Last week, I shared that my word for 2018 is “essential.” This word is already making quite an impact on my life and I suspect that I will be writing a number of posts on its influence as the year progresses. Today I will address the subject of information and what is and isn’t essential. I actually started an essay on a different topic yesterday, but I had an experience last night that pushed me to write and publish this one instead. I suspect that I’m not alone in my struggle with information overload, and I hope that perhaps we can help each other develop a more balanced and peaceful (my themes for the past two years…) relationship with the input that is coming into our brains and our lives.
Too Many Articles!
I first wrote about the subject of information overload back in 2014, and I have since made a lot of progress in cutting back on how much information I consume. I no longer subscribe to magazines and I have reduced my email and blog subscriptions dramatically. I stopped using the Pocket app for saving articles, as I had amassed hundreds of articles that I never got around to reading. Unfortunately, those shifts mostly just put a Band-Aid on the problem as opposed to actually solving it. I still have far too many browser tabs open and too many emails in my in-box at any given time. When I take the time to close tabs and clean out my email queue, I often end up saving articles into a browser folder that I have labeled “To Read.” Much like my Pocket queue, this folder has expanded to hold a large number of articles, probably verging upon a hundred as of yesterday.
After hearing about my dilemma, my wise husband came up with a solution for my having too many articles to read. He suggested that I create a new article folder each month and simply delete the previous month’s folder at that time. But after seeing the horror on my face at the thought of letting everything go, he outlined a compromise of carrying forward ten articles into the next month. I thought that sounded reasonable, so I decided to take on this new plan.
Since yesterday was January 31st, I sat down last evening to select my ten articles to move into my February 2018 “to read” folder. I thought this would take me thirty minutes maximum, but I was wrong. I found myself struggling intensely to choose the best articles and delete the rest. My anxiety grew as I perused the list of titles and clicked on many of them to skim their contents. A large number of these articles were on the topics of health and personal development and looked very compelling. I feared that if perhaps I didn’t read some of them, I might miss out on critical information that could potentially change the course of my life.
FOMO Sets In…
Ah, there’s that FOMO (fear of missing out) again… That’s the thing that has us scrolling through our social media feeds for hours on end and binge-watching “must-see” television programs, lest we miss out on what everyone else is doing and talking about. FOMO is what keeps us subscribed to myriad mailing lists so that we don’t miss out on amazing deals on merchandise we just have to have. FOMO is pervasive… and it’s exhausting. FOMO is a big reason why so many of us struggle to achieve the balance and peace we so deeply desire.
I have made peace with missing out in certain respects. I realized long ago that trying to keep up with social media is a recipe for discontentment and wasting time, so I let go of any hope or expectation that I could do so. I continue to feel anxious every time I sign on to Facebook, though, as there is a never-ending queue in front of me and often close to a hundred notifications that may or may not be important. I still have issues with social media, but limiting my time there has made a big difference in terms of my inner peace.
Getting rid of my magazine subscriptions has been a relief, as I no longer have a stack of periodicals lying around just waiting to be read. I also very rarely watch the news, as it mostly consists of extremely negative information that I can’t do anything about and that merely contributes to the anxiety and depression I already struggle with. This means that I am sometimes under-informed, but I see that as the lesser of two evils. I remember Tim Ferriss writing about his “low information diet” (this article explains it well) and affirming that he would definitely learn of any critical information, as others would be sure to let him know about it.
Glutton for Punishment?
So why can’t I adopt the same sensible attitude and approach toward the articles that I have saved? If I would have just deleted my article folder last night sight unseen, I wouldn’t have experienced the anguish I did and I would have saved myself a lot of time. Sure, I might have felt a pang of FOMO and regret, but that feeling would have rapidly dissipated. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to do it; instead I had to painstakingly choose a tenth of the articles I had amassed but hadn’t taken the time to read in months. As I did so, I have to admit that I saved some of them into topic bookmark folders rather than just deleting them, particularly the health articles about the conditions from which I suffer. Although I’ve read countless articles about these illnesses, I can’t seem to let go of the thought that maybe someone somewhere will share the “magic bullet” that will make me well.
I know that saving the articles to alternate folders was basically cheating, but I couldn’t stop myself from doing it. Heaven only knows how many bookmarks I have, but it has to be in the thousands at this point. Yes, I go back and look at some of my bookmarked information on occasion, but I could probably just Google most of it and get what I need in a relatively short span of time. I periodically delete bookmarks and folders as well, but I’m sure I add more than I let go of by a fairly large margin.
