Caution: Contents Under Pressure.
November 10, 2009 6:32 PM   Subscribe

I'm being overloaded with information in my academic and digital lives - how do I separate the signal from the noise?

There are two areas in which I'm completely overwhelmed at any given moment.

1) My academic work. I'm a teaching fellow who's working on his Master's thesis. I get great ideas for both my classroom teaching and my academic research. Over and over. I'll jot these down, and then they'll disappear forever. I'll go to a conference, and get a million great ideas - and then lose them all, or be so overwhelmed with something else that I never get the chance to implement them. I default back to standard, which drives me up the wall.

2) My digital life. I try to stay on the forefront be reading blogs on a bunch of different topics. I have various recipes stared in Google Reader, MeFi favorites that I've been meaning to go back and read for ages, and various things like this.

How do I process all this information, and distill it down to something useful? I get so excited and enthusiastic about new techniques, research, and news, but then I fall apart because I can't apply it to anything due to time constraints, or even a good system to process it all.

Thanks in advance, HiveMind.
posted by SNWidget to Education (11 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I've found that using a web todo list like toodledo has helped me greatly. It allows me to file stuff away for "the future" as well as things that need to be completed sooner.

You can do classic "todo items" as well as attach a note to an item.

I use it to keep track of my needs to get done today and this month items, as well as my long term storage for "wouldn't it be great to do this some day" items.

They have folders, due dates (optional) and priorities. I got through periodically and cull things that are old, or update things that should be updated / split / joined /etc..

I've found it's much more productive than my older method of Palm with Palm desktop.

I sync it with my iphone with their native client, which is decent and cheap.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 6:39 PM on November 10, 2009 is a help to me. I have "toread" and "MeFi" tags, among others.

Keep the number of tags down, though, or else it's really not as helpful.
posted by jgirl at 6:48 PM on November 10, 2009

I'll bet that most people will recommend an app or a web-based solution, and that might work for you, but I've had the same problem, and being in contact with paper at least as much as screen tends to help me focus. This means

1. going back over notes you have taken regularly (maybe 1x/week)
2. printing out important articles and using pens/highlighters/etc.
3. keeping a paper to-do list in a small notebook and keeping it with me at all times

I think the basic idea is this: write things down and regularly read what you have written. That may be notes in margins, class notes, ideas you jotted down in a notebook, or documents on your computer. Remember that your own ideas are, in a lot of ways, more important to you than anyone else's ideas. You read other stuff, right? Read yourself too. It will help collect your thoughts.
posted by nosila at 6:50 PM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

You need Evernote. Here's why:

a) See a great recipe? Just select the text and click the little evernote bookmarklet on your toolbar. boom, it's now saved.
See a cool picture you want to use later? Select and save into evernote with one click. A really useful comment on mefi? Same thing. Evernote will automatically sync the comments to the (free) desktop application and to a really nice iphone/ipod touch app as well.

b) For work you can do the same thing. Keep a nice notebook handy at conferences and such. At the end of the day, launch evernote and type these in. It won't take too long if you do this frequently. Inside evernote you can organize everthing into 'notebooks'. I have one for recipes, one for useful research tidbits, pithy mefi advice etc.

The other nice thing about evernote is that you can access it anywhere from the web, even if you are away from all your devices. You just need to get into the routine.
posted by special-k at 6:52 PM on November 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

I do have an iPhone, so any tech solutions that include that are welcomed. General solutions, or just methods to compile or sift through everything are also completely welcomed.

Thanks for everything so far!
posted by SNWidget at 8:05 PM on November 10, 2009

I like to use for my day to day web browsing bookmarking needs.

Evernote captures everything else.

I use Google Reader to keep up with feeds. Good posts get "delicioused" instead of starred, to keep everything in the same place, nice and searchable...

Plus I follow lots of the right kind of people on Twitter using EchoFon for iPhone, which has a nifty "read it later" ability.

