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How to Meld GTD and Tech to Conquer Information Overload in the Digital Age

managing information overload in a digital age

David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” (GTD) has developed a cult-like following, and for good reason.  GTD helps you to be more efficient, and to, well, get things done.  At the same time, tech is supposed to make your life easier, but at times it seems that it only drowns you with more and more information.  Twitter, RSS, Facebook  . . . how to stay on top of it all?  Why not use GTD concepts to help you manage your digital streams?

Here is a look at a system that, while not pure GTD, does use some GTD concepts, coupled with tech tools, to manage the onslaught of information in your content streams.  Disclaimer for you GTD fans out there:  GTD is but one part of this system, and some of it has nothing to do with GTD.  But you will see GTD influences in the system.

Let’s dive into it.

Headache image by Sarah G.

Prepare Yourself, and Your Content Buckets

GTD buckets

The first step to not feeling overwhelmed with the onslaught of information is to have a general game plan in mind.  Here are some tips:

1.  Where Practical, Reduce the Number of Buckets

In GTD, a collection “bucket” is a place, such as your email inbox or a physical inbox at work, where you collect items to be processed.  For purposes of this post, we’re going to use that term a bit differently.  Here, a bucket simply refers to your various streams where information appears, such as Twitter and Google Reader.

As tech geeks, we have a disease that I like to call the “Shinies.”  If you’re inflicted with the Shinies, you love new gadgets and tools.  As a result, you may end up with an obscene number of buckets, as you try more and more new services.  Step 1 is getting those services down to a manageable level.  For example, I briefly tried out Foursquare . . . until I asked myself “why?” Nobody I know in real life was on Foursquare, and my life is decidedly unexciting.  I spend most of my life at the office, or at home.  So I pruned Foursquare out of my routine.

2.  Don’t Make It a Chore

Keeping on top of information doesn’t need to feel like a chore.  Unless it is your job, you don’t need to consume everything.  Do you have over a thousand unread items in your RSS reader?  Mark them as read.  In Twitter, don’t feel the need to see all Tweets in your stream.  If, as we’ll discuss below, you’ve set up a system to make sure that your most important information floats to the top, you don’t have to feel guilty about not consuming everything.

3.  Prioritize Your Sources

Not all news sources are created equal.  Set up your system to recognize that fact.  In Twitter, create a list that only includes your favorite sources.  If you’re feeling overwhelmed, ignore the rest of your stream and just check out the list.  Do the same with your RSS reader, creating a category for your most important feeds.  When you have time, gulp down everything.  When you don’t, focus on your most important sources.

Also, if you find that you are following people who cross-post the exact same information to several different streams (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc.), you may want to make some hard choices and not follow them across all platforms.

4.  Have Redundancy With Certain Important Types of Sources

What I’m about to tell you might seem to defeat the purpose of not consuming everything, and fly in the face of #1, above (“Reduce the Number of Buckets”).  If you’re going to be ignoring some sources, you want to make sure that the important information floats to the top.  To do that, make sure that you’re following sources that have overlapping content, and follow your favorite sources in two or more places.  For example, I follow a few  major tech sources that cover some of the same stories, such as Mashable and TechCrunch.  I also follow Lifehacker on both Facebook and Twitter.  If something big happens, I’m almost certain to see it, even if I’m only skimming my most important sources.

5.  Get Rid of Sources That You Don’t Need/Use

As you fine tune your system, pay attention to the items in your various streams (such as Twitter and RSS) to see what you regularly ignore, so that you can weed out those that are “dead weight.”  For example, after going through a spree of subscribing to the RSS feeds of many blogs, I slowly realized that there were many whose content I never read.  They were just slowing me down, and keeping me from the good stuff.  I pared those out of my stream, and Google Reader is much more manageable now.

6.  Snack on Content Whenever You Can

Now that you’ve polished your sources into a manageable state, you need to be able to consume information when you want to (keeping in mind tip #2 – don’t make it a chore).  If you’re sitting around waiting for a meeting to start, pull out your mobile device and catch up on Twitter or your RSS feeds.  At the same time, recognize that some content is better suited for certain devices.  We’ll identify some tools below for making sure that you consume content on a device most suited for it.

The Steps

GTD steps

Now that you have figured out some general ideas on how you want to manage your content, it is time to get down to the nitty gritty – the actual steps you’ll take to review the content.  Your tools may vary, but here are the apps that I use:

iPhone: Twitter, Instapaper, MobileRSS

iPad: Twitter and Twitterific, Reeder, Instapaper

PC: Evernote, Instapaper, Gmail, Google Reader on the Web

A. Process Your Front-Line Buckets

The first step is to perform a cursory review of the content in your front-line buckets.  Your front-line buckets are those places where you first review a stream of information, such as Twitter or Google Reader.  Much, and perhaps most, of the content that you review won’t interest you.  Consider this to be the step where you just pick out what really interests you.  This will be an almost instantaneous decision with much of your content.