Discerning what is Essential
So, back to “essential”…
How can I determine what information is essential?
How can I discern this so I can let go of the rest?
I think that setting rules and boundaries around my information consumption would be helpful, such as limiting how many unread articles I can hold on to at any given time. What other rules could I institute in order to decrease my information overload? I would really love to have less data coming in and to be able to more readily identify what matters most.
It’s been said that the way we do one thing is often the way we do everything and this is definitely true for me. Just like I struggle to decide which articles to save and which to let go of, I do the same thing with my clothes. Additionally, I tend to save multiple articles on the same topic and buy multiple items of clothing that are either very similar in style or that serve the same purpose (which leads to both overwhelm and what Bridgette Raes calls “splitting wears”). It’s like I continue to search for the “holy grail” of both information and garments and I keep amassing more and more along the way, which is time-consuming and impinges upon my peace and sanity. I will be writing about “essential” in terms of clothing in a future post, as I feel challenged in that area as well, but the information issue is more pressing in my mind at the moment.
Conclusion and Your Thoughts
Fortunately, I was able to select my ten articles to move forward into February, even though it took me an hour and a half to do so. Yes, much too long, but at least I did it and I’m proud of that, as I had to work through a lot of anxiety to get it done. Of course, I know that with information (as with clothing), a big part of the solution is not to accumulate so much in the first place. I need to better tune in to what is truly essential in terms of what information to read and save.
Now I would love to hear from you, whether you also struggle with information overload or if have suggestions for me and others who are dealing with this challenge. I’d especially like to hear from those who have successfully overcome this issue. Also, in my welcome post, I mentioned that I will periodically take on personal experiments and share my experiences with readers. It would be great to do an experiment related to how I consume and save information, and I’m open to any ideas you have for me in this respect. I’m also pondering the possibilities myself, but I don’t have a clear plan for what to do just yet. Stay tuned…
Thank you for reading and I look forward to your input. Have a wonderful weekend!
12 thoughts on “What Information is Essential?”
I’m enjoying reading your writing Debbie. My word is “change.” My goal is not to make specific changes, or have expectations, instead just to be open to change, to flow with unexpected changes, and to step out of my comfort zone as much as possible and be open to possibilities. I’m doing extremely well so far. Especially since the universe is bringing much change my way. So it’s a very good thing that I’ve decided to embrace change instead of fighting it.
P.S. I don’t think I’m influenced by information overload because I’m probably under informed. I read what I can and have an interest in, save a few links and then about once a month I glance at what I’ve saved and often delete much of it. Things sitting around that I have not read don’t bother me. When I clean out my office last year I threw away stacks of saved papers without even looking at them because it was just clutter. The important things I file away, so no fear of mishaps. Now I make a practice of not saving too much. Or if I delete something I never worry because I figure if it’s that important it will somehow cross my path again. This has happened many times and the second time I stumble upon it I will give it a quick read. I don’t worry much about saving things because I know the information is lurking in my mind, somewhere. And if I forget about it, then it wasn’t that important. I understand that we are all different and my approach will not work for everyone. I suppose the path I’m walking is call faith. 🙂
I never had a ton of things that I tried to read, but I did subscribe to this one blog that sent a daily email. It was something that I needed to be in the mood to read so I would save the email and they’d build up. After it got to that point it felt like a chore to read them. So I deleted all the emails and unsubscribed. I follow them on FB so if the title looks interesting I read it right then. I’ve saved a few articles to read later and I never went back to them so I don’t do that anymore. I will save something after I read it if it was helpful. I’m more likely to go back to something that made an impact on me and reread it.
just my two cents too, I’ve often saved articles and graphics and bookmarked a heap of sites. I went through a few bookmarks at the start of the year and found that some pages didint exist any more which meant I could easily remove them from the bookmarks list. Re articles, I too have saved many then gone on to read them and wondered why on earth I had bothered. So now I do what Tonya does. If its intersting I read the article and then save it, otherwise I will never read it and that goes for many of us doesnt it? Even when read and saved, I usually go back some time later and end up deleting often as not. in regard to saving things like articles, or clothes its that scarcity thing/hoarder thing. If I save them and even if I never use them I will still have them. What if we are fine, just fine with less rather than more? BTW really really enjoyed your thought here on this post today!!