For me recording immediately so I'm allowed to forget it until I need it is key, hence Evernote.
posted by man down under at 9:39 PM on November 10, 2009

I have the same problem as you - too much interesting information and ideas, and no way to distill them down into something useful. I have thousands of delicious bookmarks, at least a hundred blogs in Google Reader, and hundreds of starred emails. I have several paper notebooks with lots of ideas. I also have at least a hundred tabs open across several different browsers at any given time.

here's what I do to cope (with moderate success)

1) Consolidate all electronic notes into one place. Evernote, as others mentioned, is awesome. The fact that you can sync multiple computers and also access from the web is key.
2) Minimize the number of different places you store information. One email address, all blogs on Google Reader, all links on delicious. Accept that you might never visit favorited links on mefi, youtube, etc. again.
3) I use the same spiral notebook for all notetaking at any conferences and such that I attend...I also make it a habit to carry it with me to places where I might do some brainstorming (bookstore, long vacation, etc.) Any scraps of paper with random notes get scanned into Evernote or stapled into the notebook so they don't get lost forever.

Eventually I have learned to live with the fact that there is no way I can keep up with all this information, and I use tagging to be able to find things again. You should periodically find some time to review the information you have stored in Evernote.

Keep a couple of major projects on the front burner, and don't worry about those great ideas slipping away. If they really are great ideas, your brain will churn them up again.
posted by kenliu at 10:21 PM on November 10, 2009

Evernote syncs with your iPhone. So you can view these notes anywhere. The Firefox extension makes life so much easier - it clips the text, the pictures, link and a title into Evernote automatically.

If you choose a physical notebook for work, don't bother to type anything in. Start a table of contents and only use that notebook for everything work related taken offline. Or scan in your notes, stick them into Evernote and tag them really well. Your time can be spent in better ways than retyping notes.
posted by ye#ara at 10:30 PM on November 10, 2009

My short answer: Use Autofocus and Evernote.

My long answer:

It seems you are having a few problems that are prone to be confused because they are dealt with in the digital realm - your ideas (called ideas from here on), new information (called information from here on), and a to-do system. Your ideas are special snowflakes to you. They should be guarded, backed up and protected. They come at odd times, triggered by odd things, in odd shapes - unpredictable and precious. It comes out of your brain. Information on the other hand, does not need to be protected, backed up and guarded. It's available from other places. It's knowledge that you are trying to put /into/ your brain. It's easy to confuse the two, because they both can be actionable. Actionable things should have a system.

Your system - Actionable is the hard part. There are many systems for dealing with actionable items - such as GTD, Covey, Autofocus. Each of these systems has their own "core lesson" (GTD - get stuff out of your head and into a trusted system, Covey - stop working on unimportant stuff, Autofocus - constant review), but the real way that these actionable items are handled is a very personal thing and I believe it requires commitment and experimentation to find out what works for you. Borrow and steal from everyone - but commit to figuring out a system. However you decide to handle the actionable items, commit to making a system personally YOURS. Nothing will work for everyone, and commitment to making your own system is truly what is going to make it work for you.

Ideas - handling your ideas is a simple. Always have a capture mechanism available. A moleskin, a composition notebook, Evernote, Jott, Gmail, your answering machine - any of these will work. (I use Evernote notebook labeled "ideas", a notebook, and my voice mail - so I always have a place to put the ideas as they come) The key is to review these ideas on a reoccurring basis, so that things that are actionable are put into your system. If they aren't actionable, put them in a back-burner folder or label.

I believe there are a few keys to handling our information as it is coming to us. Realizing there is no perfect information, identifying why you need the information, and getting quality information. As things come up, put actionable items into your system and reference items into your reference system.

First, there is no perfect information. The information that we get from various sources is never finished. There is always something that is going to come in later to revise and/or expand on the latest theory, news, or technology. The books that come out now about the days of the LA riots are going to be more in depth and tell a more complete story than reading the old news from those times. Unless you are a researcher looking for primary sources, your needs would be better served reading such a book rather than going thru all the old newspaper stories about that event.

Figure out why you need the information - There are a few sources of information that are extremely important to me. The reason they are important is because they have to do with my CAREER, my COMMUNITIES, my LOVED ONES, and my PASSIONS. I review these first as they come - either in a RSS reader, or paper based. Other information (mass media) can be read as time permits and then dismissed when the time runs out. To keep up with everything is undo able - politics, tech, music, movies, TV shows, sports, all of these are an endless river of news. This endless river of information can be comfortably ignored and dipped into as time is available. There are plenty of things that can be skipped for months or years at a time and be jumped into at later point in time because someone will likely summarize the information better than if you followed it.

