How to handle information overload

Posted by Swaroop C H on May 13, 2008 Filed under: cal-newport, gtd, information-overload, lifehack, self-improvement

Philipp Lenssen recently had a good post on tips on information overload by various people. It got me thinking about the various tips and tricks I've imbibed in the recent past and which work reasonably well for me. So I tried to collate them into one place:


  • Always bring the inbox down to zero regularly. 'Regularly' is defined by you.
  • Never allow anything to be in your inbox > 2-3 days
    • If you're not going to reply in that time frame, you never will. So simply archive it or reply with a one-liner saying you can't look into it now.
  • If you don't have anything to add, don't reply.
  • Make sure you are clear on what is the action you are expecting from the recipient.
  • Reply in bullet points. Because everybody skims.
  • Once you're done with the email (replying, taking action or reading), archive it.
  • If it is not actionable, archive it. Don't let it remain in your inbox.
  • Use keyboard shortcuts.
  • Mailing lists go into folders. I simulate them in Gmail using "Apply label, Skip Inbox" in the filters. The reason is that mails not directly addressed to me are not urgent, so I can process them whenever I have the inclination. Whatever is in my inbox is what deserves immediate attention.
  • Minimize the number of times you need to check email. The minimum that is required for you to stop worrying about it. The beauty of email is that you can reply at your pace. Make use of that feature. If you end up constantly checking email, you're better off resorting to phone calls or instant messenger.
  • [new tip] Before you send the next email, go through the checklist.


  • Use your feed reader once in a few days. The world won't stop without you.
  • Use a desktop feed reader because it is faster to use.
  • Have a 'Try Before You Buy' folder where you add feeds. If it doesn't turn out to be useful, delete it.
  • Have a number in mind, say 100 feeds. If you add a new feed, delete an old feed that is no longer interesting.
  • If you end up doing a 'Mark all as read' on a feed 2-3 times in a row, delete it.
  • Separate them into categories and/or priorities.
  • Most importantly, read interesting things. Do not aim for reading 500+ blog posts a day. Optimize, don't maximize.
  • Remember that the goal is to derive some value out of this reading and that value is usually knowledge. If it is not helping you towards that goal, delete it. Don't think twice, just delete it.
  • While working, if you feel the need to distract yourself once in a while or read something interesting, don't use your feed reader but use good filters like TechMeme or programming.reddit or a good link-blogger on your subjects of interest. Have a separate dedicated time for reading feeds.
  • Take notes. Over time, you'll judge if a feed is useful or not depending on whether you're taking (any) notes or not.


  • Cut down on the types of inlets - Email, Feeds, Twitter, IRC, Messenger, Phone, etc. (this one is particularly hard for me)
  • Spend at least 50% of your time at the computer with all these inlets shut down.


  • Personally I find productivity inversely proportional to information overload. The days when I'm productive and "in the zone" turns out to be the days when I'm less affected by information overload. The vice-versa is true as well. So if you focus on the right things, the information overload problem will get solved by itself.
  • Maintain focus by having a todo list. Have a big todo list and then pick random tasks from that list depending on your energy levels and get things done.
  • Never indulge in tasks outside of your todo list. If you're not in the mood for any of them, don't indulge in wilfing. Go out instead - whether for a walk, or call up a friend or even read a paper book. If you're not being productive, just get out of the chair.
  • Don't use fancy software for writing lists. Use a good plain text editor (like Vim).
  • Use GTD.
  • Use an auto-pilot schedule (I'm still learning this).

P.S. Many of these ideas have been borrowed from elsewhere. It's been a long time since I imbibed all these, so I don't remember all the sources from which I gleaned them.


Azmi Ahmad says:

An interesting blog I read the other day:

Lakshman says:

Very well said. Most of these are some things I ve been telling myself too. I feel organized.

Lekhni says:

Very useful advice..I really liked the "Try before you buy" feed folder idea. But not check emails obsessively? That is going to take some time to do ;)

Handling Info overload | DesiPundit says:

[...] your feed reader, tons of pending work and a general feeling of being buried under too much info?  Swaroop comes to your rescue with some really great [...]

Arvind says:

Takeaways: 1) Optimize, don't maximise, 2)Try Before you buy

Thanks - will be sharing this with my friends.

Swaroop says:

@Lekhni Very true... I'm still working on it too. But its good to have a hierarchy of urgency. For example, phone calls are urgent, emails are not, and so on.

@Arvind :)


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