“I would really love to have less data coming in and to be able to more readily identify what matters most.”
Debbie, as I read your post I was trying to keep in mind your word for the year, and this sentence stood out to me. And I thought yes, it would be helpful to identify some practical approaches to manage the data flow that works for you, absolutely. But also, how does your word apply to “what matters the most”? Meaning, more of an inward approach. What is essential to your peace of mind, your sense of balance?
I think I need both a certain amount of orderliness, and also a sense of security and safety. We do change over time, and so does the data and information we find helpful, even if there is no magic bullet as you say (same with clothes et al). There is really nothing wrong with saving articles in a topical folder. Why do you think of it as cheating, I wonder? Is that the “essential you” talking, or could it be coming from elsewhere? It seems like it could be a perfectly reasonable way to manage, especially if it helps you get on with things. I think most of us fall somewhere between minimalism and hoarding in regards to our needs over time. I know for me, I had to move beyond some of the extreme minimalist ways of thinking I’d adopted during our endless moving and my desperation to cope during that time. Especially with all the health stuff.
From a practical standpoint, here are a few ways I manage data so as not to get so overwhelmed:
-Archive old data – just place old folders (some or all, whatever works) into another folder marked however you like and start afresh. Give yourself permission to leave data sitting in folders. Don’t let perfectionism tell you that all old data must be perfectly organized. It just has to meet your essential criteria – orderly and still there for safekeeping. I have a ton of old bookmarks sitting in a folder called “Odyssey” from all the moves.
-Read or delete what you can, when you can, and give yourself all the gold stars for this. No points off for things that could be read or deleted but aren’t yet! The point of this is, your data will never be in a state of perfect management or organization. Doing bits here and there in a low-stakes way at your own convenience can keep things orderly enough. It took a lot of pressure off when I started doing this.
-Rename things in a way to make you feel less anxiety. What if you renamed your “To Read” folder as “Not Essential To Read” or “OK to File”? Or whatever else helps you refocus on what’s essential – your peace of mind and sense of balance. I even did this with triggering phone calls from my mom – she comes up as “OK to Ignore” now.
While I’m happy to share what helped me, it’s certainly no substitute for your own inner self-knowledge and wisdom! Maybe have a conversation with the different parts of yourself around this issue, to gather more internal intel to help you figure out what’s essential? And use that to help inform your way forward? xo
Loved your response!
I loved your response too! I’ll myself have been doing the archiving data thing (though I didn’t realise that this was the name for it) with my internet bookmarks and it’s been great. Debbie, if you read this, I have more of my thoughts in another comment
Thank you so much to all who have commented. Please know that I read and appreciate all comments!
Terra – As I read about your word for the year and now you defined it, I felt a feeling of ease and calm come over me. I’m so glad that your word is already positively impacting you this year! I also love your approach to information and would love to get there (just like I’d love to get to your approach toward clothing that you’ve shared many times on my old blog). My husband has a very similar approach as you do and it serves him well, too. I have improved in the way I deal with information, but I still have a long way to go. Writing about it should help, though, and challenging myself to do things differently.
Tonya – I had similar experiences with email blog subscriptions and the information started to feel more like “shoulds” than a joy. Good for you for unsubscribing and for no longer saving articles to read. I think what I really want is to consume less and appreciate the information I do consume more (same thing with clothes!).
Krissie – I’m sure many of the bookmarks I have don’t exist anymore, either. You and Tonya are wise when it comes to articles. I think being fine with less as opposed to more is a good place to be with many things in life. Moderation can be a difficult thing to find and it will of course vary by person, but it’s a wonderful intention. I’m glad you enjoyed this post!
Claire – Like Sabrine, I loved your response, and you really did zero in on a very important sentence/sentiment. You also asked some great questions, which would probably best be answered in a follow-up post. You gave same excellent suggestions as well! I especially like the recommendation to rename the “to read” folder to something that is more in line with “essential” and “peace.” I may have to label some phone calls as “okay to ignore,” too! I really appreciate your detailed and heartfelt reply and I know I will be writing more on this topic!