You’re going to perform one of three actions for each item that you review:

1. Forget it / Delete It

How you handle items in your stream will depend on what tool you’re using.  If you’re scanning through Twitter on your iPhone, there’s a good chance you’re only reviewing the most recent items, and there’s typically no way to delete an item that you see in your stream.  In Google Reader, you don’t delete an item, but you do mark it as read.

The concept is the same though – as you see an item, if it isn’t something you want to delve into more deeply, skip it, delete it, or mark it as read, as the case may be.

2. Read it Now

Your second option is to read an item now.  This might be an item in your RSS reader, or it could be a link in your Twitter stream.  The factors that could go into your decision will include your level of interest in the item, the amount of time that you have to review it in detail, and whether you’re on a a platform that doesn’t make it too much of a hassle to read the full item.  For example, there are some sites that I know load very slowly on my iPhone, especially over 3G, so if I see an interesting link to one of those sites, I’ll push that link into the final category, which is . . .

3. Archive It

Some items are just too cumbersome to read on some platforms.  For those, push them off for later reading on either a more suitable platform or app.

There are a  few “review later” buckets that I push items into at this stage, depending on the nature of the content.  In my system, content that I read later falls into three categories:

  1. Want to read it, although maybe not right now, and then probably won’t need to reference it again;
  2. Might not actually want to read it anytime soon, but I do want to save it for future reference;
  3. Want to read it right now, but not on this device.

If it is a “read once and be done with it” piece of content, send it to Instapaper or Read It Later.  Support for one or both is built into many apps, such as MobileRSS, Reeder, or the official Twitter app on the Iphone.  With one click, you can send an item to Instapaper or Read It Later, for later consumption.  You can then review nicely formatted versions of the content on multiple platforms.  Instapaper, for example, has iOS apps and a web app.

If an item is something that you know you want to save for future reference, use an app like Evernote.  Evernote is a great tool for saving and finding just about any type of content.  You can send items into Evernote via a special email address, so it is easy to get any type of content item into your Evernote bucket.  The types of items that I dump into Evernote are items that I know I’ll want to use for future projects, or perhaps items that I need for future blog posts.

You occasionally may come across a content item that you want to read as soon as possible, but that just isn’t practical to read on a mobile device.  In those situations, I use the email functionality built into most apps (such as Twitter, or MobileRSS), and send a link to that item to my email account.  Then, when I’m at my desk, the link is usually the first thing I’ll see.

In some situations, you may want to use a combination of archiving methods.  For example, an item might be interesting, and you also want to save it for later use.  In such situations, it only take a few seconds more to send it to Instapaper AND to Evernote.

B.  Process Your “Review Later” Buckets

The processing of your front-line buckets is a step that you will perform whenever you can steal some free moments.  By contrast, the processing of your “Review Later” buckets can be integrated directly into your overall GTD system.

Gmail, Instapaper, and Evernote are the glue that holds my system together.  As noted above, when I process my front-line buckets, I dump a small percentage of items into Gmail, Instapaper, and Evernote.  I review the Gmail items frequently, whenever I process email.  I typically review my Instapaper items once a day, in an easy chair before dinner, on my iPad.  I try to review my Evernote items once a week, during my weekly review, at which time I categorize and tag the naked items in my Evernote account.

Develop a system for reviewing your “review later” buckets, whether it is like mine or not.  It can be whatever works for you, but the important thing is that you do it.  Otherwise, the only thing that you’re doing with this GTD-like system is skimming quick content and weeding the trash out of your streams, without really delving into the items that you found to be most interesting.   Twitter or Google Reader might not feel so overwhelming any longer, but you’ve just pushed that tidal wave off to Instapaper.  If you have a system in which you process your “review later” buckets, you’ll find that you actually have time to consume content that you find to be enjoyable.

Final Thoughts

This system has worked wonders for me.  I went through a long stretch of time where Twitter felt like a burden, and I had over 1000 unread items in Google Reader.  Now, I regularly process all items in my streams, and take my time with content that I really enjoy.  Isn’t that the whole point?

GTD concepts and tech are equally important here.  GTD concepts influenced the system that I use, but the system wouldn’t be possible without the right tools.  If I didn’t have an iPhone to “snack” during free moments, or an iPad that makes processing items fast and easy, I wouldn’t be much better off than I was before I started using this system.  If I weren’t using MobileRSS or Reeder, both of which really speed up the review of RSS feeds, no system in the world could help me.

Do you have a system that you use?  How about some favorite tools?  If so, share your finds with us in the comments.