One of the most salient realities of the information age is the need to manage the information that flows to you.
If you're not proactive here, you'll be inundated. Your information intake will be a haphazard affair, causing you to miss some of what's important and be bothered by too much of what's irrelevant.
You should periodically reevaluate your information sources to determine whether there are valuable new ones you should add and outmoded ones you should drop.
One the newest informational phenomena goes by the name of "crowdsourcing." This is a means of gathering information from a mass or crowd, a "wisdom of the people" effort. It can take place offline, but lately it has been happening more and more over the Internet.
The recent rollout by Facebook, the world's most popular social networking site, of its "Questions" feature is one such example. You can access it by going to your Facebook Home or Profile page and clicking on Question. Any question you ask shows up in your Facebook Friends' News Feed.
Facebook's "Questions" joins a similar new effort called Quora (www.quora.com) as well as services that have been around for a while such as Yahoo Answers (www.answers.yahoo.com) and Answers.com (www.answers.com).
All such offerings involve going to information rather than waiting for it to come to you, which is one of the ways you can help solve the problem of information overload.
Another way is knowing when to say No, when to put a stop to the inflow. As James Gleick points out in his just published book The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, there comes a point when the sheer amount of information compromises wisdom and when the trivial overwhelms the meaningful.
Much here has to do with overcoming the mindset that more is better. There are always more Web sites, blogs, wikis, newspaper and magazine articles, newsletters, white papers, reports, books, and so on. Using the conscious mind to try to uncover more and more information, according to information scientists, can curtail the involvement of the subconscious mind in decisions about what to do with that information.
The ultimate goal, after all, typically isn't just information accumulation. It's making the best possible organizational, family, or personal decisions using that information. Creative thinking and sound judgment necessitate integrating new information you uncover with the existing information you have to find connections and patterns. Intuition and emotion can be just as important here as reason and logic.
Good decision making requires avoiding overthinking, allowing yourself to step back from the immediate and giving the mind in its totality an opportunity to work its wonders. This takes time. "Let me sleep on it" is more than just a funny, classic lyric sung by the musician Meat Loaf.
Every decision comes with its own set of characteristics. But in general, think carefully about the amount of time you spend with email, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other information sources that put a premium on the instant and the new but that may in the process compromise context and quality.
As just one example, a study a couple of years ago by market-research firm Pear Analytics (www.pearanalytics.com) found that only 4 percent of Twitter "tweets" consist of real news. In contrast, spam makes up another 4 percent, self-promotion 6 percent, messages with "pass-along value" 9 percent, conversation 38 percent, and "pointless babble" 40 percent.
Finally, try to avoid contributing to the information overload of others. Don't forward jokes or other irrelevant messages indiscriminately to others. Avoid the temptation of thinking that the world is interested in hearing about your every thought and action. Keep your email messages to one screen whenever possible and use an informative subject line. If you're involved in creating Web pages, try to keep each page to a screen or two, and put the most important information up front.
Despite its newfangled digital trappings, information overload isn't a new problem. In the 18th century the English poet Alexander Pope lamented the "deluge of authors cover[ing] the land."
Going back far further, the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, "What is the use of having countless books and libraries, whose titles their owners can scarcely read through in a whole lifetime? The learner is, not instructed, but burdened by the mass of them, and it is much better to surrender yourself to a few authors than to wander through many."
Still, the problem only seems to be growing. The Oxford English Dictionary added the term "information fatigue" to its 2009 edition.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.