Quality of information. Recognize that not all blogs, newspapers, journals, magazines and books are of the same quality. Ruthlessly cut from your reading those things that aren't quality. If something is really important in the online world, it will likely going to show up again later in the intertubes - if you see something more than once on multiple blogs, it might be important. An important thing to note is why your source is reporting on this thing - be aware of bias of the source. A good rule of thumb for quality of information is books > journals > magazines > news. Blogs are kind of odd, because they can go from scholarly to media noise quality. So know who the author is and their qualifications.

So with those things in mind, this is how I handle information. I read a few journals and magazines, news, and Google reader to subscribe to blogs. First I read my email, marking all things that are actionable - into my system. I clean out that inbox of things that can be ignored and then I go to Google reader. In Google reader, I quickly go thru all the new posts and star things as they are interesting to me that can possibly effect my life - these are in a different label than blogs that are endless rivers of news (tech, sports, politics.) The starred items are gone thru again and to see if they are actually actionable at all. If it is a long article, I email it to Evernote with a TO_READ topic, so that I can find it easily there. Then I go thru the river of news and read things as I have time... and then I dismiss all river of news items when I am done. I regularly review my TO_READ items in Evernote, and starred items in reader and put them in my backburner, reference, or actionable items as needed. (If you need to watch out for something in the news, but don’t want to have to scour the news for it check out Google’s new subscription – basically it queries news for a specific word or phrase that you can subscribe to with an RSS reader.)

For journals and magazines, I go read all the abstracts and introductions - and then I figure out which ones I am going to invest the time in reading and grab the electronic versions of them and put them in my TO_READ notebook in Evernote and let the system handle them. If there is no electronic version available, the articles get a post it note and into my TO_READ box. If I am going to use the article later for reference, it gets scanned and put into my Evernote reference notebook.

Pleasure reading for me is done on paper as I have time. It's not put into this system at all.

As you can see, Evernote plays a big part in my handling of information. The reason for this is because it's universally available where ever I am. Being able to pull out my iphone and go thru my TO_READ list at anytime and actually get some reading done is awesome.

My system for actionable items is Autofocus. It is very simple and it meshes with my "go with the flow" nature, while still getting things into a trusted system. I use a notebook to track my items and I am better off now than I ever was with a complicated GTD system. Endlessly tweaking my contexts and projects lists was just another way to procrastinate for me. Autofocus doesn't have this problem.
posted by bigmusic at 12:37 AM on November 11, 2009 [3 favorites]

I use Instapaper as a short term reading list - if I come across an article I find interesting but don't have the time to read at the moment, I bookmark it in there and come back to it later. I don't have an iPhone, but I think Instapaper works on it and also has offline access (I think).

About hand-written notes - keep one notebook with you all the time and write down any good ideas and get them out of your system (file-and-forget, in a sense). Then, maybe on the weekends, go through it and type up what seems interesting and save it in a folder, if necessary use a one document per idea. Rinse and repeat. Try to automate both things, the note-taking and the review. Once it becomes a habit, you're good to go.

I know exactly what you mean in terms of information overflow, I don't have enough time to read most of the stuff I find on the web, so I started to 'let go' of it. Now I read just a couple of websites and that's it.
posted by Bearded Dave at 4:31 AM on November 11, 2009

Re Evernote & conference notes - I've been using Evernote for a while but for the first time last week used it to take all my notes (via my ipod Touch) at a conference - both conference session notes and random ideas. I've already referred to these notes several times whereas my random scribblings on hotel notepads are usually lost forever. The only drawbacks I can see is that you have to get pretty good at iphone typing, and it might look like you are emailing throughout the whole conference - it did make me a little self conscious.
posted by yarrow at 7:02 AM on November 11, 2009

« Older Anyone know anthing about Nashville School of Law?   |   Getting a Calculation Field to Refresh Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.