Hey Debbie. I’ve definitely dealt with information overload a lot (I get overwhelmed easily in all aspects of life), and I also tend to learn about things way later (and at a slower pace, especially if it’s academic!) than others. In some areas I’ve delved pretty deeply into them even if the span hasn’t beem wide, and in some areas I’ve always had very specific preferences. That can result in too many open internet tabs! What I find is that with too many articles open at once that it’s visual clutter and I feel a pit of dread in my stomach, like, “Oh man, I need to read ALL these articles argh” and so I end up not really enjoying them as much because I end up rushing through them just to “get them over with”.
I’m slowly learning to be patient with myself and give myself the time to really enjoy things. I’ve wiped away saved bookmarks for short stories to read later before because I trust myself in being able to find them again if and/or when I want them. And I also know that maybe right now isn’t the right time to read them and that’s OK. I’ve done that thing before where you wipe bookmarks and then accumulate without reading over and over and it’s a mad cycle. Then I remind myself of the above two and I’m OK.
I also realised that there is no magic bullet that will magically fix all your problems. I hate it and it sucks but that’s the way it is. There’s no one magically article that will transform your life. Even if there was, what would you do with it? And if there was a magical article it would be interpreted differently by different people anyway. I pick up little bits of information that make an impact on my life, sure, but it’s up to me to take that information and DO something with it. Huge problem for me when going to all these seminars for applying for grad jobs; I found all the seminars useless because I already KNEW all the information but I hadn’t DONE anything with it, hence generating frustration with mysef for the wasted time for no new information. The solution? I stopped going to them and I am SO much better because of it.
You can’t do or read everything. And even if you could most of us don’t have eidetic memories.
Your bookmarks aren’t going to run away. They will still be there whenever you are ready for them. That’s the whole point of bookmarks. And you govern the bookmarks, not the other way around.
Motivation to stop the bleeding: The google algorithm isn’t going to change, so maybe no matter when you search stuff up it will still be the same. By accumulating more and more articles you aren’t really reading, just accumulating. By accumulating articles to read with an overstuffed folder you’re destroying the whole purpose in the first place: to read articles and to learn more.
My strategy would be to read one article at a time. If there are hyperlinks, I don’t click them before finishing the original article.
I also don’t watch the news (same reasons as you) and I don’t watch TV shows or listen to that much music. Intetestingly enough, I sing/reference all the songs and TV shows and movies that I have watched in conversation all the time, which for some reason makes people think I’ve listened/watched a lot? Even though I can count on one hand the number of TV show episodes I watched last year. I’ve definitely tried to counteract that but I’ve realised that I’m way happier with the way I have always kept it. Less IS more. There’s always going to be the frantic FOMO and all that. I’ve accepted that it’s part of who I am. I celebrate the areas where it doesn’t destroy me, try and manage it in the rest and ultimately trust myself. I trust myself. Do you?
I appreciate your sharing so much of your experience and wisdom here, Vivien. I can relate to what you wrote about the browser tabs. It really DOES just become “noise” when there is too much information. Kudos on taking steps to consume less information and push back on FOMO. You’re right that it comes down to self-trust and we need to learn to trust ourselves more. I feel like I’m gradually peeling away my layers of information overload. I unsubscribed from more lists yesterday and I closed most of my browser tabs. It feels a lot calmer and I like that feeling!
I always say “there is only one of me” and so I have to be judicious about my time management. My word is Carefree; I am trying to remember what brings me joy and happiness and what is not mindless time wasting. I don’t want to be a slave to my bookmarks or stacks of real books piled up waiting to be read. There is no joy in that for me. But if I sit outside with a cup of coffee and practice five minutes of mindfulness, my cup feels more filled up.
Maybe an exercise you can try is to allocate two ten minute slots of time. In one of those ten minutes read through some of your bookmarked pages or articles. Then think about how you felt afterwards. Are you more informed? Smarter? Do you feel better about yourself?
In another ten minute slot find a restful sanctuary. It can be an outdoor coffee shop or a chair in your backyard. Spend ten minutes breathing and practicing mindfulness. How do you feel?
Thank you as always for a though provoking blog.
This is a great suggestion, Leah! I’m going to give it a try and I will likely write about it in my next “information overload” update. I love the word “carefree” and think that would have also been a good one for me for this year 🙂 You’re right that there is only one of us and we need to keep that in mind when we choose how we spend our time. Thanks so much for sharing!
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