Managing Information Intuitively

I am back home again, safe in Colorado, after outrunning hurricane Frances. I spent Thursday and part of Friday in Orlando, FL with my sister and her family, after spending a couple of days at the Poynter Institute working on a project. It was quite interesting to see gas station after gas station totally out of gas! Well, Frances has been downgraded, so hopefully the winds won’t be so severe, although the flooding is likely to be. Keep your fingers crossed for the people of Florida.

Anyway, now that I’m back I’m dealing with my own personal flood: my normal backlog of information overload. I’ve been contemplating how I might deal more effectively with information overload, especially since my to-do list for this weblog always seems to be running a month behind. Well, an Aug. 16 article by John Udell, Information routing, offers some very useful points to consider on this front…

Udell points out the difficulty of managing incoming information that requires neither immediate action nor immediate discarding. This informational grey area can morph into a huge, disorderly slush pile faster than most of us would care to admit. Udell maps out the following options for dealing with the slush pile of information you might need in the future:

  1. Do nothing. Rely on search to be able to find it again. That’s been a poor option in the past, but a number of forces – including Gmail, WinFS, and Apple’s Spotlight – aim to improve it.
  2. Tell someone else about it. Various motivations govern the impulse to send an FYI (for your interest) email to a group. Maybe you’ll simply inform the group; maybe the group will act on something you can’t; maybe the group will respond with information that’s new and valuable to you. But the FYI email is a blunt instrument at best. It requires the sender to know, a priori, something that is unknowable – namely, who should receive the alert.
  3. Tell your subscribers about it. In other words, blog it. That way, the self-selected group of people who subscribe to you will be alerted. And the search engines will ensure that everyone can find the item later. The problem here is that the item is not categorized unless…
  4. Blog it to a topic. Now people can subscribe to that specific category or topic. The problem here is that when you subdivide an individual blogger’s output into topics, the flow for any specific topic will be thin.
  5. Blog it to a shared topic. This is what del.icio.us enables. It supports the operation “route item to topic,” which is distinct from “send item to individual or group” or “post item to blog” or even “post item to blog topic.”

Udell appears to be a fan of the “shared topic” approach, and I like it, too. I think it has a lot of potential. Unfortunately I dislike the del.icio.us interface intensely – I find it to be exceedingly user-unfriendly, it gives me a headache. Which probably is why I haven’t explored it enough to write about it here. But the concept of that service, I agree, is excellent.

Here’s my take on the general theme of managing information overload: You DON’T have to keep up with this flood! It’s impossible.

I see many people shoulder a heavy burden of anxiety over not being able to sort, manage, and respond to every bit of information that crosses their path which seems at all interesting or relevant. I know people who actually lose sleep over this. Occasionally I even lapse into that state of info-anxiety myself, and berate myself for being forever behind.

But we’re all human, and human brains are capable of doing fabulously subtle and powerful things in terms of processing and using information. Routing, categorizing, and distributing vast quantities of information is the strength of computers. In contrast, the human mind possesses a different strength, one which I think is drastically undervalued in the information age: intuition

In my experience, a primarily intuitive approach to information management can be more rewarding, more productive, and less stressful. It allows you to move forward and get more done, without getting mired in pursuing more paths than you can actually take.

When it comes to managing information, being a control freak only pays if you’re watching spy satellite data for nuclear missile launches. For most of the rest of us, learning to let go of information can be even more valuable than tracking every e-mail or web page of minor interest.

That said, I do think that the various tools for arranging ideas, personal knowledge managerment, and information tracking can be incredibly useful – when they are used to support intuition, rather than supplant it. In fact, this is how I use Furl and how many other people use del.icio.us. I file away and categorize in Furl items that I think are interesting which I might want to use in the future, and I also share that information with others via my Furl archive webfeed.

So the bottom line here is that I think it’s fine to use all sorts of tools for sharing information, arranging ideas, personal knowledge management, you name it. Just don’t overlook the strongest tool you have at your disposal for managing information: your own human intuition. Tune in to it, don’t dismiss it, and be proud of it.

Although the late 20th century was the “information age,” we are now entering the “intuition age.” Without a strong connection to your own intuition, you’ll drown in the info-flood.

(Thanks t0 Jack Vinson for the link to Udell’s article.)