Occasionally, I’ll cheat and turn off the Chrome Extension to read an article or visit Instagram, but that takes several clicks and forces me to think “is that actually a good use of my time?”

5. Close out of email during meetings

Have you ever been in a meeting, glanced at your phone or inbox, saw a stressful email, and then from that point forward you are just thinking about the contents of that email and no longer present in the meeting? It happens all of the time, and the antidote is straightforward: close out of your email inbox during meetings (and remove email notifications from your phone). I try to keep my inbox tabs closed and only open them when I am actually in the mode of responding to email, rather than obsessively checking or responding instantly.

6. Replace news apps with books

Last year, I was in a habit of reading multiple news apps every night before I went to bed. It was perhaps the worst way to prepare for a good night’s sleep. Much of those news articles weren’t teaching me anything I urgently needed to know… it was just an automatic consumption of new information. So I took a stand, deleted the news apps and shifted to books. As of May, I’ve read 30 books so far in 2021. With books, I get to choose exactly what I want to learn about. I get to go much deeper into a topic and I’m not bombarded with salacious headlines that are fun to click but aren’t healthy or necessary to read.

7. Pick specific articles that are most relevant

When you do read articles, be selective. That means saying no to perhaps 9 out of 10 articles that come your way, and instead focusing on just the most impactful ones. For example, I’ve found that FirstRound’s Review tends to have exceptional content, so I make time to read it.

8. Unsubscribe from most email newsletters

Finally, consider opting out of most email newsletters that are curating and choosing for you what information to consume. There are certainly some exceptions: I like James Clear’s weekly email and my friend Scott Morrow’s comprehensive weekly newsletter. Choose the ones that are best for you, and don’t be afraid to respectfully unsubscribe from the noise.

Bottom Line

When you give yourself the power to determine what information you are going to consume, it becomes a lot easier to focus on what you care about, and tune out the noise that tends to add negative value. I recognize that the tactics shared here will work differently for each of us (e.g. if you are in sales, closing out of your email is likely not advisable). Consider adding your own ideas in addition to this list to tame information overload in your life.

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