May 18, 2013

How I Tame the Information Tide

Do you feel overwhelmed trying to keep up with the news? Do you find the current media environment leads to information overload? Do you spend too much time trying to keep up with everything?

In an earlier post I discussed how to deal with a more partisan media environment by reading widely across media outlets with different partisan slants to create a more balanced news perspective. In this post, I want to provide a more complete description of the workflow I use to try to tame the information tide (thanks, Doris Graber). I deal with information overload by employing a three-step workflow: filter > sort > read and react.

Step 1: Filter the news by having relevant information delivered to me

RSS is the backbone of my workflow and it represents the first cut at taming the tide. The primary benefit is that I don't have to visit multiple sites and apps to get my news, only one. (If you need a quick overview of RSS, try watching RSS in Plain English.) I subscribe to feeds from a number newspapers, blogs, and magazines—sources that regularly publish stories that I want to read. And those stories are delivered to me throughout the day every day.

You'll need a reader to compile and organize your subscriptions. Google Reader was a popular solution for that purpose, but Google has decided to pull the plug on July 1. I have recently switched to Feedly because the subscription process works exactly as it did for Google Reader. More importantly, Feedly works on multiple platforms—I use it in Firefox on my PCs and have apps on both my phone and tablet. Finally, Feedly allows me to organize my feeds into different folders—I have "sections" for national news, local news, sports, lifestyle, news for my profession, even comics.  

In addition to RSS, I obtain a small number of stories from Twitter—primarily columns from the New York Times (paywall work-around). Although Twitter is very good at providing news in real-time, it is cumbersome to rely on as the primary source of news because of the sheer volume of tweets. And even though I can create lists that break up that flow into different streams (thanks, Hootsuite!), Twitter traffic from news sources typically include a large volume of tweets that aren't links to stories. Thus, I prefer to rely primarily on RSS.

Step 2: Sort the filtered stories into "To Read" and everything else

A few times each day I open up my Feedly app to sort through the stories that have been delivered to me. My goal is to move through lots of headlines quickly so I can identify the few stories I want to spend time reading. I focus mainly on headlines and, occasionally, the accompanying blurb. (I actually prefer the Flipboard interface to that of Feedly for this purpose, but Feedly wins because of the ability to subscribe and organize feeds easily.)

I resist the urge to click on a story here since that would only slow down my workflow. Instead, when I encounter a story that I want to spend time reading, I save it to Pocket (which works on multiple platforms; another good option is Instapaper). By separating the sorting and reading steps, I can be more efficient. Five minutes a few times each day is sufficient to process the stories in Feedly. And I know that every story in Pocket is something that I want to read—I don't have to go back and sort through them a second time.

Step 3: Read and React

Whenever I have time during the day, I open up Pocket and read the stories I've saved. Pocket is ideal for this purpose because it strips all of the advertising from the story so only the text and accompanying graphics appear. I can read stories at my leisure from my phone, my tablet, or my PC.

After I finish reading I story, I do one of three things.
  1. I share it on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or with specific people via email. All of these can be done directly from Pocket. 
  2. If it's a story I might want to use in a class or a blog, I'll save it to Evernote. This is another great multi-platform app you should use if you don't. One of the reasons I switched from Instapaper to Pocket is because it saves URLs along with stories to Evernote, always giving me access to the original.
  3. I delete the story from Pocket. Actually, I delete every story from Pocket once I'm done reading it, sharing it, or saving it. Thus, the only stories in Pocket are ones I haven't yet read. (I'm still working toward Pocket Zero.)
So there it is. Three steps, three apps. I consequently spend most of my time reading stories that interest me than searching for stories I might want to read. And given that the apps work on multiple platforms, I can implement my workflow in small increments throughout the day. Give it a try.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Stefano Bussolon / Creative Commons licensed

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