How I manage information overload — revisited

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One of the most popular posts on this blog was my December, 2009 missive on how I manage all the bits and bytes streaming past me all day. Today, I’m doing an e-Seminar for the International Women’s Media Foundation on lessons I learned in the Pegasus News startup, and my mentorees requested I add the info overload bit as an appendix. Enough has changed in a year-and-a-quarter that I thought I’d update it a bit, with a new post after the jump:

Before I detail my system(s), a few caveats: First, this system is simple to follow, but was by no means simple to create. It is a Rube Goldberg amalgamation of dozens of products, services and processes.  It has come through years of trial-and-error. It is not for everyone, and may well only be for me. Also, the exact description below is somewhat dependent on my usage of a Mac, an iPad and an iPhone. I assume there are equivalents on other platforms, but that’s not my problem. The point is not to be comprehensive for all people, but to give a view on some tools that, jointly and severally, might help you.
In each area, I’ll cover the basic tools and processes used — most of which are free and all of which, when critical, are easily available. I do use a few things that require a jailbroken iPhone, but they’re all bonus. The System would work without them.
Search:
Search is absolutely critical to my system. That means I don’t worry a lot about spending time filing things in folders or moving them about between devices. I can pretty well count on  Apple’s Spotlight or Google Mail search to find everything I need quickly. The technology is great, and I’ve become expert at coming up with the few unique words I need to find 3-4 items among which to peg the thing I’m looking for. (Bonus hint: Use Spotlight in a Finder window, rather than the magnifier at top right of screen.) If your computer doesn’t do search well, you’re screwed.
I’ve also just discovered that if you set up Gmail as an Exchange Server on your iOS devices, you can actually have your entire email archive stored locally, which can make for easier search.
Email:
Tools used: GmailGoogle Apps) (free), IMAP (free),  POP (free)
I have seven email accounts. Five just redirect to other active accounts — they are addresses I’ve used over the years that I don’t want to let go, like my original Gmail address and my alumni.duke.edu lifetime email. So there are two primary addys: Business and personal. Both are run through Google Apps. Over time, I’ve come to run all of my accounts from my “mikeorren.com” Google apps domain, just setting each to reply through the account mail was sent to originally.
I have one hard-and-fast rule when it comes to my work email. NOTHING stays in the inbox. Ever. When I get an email, one of four things happens:

  • I delete after skimming / reading / replying
  • I move to a folder called “Starred” to handle later
  • I make it a to-do in Omnifocus (see below)
  • I archive for later search

