Keeping Infoglut At Bay

Put the Web to work for you. Here's how to find, filter, and file the information you need.

There's the newspaper in the morning. The radio in the car. Billboards on the highway. Memos and meetings, phone calls and faxes, water-cooler chitchat. Special-interest newsletters and general-interest magazines. Books. TV. And if you weren't already treading water in a sea of information you can barely fathom let alone make use of, now there's the Internet, with its million Web sites, 70,000 mailing lists, and 30,000 Usenet newsgroups. The old noggin is only so big. Try to fill it beyond its capacity and you'll wind up wandering the streets asking for directions to the Yellow Brick Road. How can you best manage the information that you know is out there, that you know you should be receiving, so that it benefits your work life as well as your personal life? As a "knowledge worker," my job is to find, filter, process, and disseminate information, full-time. Infoglut is my enemy. Here are some tips I've used to prevent information overload that you may find useful, whether you work with information full- or part-time. Evaluate your current information consumption. Which sources involve the most efficient use of your time? Which ones could you delete? One trick is to temporarily keep an information journal. Using a paper notebook or computer program, jot down the name of each information source you use, the goals you have for it, the amount of time you spend with it each day, and how useful it is during each session. After a month, look back. Along with identifying your most and least useful sources, you may be able to identify information gaps you need to fill with sources you're not currently using. Prospect for the best information sources. Though there are exceptions, often the more costly an information source, the more time-efficient it is. State-of-the-industry reports and newsletters that summarize important industry-specific articles from other publications can be pricey, for example, but they can quickly keep you up to date. Watching television news might be free, but we all know how easily TV can turn into a mindless time sink. Filter out the junk. Don't feel compelled to read everything that crosses your desktop. Computers can be a help here, or a hindrance. By connecting to the Internet, you can tap into a gold mine of quick, authoritative information relevant to your needs. Or, you can waste hours scanning the Web sites of hucksters and hobbyists and reading email, mailing list, and Usenet messages written by rumor mongers and idle babblers. If you're visiting a new Web site, look at it the same way you'd scan a book before reading it. Check the table of contents and author biography before diving in. Using a search site such as Excite (my current favorite--http://www.excite.com) can unearth worthwhile information you'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. But make sure you first bone up on the site's search procedures or you might have to wade through scores of irrelevant hits. Paying someone else to filter information for you can be worth it on the Web as well as in print. Electric Library (http://www.elibrary.com) provides full-text articles from hundreds of magazines and newspapers. But don't pay when you don't have to. A new site, NewsWorks (http://www.newsworks.com), lets you search through 125 U.S. newspapers for free. "Webcasting" services such as PointCast (http://www.pointcast.com) push information about subjects you specify right to your computer screen. Until these services provide better filtering, however, it's easy to get overloaded. Following online discussions can be an effective way to find nuggets overlooked by the conventional media, as long as you don't get overwhelmed by irrelevancy. Mailing list groups are usually more focused than Usenet groups. With both, moderated discussions are always more focused than the more common unmoderated ones. Searching through archived Usenet and mailing list messages is even more time-efficient. Check out DejaNews (http://www.dejanews.com) and Reference.com (http://www.reference.com). If your email and Usenet software permits filtering--most up-to-date programs do--you can screen out messages about subjects or from people you find irrelevant, and you can create folders for messages that warrant immediate attention. To avoid getting bombarded with email, selectively respond to email, and match the length of your response to how eager you are to chat. A short, polite response indicates you've received the other person's message but need to move on. Save what's worth saving and toss the rest. Avoid letting useful information sink into pile purgatory. After you've finished scanning or reading, file information into clearly identifiable folders in a file cabinet or on your computer's hard disk. Ours is an information society. Information can lead to knowledge and knowledge to wisdom, but managing information requires some wisdom of its own. Reid Goldsborough is author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@ voicenet.com or http://www. voicenet.com/ ~reidgold/.

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