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Battling Information Overload

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In case you were in any doubt that we're inundated with data, consider the study conducted in 2000 by the School of Information Management and Systems of the University of California, Berkeley. "How Much Information" found that we produce 1.5 billion gigabytes of content a year. And a delightful article from Inc. magazine claims that people spend 150 hours a year looking for lost information and that 45% of people watch TV and use PCs simultaneously. No wonder we're overwhelmed!

Searchers can fight information overload in two ways -- at the source and with tools and techniques that cut down on the amount of information we wade through.

Stemming The Flood

We're information junkies -- that's why you're reading SearchDay -- but that doesn't mean that we have to contribute to data glut.

  • Think before you forward an interesting web site, an article, or an amusing email to your colleagues. Do they really need to see this?

  • Practice Just In Time, rather than Just In Case, information gathering. Rather than holding on to everything that passes by your desk or PC, develop skills that help you find it later if you really need it.

  • Fight cover-your-behind emails. Is there really a need to cc everyone in your department every time you report on the status of a project?

Tools to Cut Back Information Overgrowth

  • Put yourself on an email discussion list "fast" once a quarter. Set your lists to "nomail" for a week and see which ones you miss. Keep those and lose the rest. Life's too short to spend your time reading postings you don't care about. You can always go back and search the list's archive if you really need to track down that elusive posting.

  • Evaluate information as you gather it. Is this really relevant? Does it duplicate something I already have? Is it the most current source? Is it the most authoritative source? Could I do better?

  • Set a time limit for how long you will spend searching. It's easy to get caught up in the chase and to keep on gathering more and more (and more! and more!) information, even though you have enough material or the topic isn't worth the additional time you want to invest in it.

  • Provide human filtering of content before posting it on an intranet or passing it along to a colleague or client. Rather than subscribing to a raw feed of data, have an info pro review it first to eliminate duplicates and irrelevant material.

  • Develop the skill to evaluate what information is immediately useful, what is transitory and what is important. These are not mutually exclusive categories, and what is useful right now may not be something that can or should be retained.

Bottom line? It's easy to be the most efficient "information hauler." It's harder to lead by example and demonstrate that even self-avowed information junkie can actually serve as the first defense against information overload -- for both yourself and others.

Mary Ellen Bates is the principal of Bates Information Services http://www.batesinfo.com/, a research and consulting business based in Washington, DC. Her email address is [email protected].

How Much Information
http://www.sims.berkeley.edu/research/projects/how-much-info/
This study is an attempt to measure how much information is produced in the world each year. U.C. Berkeley researchers Peter Lyman and Hal R. Varian look at several media and estimate yearly production, accumulated stock, rates of growth, and other variables of interest.

"Data Data"
Inc. magazine, Jan. 1, 1999
http://www.inc.com/magazine/19990101/715.html
How much time people waste looking for lost information, how fast the World Wide Web is growing, and other statistics from the front lines of the info glut.

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