Nothing stays in the inbox for more than an instant after I check it, whether on computer or iPhone. Respond-delete-todo-triage. Lather, rinse, repeat. #
For years, I couldn’t drop the habit of using an email client, but could never find “the one.” Apple’s native mail app leaves a lot to be desired, but I found others, like Postbox, more feature-rich, but clunky and memory-hogging. Finally, in the past year, a must-have Gmail plugin made me just move to the web version. That plugin, Rapportive, automagically pulls in all sorts of information on the person who has emailed you– photo, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook accounts and posts and other useful info.
A couple times a day on my laptop, I go through my “Starred” folder. What I can respond to or otherwise act on and delete immediately, I do. What I can’t, I make an Omnifocus task for, copying the email into the OF notes, and delete or archive the email.
I don’t keep other folders, but I do tag a very small subset of my emails to improve search capabilities. That generally means a special tag on travel confirmations (air, hotel, etc.); receipts; and one or two email-intensive current projects, like hiring for a specific position. Otherwise, I exclusively count on search to find old and relevant emails.
RSS feeds:
Tools used: Google Reader (free);  NetNewsWire (Mac and iPhone) (ad-supported versions free); recommended if using Google Reader without a  software client-  Helvetireader (free);  Instapaper (free on Mac; free lite version on iPhone, but $4.99 pro version recommended)
The key tool here is Google Reader, which manages subscriptions to many sites, supports folders for different subscriptions, and most importantly allows you to keep everything in sync across multiple devices. Really, it’s the only necessary tool for the job. However, I tested out NetNewsWire a couple months back and it has a few bonus features that make it worthwhile. However, what you’re getting there is interface, as NetNewsWire syncs with Google Reader to manage subscriptions. (I should note that the mobile web version of Google Reader is quite excellent. It’s only narrowly beaten by NetNewsWire.)
I have two classes of subscription: Things I’m generally interested in personally, and things I have to follow to execute the local water-cooler news  “Outbursts” on Pegasus News. I keep each subscription in folders by category. #
When I’m working on Outbursts, I go straight to that folder, look at the items and either post or bypass quickly.
Otherwise, when I have some time– often while eating lunch or a snack in the office, I scan through the chronological latest items. Most, I jump past quickly, barely scanning. If there is an item I want to act on, but it isn’t immediate, I “star” or “flag” it. Then, when I have time– often while drinking coffee on Sunday, I deal with it. This would apply to music sites that have things I want to download or tech sites with new software to try out.
Lengthier items I want to read at my leisure, I send to Instapaper, which downloads a text-only version to my iPhone. I read those at my leisure.
Items I feel I must act on that I can’t do so immediately, I email to myself, and they go into the Triage system.
On the iPhone, I’m reading more at leisure– often if April is watching TV I don’t care for or while I’m on the toilet. (Oh, don’t judge me. Like you don’t use your smartphone on the toilet, you filthy monkey.) I attack a specific folder, avoiding Outbursts, which I want to act on from my computer. Ditto for “art,” which includes feeds from which I copy photos that often go on the screensaver on our TV. This, by the way, is one of the reasons NetNewsWire is gold for Mac users. One of its Control-Click choices is “send to iPhoto.” I manage my TV media with AppleTV, so that’s all pretty seamless. This is also my modus operandi for reading archived Instapaper items.
Calendar:
Tools used: BusyCal Mac ($40), iCal (free),  Google Calendar (free),  MobileMe ($99/year),  Tungle(free)
I’ll be the first to admit that this is a long list of tools — and frankly, if I wanted to go back and cull a couple I could, but I don’t want to tempt fate. Because I finally have a completely seamless, no-look, count on it completely calendar, regardless of where I am or what device I’m on.
BusyMac is a nicety and I wouldn’t have bought it if I didn’t get an advance-sale price of $40. You could use iCal or Outlook and get most of the same features.
MobileMe may seem pricy, but its other features like lost iPhone tracking and file sharing help. For me, the clincher is that MobileMe is the most seamless way to sync my iPhone and Laptop in terms of calendar. I make a change to one, and the other is updated wirelessly and almost instantly.
Tungle is my real secret weapon. It’s a web service for scheduling appointments with folks outside your domain and for letting people see your free/busy without details and use that to suggest meetings with you. It makes it like seem like the whole world is on one big Exchange server and makes scheduling meetings with multiple busy people a cinch. (Good sign of a great web service– even though accepting an invite doesn’t require registration, almost everyone I send a meeting invitation winds up joining.) For the first couple weeks, I found myself cross-referencing it and my main calendar to make sure I didn’t miss anything, but eventually I learned to trust it. It always updates all my calendars, without any muss or fuss.
Google Calendar is an extra because of my one quibble with Tungle. For some reason, their early Mac software wouldn’t sync my calendar. The workaround was to sync through a Google Calendar, which was a one-time setup. They may have fixed their software by now, but I don’t see any gain to mucking with it since this system works. And yeah, I know a lot of people swear by the native Google Calendar, but I still like my mail and calendar in a client program, so this system works for me.
Getting Things Done:
Tools used: Omnifocus (Mac $80; iPhone $19.99)
I bought these products in early days when they were cheaper, but I’d happily pay full price now. All my To-Dos, big and small go into Omnifocus. It has way more features than I need, but I’ve yet to find another app with all the features I want. It uses MobileMe to sync between my laptop and iPhone and puts alarms into my calendar for anything due. Various bookmarklets and keyboard shortcuts make it super-easy to enter anything in either environment. Whether it’s to pick up dry cleaning on the way home or to execute a 10-part marketing program on the job, Omnifocus is where it goes. The big key is to give everything — no matter how mundane — a due date. When that date passes, it’s either done; assigned to another date; or deleted because it no longer seems important.
Social Networks:
Tools used: Facebook (Web and iPhone, free);  Twitter (free);  Seesmic Desktop (Adobe Air, free); Tweetie 2 iPhone ($2.99);  qTweet (iPhone jailbreak, free);  LinkedIn (free);  Boxcar (iPhone, $.99)
To maintain sanity, I have to look at social networks as a fun extra and not a requirement. Sometimes I go a week without looking at Facebook. And I learned the hard way that you can’t treat Twitter like an RSS feed, where you expect to read everything. It’s about serendipity– with time to kill, I always find something neat, but outside of direct messages and @replies, it’s all gravy.
Although there are exceptions from before I got my system down, I only accept Facebook invites from real friends and people who I’ve gone to school with. For me FB is purely social and purely entertainment and keeping up with old friends. I religiously ignore all other friend requests and invites to be a fan of anything.
Twitter, I use more for business and industry contacts and, frankly, to brand myself and my business. More of my messages there are biz related, although I sprinkle in some personal and musical — the latter two generally get crossposted to FaceBook.
LinkedIn I find less and less useful day-to-day, but great in specific situations. I’ll take almost any invite that isn’t pure spam. I generally don’t use it, but when looking for employees or a friendly introduction to a business contact, it’s priceless.
There are bazillions of social networking apps, and I’ve tried most of them, but I always come back to Seesmic and Tweetie. On the computer, Seesmic is great for managing multiple accounts and I can post any update to some or all of my personal FB and Twitter as well as my six business accounts. Tweetie 2 is the best iPhone Twitter client, but there are lots of good ones. (Note that I’m disgruntled with Tweetie’s handling of the new-style retweets, so they’re on notice.) qTweet is a nice extra but nonessential– it allows me to pull a dropdown window from any iPhone app and post an update to Twitter and/or FB. Boxcar is a nice extra that sends a push notification to my iPhone when I get an @ reply or DM on Twitter.
When engaging with other folks Twitter updates, I send things I want to read at leisure to Instapaper and email myself links to things I want to take action on, if I can’t do so immediately. So a long article gets Instapapered; a blog post with songs to download or a hot story I want to pick up on PegNews gets emailed and then handled through my email triage system.
Declaring bankruptcy:
There are times when things get out of control, even with a system. Maybe you’re really busy actually doing things at work rather than managing information. Or you get sick or go on vacation. In any case, you have to be willing to occasionally declare informational bankruptcy, particularly with RSS feeds and occasionally with email. That means hitting that “mark all as read” or “delete all” button and getting on with life. It’s a drastic measure, but somewhat liberating. Because I’ve had a particularly busy spate at work, I’ve declared RSS bankruptcy a couple times in the past month. That means scanning folders that I know matter and then hitting “mark all read.” I’ve only declared email bankruptcy a couple times ever — in those cases, I put up a blog post and social network updates warning folks.
This is the system that works for me. What works for you? Share your favorite tools and tricks in the comments.